There was a lot of buzz about the opening of Nectar this spring, with much talk in the local food press about the menu that features organic and local ingredients and the smaller, more intimate setting than chef/owner Julie Francis' previous downtown home, Aioli.
Nectar is certainly an exciting evolution from Aioli and a big culinary upgrade for Mount Lookout, but dinner there on a recent Saturday night revealed that this restaurant has some room to grow. Uneven food preparation and service made for a good but not great dining experience.
Our meal got off to a fine start with the Charcuterie Plate ($12), a flavorful selection of homemade rustic country pté, organic chicken liver mousse, organic prosciutto, homemade pickles and whole grain mustard. The pté and mousse were excellent and the homemade pickles were perfectly sweet, sour and crispy.
The Prawn Salad ($10), with garbanzo beans, organic prosciutto and Spanish aioli, was also excellent, with two amply-sized prawns draped across fresh greens with garbanzo beans and bits of cured ham in a light and flavorful dressing.
The entrées were not as universally successful. Mine, simply titled "Lamb" on the menu, was described as "natural lamb leg and braised shoulder with cannellini beans purée and chard-fennel jam" ($20). Given the price, I was shocked by the small size of the portion: It truly looked more like an appetizer than a main dish. Two small chunks of lamb sat on a bed of watery, weak-tasting bean purée that had been topped with a small amount of seemingly shredded braised lamb. I was still hungry when I finished.
My companions ordered the Pork ($18) and the Tasmanian Salmon ($23). The seared pork tenderloin came with herbed polenta, black beans and jalapeno-pear chutney. The pork was very moist but not tremendously flavorful and at times was overshadowed by the polenta and heavily spiced and peppered beans.
The salmon, though, served atop a cold noodle salad with crunchy pea tendrils, was very good. The ensemble worked well with the slightly vinegary dressing on the noodles providing a nice contrast with the delicate and flaky fish.
Dessert lovers beware: Sweets are not a strong suit at Nectar. There are only three choices, plus a cheese plate. The ones we tried lacked oomph and the kind of heart-stopping impact that I think dessert should really be about.
The work of some pastry chefs makes you forget about your dinner and wish you started with dessert. Not so here.
We tried the Crème Brûlée ($6.50). Fans of traditional crème brûlée who look for their dessert in a dish and anticipate the satisfying crack of a spoon against a hard caramelized coating should look elsewhere. The dessert was a loosely composed Napoleon of crème and crunchy layers accented by pineapples and strawberries. The crème itself was tasty with the fresh fruit providing a nice twist.
Our second dessert, Banana ($6.50), was disjointed and disappointing. Described as "Banana beignet with sour cherries, Aglemesis vanilla ice cream, and bittersweet chocolate sauce," it consisted of small components scattered on a plate. It went largely unfinished.
The ambiance at Nectar is casual and minimalist, with an occasional painting, some scattered wall sconces, no tablecloths and muted colors. I think it might be too casual, though -- stark to the point of achieving blandness.
The place doesn't glow, doesn't have a unique character and presence. With some more focus on ambiance and lighting, Nectar could coax something much more unique and interesting from its open and airy space.
Service oscillated from too much involvement (trying to take plates away several times before we were finished) to long stretches when we didn't see anyone, and never found a solid balance and rhythm in between. Our server had some knowledge gaps about the menu and didn't know the answers to several questions. This is not good in a place where the focus is often on arcane, high-quality ingredients.
After dinner, my companions and I decided to stop in at Zip's Café just up the street to hang out for a while. Relaxing at the bar, I took a long look around at Zip's one-of-a-kind, authentic setting, took a bite of my deliciously ample Zip's cheeseburger (hey, I told you my dinner entrée was tiny) and tried to reflect on what exactly it was that was missing from my experience at Nectar.
It all comes down to distinctiveness. With a very talented chef, a wonderful focus on fresh and regional ingredients and a great location in Mount Lookout Square, Nectar clearly has a lot of potential. As this newly opened restaurant matures, though, I hope it can apply greater discipline in execution across food, service and ambiance to deliver a more unique and consistently noteworthy experience. ©
Go: 1000 Delta Ave., Mount Lookout
Hours: Dinner: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; brunch: 10 a.m-2 p.m. Sunday
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Vegetarian entrées, seafood