Pembina restaurant popular for a reason
Good value, delicious food worth trip to the suburbs
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/08/2010 (4552 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The last time I was at Nicolino’s was years ago, when it was just a long, cramped sliver of a room. These days that long, cramped sliver has expanded into a more spacious but still cosy place, with a spare but sophisticated decor of earth tones that range from beige to dark chocolate. More to the point, it has become a restaurant that fulfils such reasonable expectations as fresh ingredients, expert cooking, attractive presentation and fair prices. Every suburb should have one like it; not many do.
I had returned to try the August $10 lunch special, an intriguing-sounding sandwich of grilled zucchini and eggplant, a roasted portobello mushroom and sesame hummus on a whole wheat kaiser bun. Alfalfa sprouts too, which I don’t much care for, and which I removed, but the other items sounded, and were, good. The special (although the promo didn’t mention the fact) also included a choice of soup, salad or (our choice) addictively thin, crisp fries.
But once there I was even more intrigued by the fact that there were lunchtime pastas for under $10, and the two I tried were delicious — remarkably light rolls of ricotta and spinach cannelloni for $9.50, and penne in a dense, old-school tomato-meat sauce for $8, both including garlic toast. And I knew I’d be coming back for dinner.
The relatively short menu mixes the familiar with the less expected. Among the appetizers, for instance, are an antipasto platter, calamari and bruschetta, but also quesadillas and spring rolls, both vegetarian and of bison. Main courses list chicken or veal parmigiana, but also salmon with tapenade in tarragon crème fraîche and chicken souvlaki. And among the red-sauced pastas you’ll also find prawns in a chili-cream sauce and linguine with chicken in a Thai green curry.
The fresh twists of house-made bread that start every dinner were handy for sopping up the spicy tomato sauce that came with our mussels — a full pound of nice, plump ones ($12). Another time we began with the prawns of the day; the recipe varies, but in our case consisted of enormous shrimp cut into sizable slices and perched, canape style, on bocconcini over toast, and paired with arancini — delectable little deep-fried balls of lemony rice ($17).
Pastas cost significantly more at dinner than they do at lunch, but they include a salad for $16.50 to $20.50. In any case, the house-made cavatelli are available at dinner only — satisfyingly chewy little pellets of dough, texturally a little like gnocchi, and served in a rich tomato sauce with house-made Italian sausages that were good, but would have been tastier still with more fat. Also listed under pastas are the terrific perogies — satiny dough with a smooth sweet-potato-and-provolone filling, sour cream-pesto sauce, and a scattering of pecans.
Most entrees cost between $17.50 and $24, with a massive jump to $34.50 for a rather complicated-sounding eight-ounce beef tenderloin — marinated in roasted garlic and baked with a Dijon and bleu cheese crust, and served with a red wine demi-glace. I didn’t try the steak, but I did the chicken breast — a cut that is often boring and dry, but in this case was unusually flavourful and moist, with an interesting prosciutto-wrapped pecorino stuffing, and a dollop of mild chimichurri sauce. Another top choice was pork medallions in a savoury mushroom demi-glace spiked by chipotles (but not a lot of them), and topped by onion rings. There’s a treat for vegetarians as well in the miraculously light eggplant parmigiana.
Garnishes were equally well-prepared — tiny new potatoes or basmati rice pilaf and thin strips of sautéed mixed veggies. Included salads were either a caesar with fresh croutons in a non-cloying dressing, or a house salad of mixed greens and tomatoes in a fragrant balsamic-based vinaigrette. The only disappointment, during either meal, was a perfunctory Sorrento salad with one of the lunch dishes — mostly head lettuce with bits of ham, salami, mozzarella and tomatoes.
One day’s special pizza was the ultra-thin-crusted Cuban (the name justified, probably, by the whiff of cumin) topped with plenty of minced bison but no tomato sauce and strewn with arugula. A knockout, and part of Nicolino’s repertoire, unlike the other pizzas, which are made by Sorrento’s, which once lived at this address
Part of it still does, sharing space with Nicolino’s, but preparing its own pizzas in a separate kitchen. The takeout pizzas, for instance, are all Sorrento’s — in a different tradition from the Cuban, but also good, with a thinnish crust, generous toppings and just enough mozzarella to bind them together. They cost from $12.50 for nine inches with pepperoni, mushrooms and green pepper to $33 for 15 inches with a whole army of ingredients.
But desserts are Nicolino’s own, among them a pecan-peach square with a flavour reminiscent of pecan pie and good, despite a topping of dessicated, thin peach slices. The tiramisu, though, is a killer — light, fluffy, impossibly rich, and worth every glorious calorie ($6 each).
The wine list is quite extensive, with some interesting choices. The staff is convivial, albeit sometimes taxed, and getting their attention when the restaurant is busy isn’t always easy. In fact, both restaurant and terrace have been full on my visits, and reservations would probably be wise, for either lunch or dinner.