When our server at Ristorante Nicola finally ambled over to our table, scraping and shuffling just a bit to illustrate the depth of his deference to our dining experience, he apologized not for his belated arrival but for the private party presumably tearing into fat beef tenderloins and decanted Barolo behind a set of heavy wooden doors.
"I hope it's not too loud for you," he said.
To be fair, I like a little noise with my restaurants. I think eaters should be able to slurp their soups and argue with their friends about LeBron's mindset and pound their tables in excitement over a pitch-perfect ceviche without worrying they'll be put on the restaurant's no-dine list. On nights when every table's taken—a frequent occurrence even on ordinary Wednesdays at this posh Preston Hollow eatery—Nicola's crowd of back-slapping martini drinkers, tittering birthday celebrants and mostly well-behaved children fresh from their French lessons conspire to generate just the right hum.
Ristorante Nicola Asparagi gratin $10 Calamari fritti $10 Ravioli $18 Amatriciana $14 Bolognese $14 Focaccia Nicola $6 Caesar salad $7 Porco buco $24 Tagi Tata Manzo $26 Costo Milanese $34 Tiramisu $7
But this wasn't one of those nights. It was standardized-test-taking-room quiet at Nicola.
Still, I suspect our server clearly heard the call of those partiers, since Nicola is unabashedly oriented toward special guests and repeat customers who sit in the same high-backed booths and treat the menu as a rough draft, certain the restaurant will accommodate their idiosyncratic requests. With its serpentine black glass chandeliers and red-and-gold drapes cascading from the ceiling to the floor, Nicola has successfully positioned itself as an ideal destination for business partners toasting new acquisitions and couples marking decades of happy matrimony. There's a fair amount of beaming in Nicola's dining room.
Yet for diners driven to Nicola by the occasion of their own hunger or curiosity, the restaurant's considerably less rewarding. Without a celebration to distract them, eaters are left to puzzle over the schizoid array of dishes emerging from the open kitchen. The misuse of salt, in particular, is positively dizzying: How can a cook neglect to salt Bolognese sauce but saddle a baby arugula salad with enough salt to make a deer pucker?
What's especially frustrating about Nicola's clumsiness is that the restaurant's using some really good ingredients. Much of the produce is downright pretty. The pancetta's smoky, and the cheeses that accent and garnish most plates are wonderfully well-made. I'm still thinking about what else I can cover in the nutty, smelly, melted fontina that Nicola uses to blanket spears of asparagus for a rich late-spring appetizer.
While the asparagus dish suffers from an amateurish Culinary School 101 presentation, in which alternating white and green stalks are overlaid with a procession of raggedy red pepper slivers, it's the asparagus itself that poses the biggest problem. One bite of an overgrown stalk confirms quicker than a glance at the calendar that late spring's gone, and it's nigh time to start shopping for watermelons. A shake of salt might have helped rouse some flavor from the vegetables, but even the most talented chef can't fight the seasons.
Blandness also afflicted a calamari appetizer, which was admirably greaseless. As with the asparagus dish, the featured ingredient was recognizable only by sight: The squid could have been most anything encased in fry. Fortunately, under-seasoning's a problem that can at least be addressed at the table—especially when there's half a lemon and crushed red pepper in easy reach. Oversalting's a dish killer, and spaghetti with white clam sauce was among the first victims I encountered. The sauce didn't smack of the sea, in the intoxicating way shellfish broths often do. I'd put it on the movie popcorn end of the sodium spectrum.
The spaghetti was a profound disappointment, largely because pastas are Nicola's strongest suit. Unlike many of the appetizers and entrées, the pastas—freshly made each day with organic semolina flour, according to the menu—are generally handled gracefully. The soft pillows of spinach ravioli closed around a lovely bit of veal might have been sewn together with spider webs, so delicate was their construction. I was completely smitten with the ravioli and equally seduced by the linguine that arrived sporting the undersalted Bolognese.
Nicola is justly proud of its fabulous pastas and makes it easy for diners to dabble in the course by offering half portions. That's not mentioned on the menu, and the server on my second visit initially seemed perplexed by the concept, but it's an available and well-advised option. Portions at Nicola are sized for Texan, not Italian, predilections, so a diner could make a fine meal from the restaurant's decent Caesar salad and a half-portion of any of its eight pastas.
Provided, of course, the kitchen doesn't screw up the noodles by oversalting or oversaucing, as was the case with a well-intentioned but forgettable bucatini (hollow, spaghetti-like pasta) drowned in a faintly spicy Amatriciana sauce.
All that sauce demands bread, which isn't exactly forthcoming at Nicola. You can get a complimentary plate of thickly cut bread with a distinctive cheese straw flavor, but it takes persistence. I bet the servers push foccacia in their sleep. There's nothing really wrong with the appetizer, which is essentially a thin-crust pizza topped with cheese baked to a bubbly char. But once you shell out $6 for it, Nicola's off the hook for a bread donation. I refused focaccia three times before the server on my second visit relented and revealed there was free bread to be had. I know the practice of giving away bread is expensive for restaurants, but it's hospitable and—in a restaurant that's asking its guests to pay $25 for an entrée—fair.
About those entrées: I sampled just three, and found them overblown and underwhelming. The size of the plates magnified Nicola's problems, as in a sadly emblematic porco buco, a piggish take on osso buco featuring an enormous slow-braised pork shank standing upright in a pool of gorgonzola grits. The meat was dry, and the salty red wine reduction was applied way too liberally.
I didn't have much better luck with a veal chop, pounded paper-thin and breaded. The chop sat like a Frisbee on the plate, blithely ignoring its boundaries. But bigness was the dish's only notable attribute: The chop tasted alarmingly like the pork tenderloins served in Indiana diners, so muted was its essential veal-ness by the uninspired breading.
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A sliced strip steak served over a mess of greens arrived cold, which may have been intentional: In re-reading the menu description, the dish does sound vaguely like a steak salad, its listing as an entrée notwithstanding. Other temperature troubles were less forgivable: My pasta was served boiling hot, as though it had been languishing under a heat lamp for a long time. On my first visit, our server plopped down multiple courses at once. Since service was otherwise good, I'd guess the kitchen is responsible for the aggravating timing issues.
Nicola is probably good enough for the vast majority of its guests. If I was celebrating my friend's retirement, or enjoying a bottle of very expensive wine, I'm not sure I'd harp about sauces and seasoning. I doubt the revelers in the private party room really care that the tiramisu is merely passable—assuming they even trifle with the standard menu.
To the restaurant's credit, Nicola has done a fine job of fostering an upscale bonhomie, which is what people often seek when they eat out. I just hope they do something about that pitiable veal chop and its accompanying salty salad before I'm invited to an exclusive affair there.
Ristorante Nicola 8111 Preston Road, Suite 150, 214-379-1111. nicoladallas.com. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. $$$$