Middletown’s center of commerce long ago shifted from the old downtown to a sprawling collection of malls and big-box stores that now cling to either side of Route 17 in Orange County. But a brave group of restaurant and shop owners on West Main Street is breathing life back into the city center. Anchored at one end by the Book Cellar CafÃ© and Gift Shop, a homegrown purveyor of coffee, ice cream, and retro memorabilia (whose motto is “Friends don’t let friends drink Starbucks”), the short curving block includes a clam and oyster bar, the Olde Erie Brewpub & Grille, a Caribbean restaurant, and a completely unexpected oasis of fine dining called Nina.
Owned by chef Franz Brendle and his wife, Corina, (and named for their small daughter), Nina occupies an older building and has made the most of its exposed brick walls, high ceilings, and burnished grey tin ceilings. Track lighting that runs down either side of the room is appropriately urban, but the bar at the back, hung with candlelit lamps of colored glass, lends warmth and intimacy. The mahogany chairs are large and comfortable, and the tables are covered with white linens. Slices of warm baguette arrive tucked into a white napkin and the butter is warm enough to spread easily.
The drinks list has about 40 bottles of American, French, and Italian wines priced between $23 and $105, along with a list of specialty martinis and a very interesting bottled beer selection. We tried the Road Dog Scottish Ale, a dark, malty brew that hails from Colorado, and Dog Fish Head, a tangy India Pale Ale from Delaware. Both were beautifully served in gold-rimmed beer glasses. Nonetheless, we preferred the English ales, including Fuller’s London Pride and Old Speckled Hen. Surprisingly, no wines were listed by the glass, and, if you ask, the server lists them generically (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio, and so on), not by label. She did know the brands, when asked, but they weren’t very interesting. I imagine the chef is a beer lover.
The menu is a real mix of Italian and French classics with some American innovation thrown in. For appetizers you can order calamari fritti or mussels marinara, fondue for two, or vegetable terrine. We liked everything we tried. At the lighter end, there was a special of tuna tartare ($9) dressed with sesame oil and elegantly stuffed in three endive leaves around a heap of mesclun greens. The garden salad ($4.25) may look plain-Jane with grated carrots, sliced cucumbers, and cherry tomatoes, but the greens are a piquant mix of lettuce, tatsoi, chicory, and radicchio, and the red vinaigrette is unusually good. It’s a fine little salad.
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of scale was another special, the mozzarella caprice ($9.50), a plate lined with romaine lettuce and heaped with good prosciutto twirled into four big, pretty rosettes, and accompanied by slices of fresh mozzarella, tomato, and roasted red pepper. Everything is sprinkled with a generous handful of shredded fresh basil and drizzled with a sweet balsamic reduction. There’s plenty here for two, or even more, to share.
On the hearty appetizer side, plump escargots ($8.75) were served out of their shells, with a pile of sautÃ©ed crimini and shiitake mushrooms in a rich, delicious brown sauce that I couldn’t resist mopping up with bread.
The service was friendly, though one night the pacing seemed off, perhaps because of the demands of a very large table that preceded us. Another night the chef came out to make the rounds and say hello, which always makes diners feel good.
The entrÃ©es were consistently strong. If you’re in the mood for comfort food with a kick, try the Cajun chicken penne ($15), a big plate of pasta studded with small chunks of grilled chicken. The cream sauce has a great mouth feel — just the right amount of heat — and nice flavor from the fontina cheese and a hint of tomato. No vegetables, so get the salad with this one.
Also excellent is the full rack of lamb ($25), pink and perfectly tender, perched over a helping of creamy smashed new potatoes with little flecks of pink skin. Snow peas were perfectly cooked to a crisp, bright green, but finishing them in garlic and lots of olive oil seemed like overkill. I would have preferred a touch of butter.
The Yucatan pork ($19.50), sliced, grilled tenderloin served with poblano tomato polenta and a tangy mango salsa with red pepper, red onion, lime, and cilantro, was nicely conceived. But I recently tasted some farm-raised heritage pork, and eating this dish I realized how well the industry has succeeded in making pork “the other white meat.” It really has become bland — too bland, to my palate.
Pan-roasted shrimp ($20) served in a lemony white wine sauce is a nice choice for lighter appetites, but the risotto was a tad too cheesy and I didn’t care for the bits of fresh rosemary in the sauce. This is a good dish; it just needs to lower its voice.
Desserts didn’t quite match the high standards of the other courses. The decadent flourless chocolate cake ($7) was crumbly and the flavors didn’t hold together (though the coconut sorbet and whipped cream on the side were yummy). The trio of assorted sorbets ($4) were good. We chose passion fruit, raspberry, and coconut from an assortment of nine flavors. The winner may be the chocolate soufflÃ© ($8), but there’s a 20-minute wait so we haven’t found out yet.
If you want to linger, there’s a nice after-dinner drinks menu, with dessert wines, Cognacs, chocolatinis, grasshoppers, even dessert beers. (Hmmm. Remember my theory about the chef being a beer lover?)
Nina has already made it a year and a half in an unlikely location, and they’re obviously confident they’re going to be around a while longer. They’re building a big outdoor dining garden out back, right in the heart of downtown Middletown. Take that, Route 17!
Nina is located at 27 West Main Street in Middletown. Dinner is served Tues.â€“ Thurs. 5â€“9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5â€“10 p.m., and Sun. 5â€“8 p.m. Lunch is served Tues.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.â€“2:30 p.m.; Sunday brunch from 10:30 a.m.â€“2:30 p.m. Appetizers range from $4.25 to $9, entrÃ©es from $15 to $30, and desserts from $4 to $8. Reservations recommended. 845-344-6800.