Diamond in the Rough
Nina’s eclectic fare and bistro feel bring sophistication to the downtown section of Middletown
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Driving into Middletown from just about any direction, it looks like the Orange County city is one sprawling mass of strip malls, shopping plazas, car dealerships, gas stations, and a cacophony of signs. It’s not pretty. But the original downtown has pockets of gritty charm, even if the area is mostly what one guide politely calls “not yet prosperous.” Streets are lined with Victorian buildings and storefronts housing small businesses: bodegas, a few bars, a bookshop, a magic store, a coffeehouse.
Nina, a restaurant in an old brick building, adds considerably to the appeal of a curving block near the foot of West Main Street, its blue awnings suggesting that here’s a stylish little retreat. A recent expansion into the space next door just about doubled the restaurant’s size — a sign that the risk chef-owner Franz Brendle took when he opened the place in 2003 has paid off.
You enter through the new space, where there’s a sleek bar with burgundy walls, a few divans, and a small dining area. In the rear is a spacious room for private parties or spillover diners when things get busy on weekends. A handsome mahogany pocket doorway connects the new and old spaces. On a recent Friday night, the crowd was two deep at the bar and everyone seemed to be having a fine old time. Drinks are not an afterthought at Nina, either. There are three dozen beers, creative cocktails, and a good selection of small bourbons or single malt scotches, as well as an extensive wine list with lots of choices fairly priced in the $30 to $40 range (as well as more celebratory options).
The man behind the meal: Nina Chef Franz Brendle
We sat in the original dining room, where there’s now a lot more space between tables. High, silvery-black tin ceilings with dramatic old-fashioned fans, brick walls, wooden floors, and dim lighting conjure up a luxe but cozy, vintage bistro feel. Tables are set with white linens, and the wood chairs are comfortable. Although the merriment at the bar is discernable, it’s low enough that you don’t have to compete to have a conversation. You can see why city weekenders feel at home here.
A youthful staff dressed in black bops around and makes up for what they might lack in polish with sincere charm and attention. Service throughout the evening was relaxed and thoughtful.
When we first walked in, I caught a whiff of the unmistakable sweet sea-scent of scallops at their peak, so I’d made one decision before we even looked at menus. The offerings are eclectic, with French and Italian influences, an array of pastas and seafood, and hearty bistro staples like braised ribs and rack of lamb. Tweaks to sauces and glazes reflect the seasons.
The scallops whose aroma was so tantalizing turned out to be an appetizer that day — five pillowy, moist morsels in a creamy apple-brandy sauce, with flecks of bacon adding some smokiness and slightly softened apple slices providing a little tartness. It was absolutely delicious — I loved it. Arranged on a square white plate with curved sides, the assemblage looked really pretty, too, and didn’t need the magenta dendrobium blossom perched on top. The orchids are edible, if not particularly tasty, but it seemed like a chichi flourish more Maui than Middletown (and a touch “girly,” muttered my spouse when he got one on his steak).
Another appetizer, the duck confit “lasagna,” evoked a wow. Layers of steamed wonton skins, shredded duck, mushrooms, and goat cheese sat amid a shallow sea of bright red, lightly smoked tomato sauce, and tasted even better than it looked. The fresh tomato sauce was a snappy contrast to the robust flavors of duck and mushroom, while the pleasantly chewy texture of the meat was enhanced by the melting wontons. The goat cheese didn’t assert itself all that much, but it lent some creaminess. Overall, it was a fabulous little dish that demonstrated the chef’s knack for harmonizing tastes and textures. (Other appetizers included more seafood — mussels, calamari, oysters, clams — a delicious-looking risotto tort, and fondue for two, which we noticed a few couples sharing.)