The challenges of running a restaurant in sync with the clock of a performing arts center are many, but after a brief year and a half, NICO Kitchen + Bar – NJPAC’s in-house dining destination – has The Times on its side.
In a recent review, New York Times dining critic Scott Veale conferred a “very good” rating, just a notch below the top honor of excellent, on NICO. Extolling the dinner menu, he wrote, “The pan-roasted black cod with a crust of scallions and mascarpone was light and flavorful in its broth of riesling and tomatoes. The same was true of the roasted scallops, cooked through perfectly and offset by the crunch of the accompanying garlic-imbued red quinoa. And you really shouldn’t miss those feathery gnocchi, tossed in a spicy sausage Bolognese sauce with fresh parmigiana.”
Veale also gave a thumbs-up to the “friendly and well-trained” staff, which met the challenges of planning cuisine around curtains “remarkably well.”
Clearly pumped by the validation, Chef de Cuisine Adam Rose says he’s glad that the review surveys NICO’s main scenarios: serving large numbers of hungry diners in the 90 minutes before showtime, the power lunch crowd, the buzzy bar gatherings, and the relaxed dining experiences of non-performance nights. All this activity unfolds in NICO’s chocolate-warm space, which is furnished with plush banquettes and coppery touches of Art Deco.
“It’s comforting to know ‘The Big Picture’ gets it,” Rose adds proudly, wise-cracking that he hopes the write-up hushes any cyber-critics who “sit behind their monitors and bash us.”
Rose is half of the equation that turned NICO into one of Newark’s must-stops for adventurous foodies. Executive Chef Ryan DePersio, a player among New Jersey’s circle of restaurateurs through his establishments (Montclair’s 10-year-old Fascino and formerly Bloomfield’s Bar Cara), is the tastemaker. He makes sure the changing menu reflects his flair for stylish, contemporary twists on heart-warming Italian dishes.
The chefs and staff are employed by Culinaire International of Dallas, which specializes in running restaurants in cultural venues, notably Chef Jamie Malone’s Sea Change in the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Culinaire’s catering component at NICO is Theater Square Events, an enterprise led by Adam Fiscus that handles large-scale banquets and galas to private parties and barbecues.
Their relationship has been described in the press as a culinary bro-mance, but Rose and DePersio are basically two guys who were raised and schooled five years apart in Nutley, home of Martha Stewart. A couple of things feed the suburban legend that they’re twin chefs separated at birth: Both are elbow-deep in tattoos (“I have his face on my back,” Rose snickers, poking at DePersio) and they hopscotch all over each other’s sentences.
DePersio, who has trained internationally and alongside David Bouley and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, re-encountered Rose at Bin 14 restaurant in Hoboken, during a time when Rose was head chef and DePersio was a devoted customer. Even before they began working together, Rose would ask for his friend’s advice.
Pastry Chef Binicio Salas-Chimbo, a self-taught, dessert-making virtuoso who worked for Theater Square Grill, the previous occupant of NICO’s space, was asked to bring his talents to the new team. “He’s got a nice, classic French touch,” says Rose admiringly.
Culinary creativity and refinement, according to the chefs, is frequently shelved to deal with the reality. Some 180 diners arrive about 90 minutes before each curtain, so the mission is to devise an efficient menu ($42 prix-fixe, including appetizer, entree and dessert) and keep the service moving. The preference of the customers, which fluctuates depending on whether the kitchen is accommodating classical music aficionados or Willie Nelson’s “family,” is paramount.
“We had to change our internal temperatures, for instance,” DePersio explains. “A true, medium rare salmon is not something we recommend at NICO, but I recommend it for my restaurants. Well-done seems to be the most common.”
Rose, who at 31 is the younger of the two, recalls being surprised by the clientele before and after performances of Spank! The Fifty Shades Parody. “There was not one man in the dining room,” he moans. Beet salads with blood oranges flew out of the kitchen, while raw kale salads languished in the fridge.
While the prix-fixe menu is tweaked every three weeks, the regular dinner menu is rewritten according to the seasons. Specialties of late have included red pepper rigatoni with rock shrimp, baby cauliflower and basil pesto ($13); the ever-popular mascarpone polenta fries ($8); duck confit with wilted Swiss chard and tomato braised cannellini bean stufato, and grilled Scottish salmon with golden beet and snap pea ragu and saffron aioli ($18). NICO has been ramping up its promotion of Happy Hour food and drink specials to attract local office workers.
The Tier 3 Café, set high above NICO, provides a budget-conscious menu alternative ($22 per person), as well as a solution for overflow business. Salads, pastas and desserts, arranged buffet-style, can be enjoyed at bistro tables with airy views of Theater Square and the soaring lobby.
Dining alfresco on the Theater Square plaza just outside NICO’s doors has proven a big draw, especially during the summertime’s Horizon Foundation Sounds of the City concerts. Sunday jazz brunches, prepared by Theater Square Events, will resume in autumn.
While Rose resides in Bloomfield, DePersio returned to Nutley, where he lives with his wife and son, Nicholas (“Nico”). The chefs spend free time nibbling what’s new in the state’s restaurants, surfing and trend-spotting on eater.com, and traveling for professional training. Their aim is to maintain NICO’s dinner-show combo appeal while building its reputation as a stand-alone dining destination.
Says DePersio, “We’re very fortunate that we have a gorgeous theater attached to our restaurant. It gets people to come down and experience NICO.”