Nini's Bistro, New Haven
Nini's Bistro ★★ (Very Good)
Nini's Bistro is one of the colorful chips that make up the eclectic mosaic that is New Haven. A storefront café in the Ninth District, with a Chinese restaurant next door, an Indian place on the corner and a Japanese one across the street, it looks and feels like one of those wonderful little mom-and-pop bistros that used to be all over Paris but are now getting hard to find.
Nini's isn't French, but like its Parisian counterparts it's cozy, intimate and a little bit quirky and makes an ooh-la-la cassoulet, not to mention, upon occasion, coquilles St. Jacques. The prix fixe menu, which changes every two weeks, is extensive and includes a sort of flex-pass option: a two-course meal for $28.95, three courses for $33.95 or four for $38.95. The lineup is opulent. Think car­paccio, seared tuna, lemon tart with fig sauce.
We're not talking tapas here. Big dinner plates are filled rim to rim. Appetizers, salads and desserts are large. And the food on your plate is the food you ordered, not leafed out with radish roses and other folderol. Even the carpaccio appetizer met this criterion: Five thin strips of rosy-red seared sirloin at least five inches long were adorned with nothing but a shimmer of white truffle oil and shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano. Excellence doesn't need a rose in its hair.
Pea soup was hearty and filling, not a citified purée but a country potage chunky with smoked ham-a welcome warm-up on a cold winter night. A tomato-and-mozzarella tart was another story. It was hate at first sight-a large, unwieldy wedge of pastry on a bed of greens smeared with brown balsamic vinaigrette. A slice of tomato in the top crust made it dauntingly fork-resistant. Persevering, we were not only pleasantly surprised but won over. The pastry was flaky, luscious streams of melted mozzarella and ricotta oozed out, the balsamic cut the richness. Presentation isn't what bistro food is about but this delicious basil-scented tart deserved better.
An appetizer called "chicken spiedies" rang no bell with me, but the menu helpfully explained that "Spiedies were invented in Binghamton, N.Y., and basically they are meat on a stick marinated overnight with wine, garlic, spices and olive oil." Always up for a new experience, I ordered spiedies, which turned out to be cute little things, like Thai satays-cubes of chicken breast char-grilled and served over thinly sliced cucumber salad-festive bites to begin a meal with.
Nini's salads were slightly more predictable and large enough to share. The house salad of frisky-fresh baby greens, tomato and cucumber came with a warm goat cheese croustade and raspberry dill vinaigrette, which is not my favorite. A baby spinach salad came with a sweet-and-sour apple cider vinaigrette I liked better. Bacon and crumbled blue cheese added crunch and zest.
Happily, that night Nini's was serving cassoulet, made, the menu advised, with Bella Bella Farm duck, Niman Ranch pork and duck sausage. A rich, oniony fragrance floated up when the dish was set down. A duck leg, a chunk of pork and a plump duck sausage lolled in dark red wine sauce. Each was fork-tender and delicious. Traditionally cassoulet is made with white beans and Nini's menu lists them as an ingredient. However, on this occasion chick peas had been substituted-a minor deviation but I much prefer the original. Withal, it was a noble cassoulet.
Seared tuna was served precisely as the menu listed it-medium-rare sauced with vanilla aioli. If you love vanilla, you'll love it. I found the sauce too assertive. Robert, who ordered it, liked it enough to take half home-the portion was huge and included a good-sized dollop of sweet-potato flan.
For an additional $5, one could have something called "platinum" strip steak. We went for it. What we got was one of the best steaks I've had recently and I've just reviewed two top-notch steak houses. Thick, boneless, topped with melted Gorgonzola, charred on the outside, pinkish rose inside, juice running out at each cut of the knife, this choice 16-ounce loin steak is an unexpected find on a prix fixe menu.
Desserts-lemon tart, chocolate bread pudding, coffee flan with dolce de leche sauce and a caramel-swathed apple dumpling almost the size of a baseball-could have been made in a talented cook's home kitchen except for a whimsical touch only a professional would be likely to add: a velvety miniature pansy (real) atop the whipped cream (real) that adorned each plate. The owners of Nini's were once caterers and they like to dress a meal up a bit to make it feel like a party. In December they served warm bread gift-wrapped in a red-and-green tote bag.
Gift wrapping or not, the beauty of a bounteous prix fixe is that you don't go home hungry-or sticker shocked. And Nini's makes sure you don't blow it by running amok in the elysian fields of an expensive wine list. It's BYOB.
40 Orange St., New Haven (203/562-6464)
Dinner Wednesday through Saturday, seatings 5:30 to 8:30. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: two-course prix fixe $28.95, three courses $33.95, four courses $38.95. (Saturday three- or four-course prix fixe only.) BYOB.Nini's Bistro, New Haven