Driving into Middletown from just about any direction, it looks like the Orange County city is one sprawling mass of strip malls, shopping plazas, car dealerships, gas stations, and a cacophony of signs. It’s not pretty. But the original downtown has pockets of gritty charm, even if the area is mostly what one guide politely calls “not yet prosperous.” Streets are lined with Victorian buildings and storefronts housing small businesses: bodegas, a few bars, a bookshop, a magic store, a coffeehouse.
Nina, a restaurant in an old brick building, adds considerably to the appeal of a curving block near the foot of West Main Street, its blue awnings suggesting that here’s a stylish little retreat. A recent expansion into the space next door just about doubled the restaurant’s size — a sign that the risk chef-owner Franz Brendle took when he opened the place in 2003 has paid off.
You enter through the new space, where there’s a sleek bar with burgundy walls, a few divans, and a small dining area. In the rear is a spacious room for private parties or spillover diners when things get busy on weekends. A handsome mahogany pocket doorway connects the new and old spaces. On a recent Friday night, the crowd was two deep at the bar and everyone seemed to be having a fine old time. Drinks are not an afterthought at Nina, either. There are three dozen beers, creative cocktails, and a good selection of small bourbons or single malt scotches, as well as an extensive wine list with lots of choices fairly priced in the $30 to $40 range (as well as more celebratory options).
The man behind the meal: Nina Chef Franz Brendle
We sat in the original dining room, where there’s now a lot more space between tables. High, silvery-black tin ceilings with dramatic old-fashioned fans, brick walls, wooden floors, and dim lighting conjure up a luxe but cozy, vintage bistro feel. Tables are set with white linens, and the wood chairs are comfortable. Although the merriment at the bar is discernable, it’s low enough that you don’t have to compete to have a conversation. You can see why city weekenders feel at home here.
A youthful staff dressed in black bops around and makes up for what they might lack in polish with sincere charm and attention. Service throughout the evening was relaxed and thoughtful.
When we first walked in, I caught a whiff of the unmistakable sweet sea-scent of scallops at their peak, so I’d made one decision before we even looked at menus. The offerings are eclectic, with French and Italian influences, an array of pastas and seafood, and hearty bistro staples like braised ribs and rack of lamb. Tweaks to sauces and glazes reflect the seasons.
The scallops whose aroma was so tantalizing turned out to be an appetizer that day — five pillowy, moist morsels in a creamy apple-brandy sauce, with flecks of bacon adding some smokiness and slightly softened apple slices providing a little tartness. It was absolutely delicious — I loved it. Arranged on a square white plate with curved sides, the assemblage looked really pretty, too, and didn’t need the magenta dendrobium blossom perched on top. The orchids are edible, if not particularly tasty, but it seemed like a chichi flourish more Maui than Middletown (and a touch “girly,” muttered my spouse when he got one on his steak).
Another appetizer, the duck confit “lasagna,” evoked a wow. Layers of steamed wonton skins, shredded duck, mushrooms, and goat cheese sat amid a shallow sea of bright red, lightly smoked tomato sauce, and tasted even better than it looked. The fresh tomato sauce was a snappy contrast to the robust flavors of duck and mushroom, while the pleasantly chewy texture of the meat was enhanced by the melting wontons. The goat cheese didn’t assert itself all that much, but it lent some creaminess. Overall, it was a fabulous little dish that demonstrated the chef’s knack for harmonizing tastes and textures. (Other appetizers included more seafood — mussels, calamari, oysters, clams — a delicious-looking risotto tort, and fondue for two, which we noticed a few couples sharing.)
Long Island duck, roasted and served with a blackberry-raspberry cognac demi-glace
A pecan and pear mesclun salad was a slight letdown after we’d been spoiled by such a terrific start. A mound of fresh greens came flanked by a scattering of caramelized pecans on one side and some slices of slightly under-ripe pear on the other. The mustard and fig vinegar dressing (which was more mustardy than fig-vinegary) was drizzled across the top leaves, and it was hard to distribute evenly without lobbing most of the salad off the plate. But it was the one false step of the evening.
Roast duckling makes a regular appearance on the menu; that night’s rendition had a blackberry and raspberry sauce. Again, the presentation was lovely: a half duck, crisped and cloaked in sauce, came with four plump little blackberries lined up alongside to remind you where the piquancy sprang from. Four slender stalks of asparagus crisscrossed the duck, and a golden potato croquette in the shape of a pear sat on the plate looking charming, even if it wasn’t all that exciting to eat. The duck was cooked perfectly, though, and the leftovers that I took home tasted just as delectable at lunch the next day.
Nina’s version of steak frites demonstrates how a simple dish done just right delivers great satisfaction. The steak is a whopping 16-ounce Black Angus New York strip of the best quality. It came sizzling from the grill with a satisfying char and a perfectly pink interior, as ordered. The beef is so flavorful you almost don’t want to bother with the large medallion of “beurre maître d’hôtel” atop it. Eat it anyway. The “everyday” beurre is a chive compound butter, but if the steak frites is offered as a special — as this was — you get a delicious Gorgonzola bonus that adds a tangy-creamy note.
A generous pile of golden frites and three slices of roasted plum tomato filled out the plate. The tomatoes tasted good but were too quickly gone to make a real impression — another case of vegetables used more as garnish than a true side. Larger portions of vegetables may be ordered separately, if you know ahead that you may want them. It’s worth asking.
Bailey’s Irish Cream cheesecake
Most desserts are made in-house and include a flourless chocolate cake, a chocolate soufflé, crème brûlée, and daily specials as well as a fruit plate if you’re feeling full but still want a sweet finale. We shared a very rich Bailey’s Irish Cream cheesecake that had a dense, toothy texture and came garnished with strawberry slices.
Prices may be a little steep for this “not yet prosperous” part of Orange County, yet we felt we got good value, given the high quality of the ingredients, and the flair with which dishes are prepared. The lively, urban feel of the place is worth a few bucks, too, whether you hang at the bar, huddle romantically, or spread out with the gang at one of the bigger tables. There’s even a lovely little courtyard in back, where you can escape in warm weather.
Brendle (a talented chef who used to be in banking, of all things) and his wife, Corina, were among the pioneers helping to bring life back to the old part of town. Lucky for us, they were successful.
Lunch and dinner served daily (on Sundays the kitchen closes at 8 p.m.)
Appetizers range from $9-$12.50 (the fondue for two is $15); entrées from $16-$32
27 W. Main St., Middletown
845-344-6800 or www.nina-restaurant.com