O.C. Eats : O.C. on the Menu : Her Father’s Daughter : Christy Bono’s newest, Nico’s in Naples, is a chic spot for seafood, meat and rich desserts.
Christy Bono opened her first restaurant here in 1994. She’d learned the business from her famous father, Sonny, who ran a West Hollywood restaurant named Bono’s in the ‘80s.
Christy’s has flourished in Long Beach, where the clientele is steady and where, in Bono’s words, the restaurants don’t reflect the flavor of the month. Now she and partner George Mlouf have opened a second restaurant, Nico’s, in Naples.
Her dad would have been proud. There’s no restaurant on the island even remotely as chic. The straw-colored walls and Italian Art Deco posters perhaps reflect Christy’s family roots; the black-and-gold booths could have been designed in Milan, and the giant silk flower display guarding the front entrance manages to look more European than American.
But the owners describe it as a contemporary American bistro, and the luxurious mahogany-and-fabric chairs are classic Americana. The sideboards are stocked with double magnums of California wines, and the food, from young American chef Matt Hewitt, is predominantly American with occasional French and Italian inspiration--which is, of course, the fashion in upscale big-city restaurants everywhere these days.
If you’re in a hurry, you may want to sit in the cozy upstairs dining room, reached by climbing a wooden staircase, because it’s closer to the kitchen (in this former luxury home, the kitchen is upstairs). But I prefer the roomier downstairs, which also gets some pleasant breezes. And when the restaurant is full (that’s often), it can get claustrophobic upstairs.
The house breads, olive and country white, come to the table hot, accompanied by a salty black olive tapenade and a pour of extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. After that, you can choose from an appealing list of appetizers and salads, nicely varied despite its short length.
The carpaccio is raw U.S. Prime New York steak topped with shallots and Dijon mustard. On the side, there are tiny cheese toasts dotted with capers--a nice touch. And the beef, miracle of miracles, doesn’t taste as if it has been frozen (that’s the usual trick for slicing raw meat paper-thin).
You might have found carpaccio at Christy’s father’s restaurant, and you might have found the roasted caponata too. It’s terrific with red peppers, onions, eggplant and olives with balsamic vinegar, all set on a bed of greens. Now, if the kitchen had applied the vinegar a little more judiciously, there would be no room at all for improvement.
I was less taken with the Dungeness crab cake, which comes on top of a coulis of tomatoes and roasted bell peppers. I found the cake a bit dry and the flavor of fresh crab not intense enough. Mussels Miguel are a treat, though. These are tiny, flavorful Prince Edward Island mussels, baked in their shells with spinach and a spoonful or two of saffron-infused hollandaise sauce. It’s a dainty version of oysters Rockefeller.
The best straight-up salad is the Nico, named (like the restaurant) after Christy’s son. It’s arugula, frisee lettuce, yellow teardrop tomatoes and minced pancetta in a warm cider vinaigrette. This salad has that dense texture you get in a spinach salad with warm bacon dressing, but the flavors are far less assertive.
The entrees (here called specialties) generally play it straight as well. The most creative one is probably the pork loin, a pan seared chop in a sweet vermouth reduction garnished with roasted chestnuts and fresh figs. It’s a festive dish and the autumnal flavor of chestnuts and figs is a beautiful match for pork. I’d actually like the dish a lot better without the vermouth, because when the sauce is reduced, its sweetness obscures the other flavors on the plate.
Cornish game hen comes well blackened and nicely moist on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes. There’s fresh halibut, a fine, hefty chunk of fish in a light citrus glaze, pan-seared and finished in the oven. The evening I had it, it came with a slightly dry Parmesan cheese risotto.
Oddly, the best entree on the menu might be the one that seems the most out of place: coq au vin. The chicken is stewed until extremely tender with pearl onions, field mushrooms and red wine. The meat literally falls off the bone, and every bite tastes of wine. The Slow Food Movement people should take note of this dish.
I did not care for two of the pricier items on Nico’s menu, the rack of lamb and the New York steak. The lamb, described on the menu as slowly roasted, has a crushed pistachio nut crust, which would be fine if the nuts hadn’t totally lost their flavor. And my steak--Angus beef, topped with chopped walnuts and a white wine and minced shallot reduction called sauce Bercy--was unreasonably gristly.
Hewitt has a way with desserts, but he doesn’t make many of them. Nico’s serves one of the best bread puddings anywhere, a velvety, custardy affair topped with vanilla bean ice cream. The rich chocolate banana pave is three slices of dreamy, creamy, banana-flavored fudge buried under a mound of fresh whipped cream.
Nico’s gets quite noisy when full, but the waiters, a few of whom came over from the always-busy Christy’s, are quite adept at handling a crowd.
The wine list is filled with boutique California wines at fair prices, but if you don’t find something you like, there is a well known wine shop, Morry’s of Naples, directly next door.
Dad, you taught your daughter well.
Nico’s is expensive. Appetizers are $7 to $10. Salads are $6 to $9. Specialties are $12 to $26.
Nico’s, 5760 E. 2nd St., Long Beach. (562) 434-4479. Dinner only, Sunday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m. All major cards.