Nido Kitchen & Bar Ups the Ante

The homey yet refined repast here offers a unique version of Mexican comfort food.


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Caldo Xochitl at Nido.

Lori Eanes

 

This story from our October issue will be available online Nov. 1. Copies of our print issue are available by calling 510-238-910

Every so often, my relationship with a cuisine gets rebooted, and I’ll think of that food—Thai, Italian, Vietnamese, or Basque, for instance—as my all-time favorite. Nido Kitchen & Bar, where Robin and I finally ate this summer, more than a year and a half after Sylvia and Cory McCollow opened it (hey, we’ve been busy), is the latest pivot point in my dining preferences. After our first dinner there, chef Sylvia’s unique takes on well-known and less familiar dishes instilled a fierce craving for Mexican food—her Mexican food. The stunning quality of that inaugural meal was supported by exceptional cocktails and outgoing and conversant service in a hip, postmodern (and somewhat noisy) warehouse/cantina setting. We couldn’t wait to return.

Once upon a time, we were quite happy to make our usual rounds—Mexicali Rose, La Mexicana, the Zamorano taco truck, Cactus Taqueria—for enchiladas, tacos, and burritos. But over the past 15 years, such restaurants and taquerias as Doña Tomás, Picante, Tacubaya, Comal, and Cosecha changed the game. For many diners, they elevated expectations about the breadth and depth of Mexican menus. Without a hint of pretense or overambition, Nido has raised the stakes even higher, thanks to McCollow’s and co-chef Jose Ramos’ seamless application of farm-to-table, seasonal, and sustainable principles to the cuisine of McCollow’s heritage; she’s a native of Nayarit on the west coast of central Mexico.

Although Nido doesn’t take reservations, you can call 15 minutes before your arrival and have your name added to the queue. We did this twice, early on Saturday evenings, and both times a table awaited us when we got to the restaurant, which is located at the far edge of the Jack London Square district (on Oak Street, across from a gas station and next to the Interstate 880 onramp). The menu may not seem extensive—10 starters and seven entrées—but narrowing your choices is a challenge. On our first visit, we learned that one starter (tacos mar y tierr, $13) and two mains (pozole de chile negro y pollo, $8, and ollita de pobre, $14) were more than we could finish if we wanted to try dessert (flan con fruta, $6), which we wisely did. On our second, having not fully learned our lesson, I guess, we ordered three starters—a salad (ensalada de pepinos y lechuguitas, $9), a ceviche (aguachile rojo mixto, $15), and a sope-like masterpiece (tlacoyo de chicharos con calabicitas, $12)—and one entrée (tasajo asado, $18), leaving no hope for trying the churros con chocolate ($7) or the mouse de chocolate salado (with maple-bourbon whipped cream, $6).

Our only disappointment was the salad. Despite the scintillating flavors of the onion escabeche and chile vinaigrette, it seemed overpriced for a few leaves of little gem lettuce, some wedges of cucumber, and a sprinkling of walnuts. Every other dish we would happily eat again. The tacos overflowed with fish seared on the plancha, chorizo, cabbage, and avocado, garnished with onion and cilantro, and spiked with a spectacular green salsa. The ceviche was a mix of fish, scallops, and calamari marinated in lime and fiery chile piquin and jumbled with lemon cucumber, jicama, avocado, onion, and cilantro; it comes with excellent tortilla chips (more, please) for scooping. The generous tlacoyo featured summer squash, squash blossom, peas, onion, and queso fresco piled onto a thick, torpedo-shaped boat of masa, complemented by a roasted tomato salsa.

Of the three main-dish platos fuertes we tried, it wouldn’t be hard for Robin to name her favorite. The especially dark and savory pozole, its broth redolent of pasilla chile, abounded with chewy hominy; beautiful, mystery-free chunks and shreds of chicken; perfectly ripe avocado; and the fresh snap of cabbage, radish, onion, and jalapeno—she took half of it home. For me, it’s currently a toss up between the ollita one-pot meal of slow-braised, super-tender beef, rice, beans, pico de gallo, avocado, and salsa, all together in a tall, blue, enameled-metal casserole, and the tasajo asado—thinly sliced beef that’s been grilled and rolled, served with guacamole, pasty fried black beans, charred spring onion, fried chile de agua (like padron peppers), queso fresco, a wedge of lime, a killer poblano y cascabel salsa, and two (more, please) small handmade corn tortillas. Both dishes exemplify Nido’s melding of homey and refined aesthetics—comfort food executed with precision and finesse—and we haven’t yet tried the promising and heralded grilled chipotle-rubbed half-chicken with pumpkin seed mole ($18), the grilled pork chop with almond mole ($19), the braised lamb riblets in “California” chile sauce ($23), or any of the daily fish specials (market price), often pan-fried or grilled with yet another inventive salsa made with some chile you’ve probably never heard of.

Speaking of chilies, be forewarned that McCollow and Ramos are not shy about spicy heat. Not every dish will blow steam out your ears, but many will have you reaching for water or a beer (Mexican, local, Belgian-style) or, better yet, one of the many margarita variations, such as La Maxima (tequila, mezcal, blood orange liqueur, lime, and agave) or Tres Rojas (mezcal, pomegranate/hibiscus/Tempranillo, blood orange liqueur, orange, agave) (both $10), or one of the custom rye, gin, vodka, rum, bourbon, or mezcal cocktails; of the last, I can wholeheartedly vouch for the smoky Ese Viejo (with muddled orange, agave, and bitters) and the Viva El Pepino (mezcal, blood orange liqueur, cucumber puree, lime, agave) (both $10). There is a small wine list, but I can’t imagine not having a cocktail here or selecting from the many tequilas, mezcals, or whiskeys.

Robin and I had our most recent Mexican culinary breakthrough last winter, when we took cooking classes at a B&B in Tlaxcala, near Puebla, Mexico, and came home with an entirely new appreciation of the cuisine’s varied ingredients and techniques. Nido (the name translates as “nest”) provides a similar kind of transformational experience, a delicious education in traditions and flavors. In this case, the McCollows and crew do the heavy lifting, and we simply savor the fruits of their creativity.

Nido Kitchen & Bar Mexican. 444 Oak St., Jack London Square, Oakland, 510-444-6436. Serves lunch Tue.–Fri. 11 a.m.–3 p.m., dinner Tue.–Thu. 5 p.m.–9:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5 p.m.–10:30 p.m., brunch Sat.–Sun. 10 a.m.–3 p.m. www.NidoOakland.com. CC Full Bar R WC $$-$$$

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