The implicit question that the brand-new Nando and its sister restaurant Nuvo ask: Is this town ready for an adventure in dining unlike anything it has seen before? And, I might add, is Greenup Street in Covington, Ky., the right location for presenting this wonderful pair of creatively different restaurants — under one roof — to our metro’s foodies?
Having tried and greatly enjoyed these restaurants, I hope that the answer to both questions will turn out resoundingly affirmative.
Nando is the brainchild of renowned Cincinnati chef Mark Bodenstein, who opened the marvelous Nuvo late last year. Nuvo made a splash — but also baffled some traditionalists — by eliminating a menu and asking diners to take a leap of faith and eat whatever Bodenstein sent out from his incredibly inventive kitchen. Nuvo occupies the first floor of an historic, home-like building that once housed Greenup Café, and Bodenstein originally planned to use the second floor for a cocktail lounge or casual tapas bar.
But then 27-year-old Michael Worth, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who worked with Jose Salazar at the Palace before moving out of state for a couple years, became available and Bodenstein decided to shift gears. “Mike is much too talented to be cooking lounge food,” Bodenstein says.
So by adding a small kitchen and an à la carte menu, they built him his own restaurant on the second floor.
While Nuvo tries to gain a following with its decidedly non-traditional approach to the typical restaurant-menu experience, Nando displays a few idiosyncrasies, too.
It consists of two small rooms: One features a bar with 10 bar/counter seats, and the second is a dining room dominated by a large communal table with 14 chairs. Because a spirits license is prohibitively expensive for the small restaurant, Nando only serves beer, wine and mixed drinks using fortified wines such as sake, port and sherry. The menu lists options ranging from smaller, less expensive snack-size portions to a couple of only slightly larger and more expensive dishes, for a total of 14 choices.
Nando had a soft opening in May and is working toward an identity, but so far Worth has displayed a superb talent for selecting top-quality ingredients and then combining them to delight the diner’s senses.
“My style is a minimalist approach on the plate,” Worth says. “I like to portray a few ingredients at their fullest flavor.”
The results may indeed look simple, but one bite and you realize that there’s much more than meets the eye.
Consider, for example, the Short Ribs “Tinga” ($14) that my companions and I agreed was our favorite of the eight dishes we recently sampled. Its appearance is indeed simple: a generous portion of shredded beef sprinkled with sweet onion slaw and accompanied by three warm, crunchy corn tortilla halves. But the meat has been slow-roasted for 24 hours, seared on a hot grill and tossed with a long-simmered sauce that contains at least a dozen ingredients.
Our group started with four smaller plates: wood-grilled beets with burrata ($10); roasted corn with Thai seasonings and crushed peanuts ($6); cauliflower topped with ricotta, almonds and a golden-raisin caper emulsion ($12); and maitake mushrooms with goat cheese, drizzled with chili vinaigrette ($13). Each portion was enough for four to sample, and the kitchen helpfully cut the corn into four pieces. Everything was delicious, but if we had to choose a favorite it would have been the mushroom dish, with its creamy goat cheese and a slight kick from the vinaigrette; or maybe the beets, enlivened by a dressing laced with “cashew-ramp butter.”
Our second round consisted of the aforementioned short ribs; crispy skin chicken breast atop fresh garbanzos and haricot verts ($16); wild king salmon with nuts, carrots, avocado and lime yogurt ($18); and Pacific halibut with spring vegetables, ramps and sweet pea-green chili purée ($19). Except for the short ribs and chicken, the portions were rather small, but, once again, the cooking was first-rate. The only reservation came from my friend who thought the halibut seasonings didn’t quite work. Chef Worth stopped at our table later and had a lengthy conversation about the halibut with his critic, saying that while he’s happy to hear from patrons when they love his food, he’s more interested in knowing what doesn’t please someone so that he can learn and improve.
The restaurants began jointly offering Sunday brunch in mid-June, as well as an all-you-can-eat $25 small-plates menu during the week. These moves are trial balloons to see what might attract more consistent business; the night we were there, we saw very few fellow diners.
I’m rooting for chefs Bodenstein and Worth to build a loyal following.
Nando in Covington has closed; NuVo is still open.