Dine About Oakland: NexJuly 14, 2010
This weekend, I wasn’t up for a real night out, but we still wanted to show our support for local restaurants. So, with some friends, we headed out to a brand-new spot that we could walk to: Nex, the latest venture from Hi-Suk and Sanju Dong, the husband-and-wife team behind Mua and Soizic. We had high hopes since we like Mua’s food a lot, but often find it too loud for a weekend dinner. Nex has been billed as more restaurant and less club, but with a similar vibe, which sounded perfect. And though I never made it to Soizic, which is now closed for “reinventing” as someplace new, D. was a fan in its heyday. Nex is at Webster and Broadway right next-door to Mua, in the space that was briefly the short-lived Café Noir. While Café Noir was trying to juggle the coffee shop-pizza joint identity, though, Nex is a bit more upscale and decidedly a dinner spot.
On its first Friday night, the place was pretty quiet, which was also a nice change from Mua, where you can sometimes wait well over an hour for a table on the weekends. That’s not to say it was empty, though: clearly people are beginning to hear about it, and a number of people popped over from Mua to peek in and see what was happening. Interestingly, the crowd had a slightly older leaning; we were probably the youngest people there, which was a funny shift from Mua, where I sometimes feel pretty old. (One of our friends guessed that this might have been the Soizic crowd checking out the new place.) And on a fun side note, about half an hour into our meal, in walks Jerry Brown. Turns out he and his wife are pizza-and-wine fans too. (They also live a couple blocks away in the other direction, so I imagine they had the same walk-to-dinner idea we had.) This also led to a funny exchange at the door, when a group came in to check the place out and decide whether to stay for dinner. As one guy examined the menu, the other kept poking him, saying “Hey. Hey! Isn’t that the governor? Over there?” Finally the first guy, who was more concerned with the pizza list, responds, “Oh. Nah, he’s not the governor right now.” A pause. “Well, then are we eating here or not?” Shrugs. “Let’s keep looking.” And they leave.
Too bad, though, since they missed some good food! Since there were four of us, we gave the menu a good workout, trying:
- Grilled asparagus with bacon and a poached egg: Excellent. We added this in the end at the advice of the server, who clearly knows what he’s talking about. Egg was perfectly done, and asparagus was just right. Highly recommended. Mmm!
- House salad with butter lettuce, nectarines, and goat cheese: Also great. D. was initially pushing for the farro salad (which looked great at the table next to us) but after a few bites of the house salad, conceded that it had been a good pick.
- Gnocchi: Meh. This was the one weak dish. The sauce was a very simple, sweet tomato sauce that overpowered the gnocchi. This turned out not to be bad, though, since the gnocchi were mushy and glutinous. We couldn’t decide if this was a preparation issue (undercooked, one of us wondered?) or a recipe issue (I’ve made gnocchi at home before, and I know that the delicate balance of flour and potato can make all the difference between tender little dumplings and mushiness, so possibly this dish can just be written off to a new restaurant still getting its bearings; they were also listed as being made with mascarpone, so possibly that was contributing too).
- Nex pizza: The house specialty, this pizza is topped with anchovies, goat cheese, caramelized onions, and olives. We had an anchovy-lover among us, but even he thought this was a little over the top. The cheese, anchovies, and olives are all super salty, so if you got a bite with all three, it was just a bit much. (In contrast, the bites with just one or two and the onions were delicious, so I might order this in the future and ask them to leave either anchovies or olives off.) The crust was good, though, which is our big criterion for good pizza. I had high hopes since we’d liked the crust at Café Noir, and they’re using the same oven. While the pizza isn’t as good as spots like Marzano or Pizzaiolo that specialize in wood oven pizza, it was up there with the crusts at most of the other places in town. Crisp with bubbles…yum!
- Forest pizza: This was a daily special pizza that featured fiddlehead ferns, hen of the wood mushrooms, and a cheese I’m blanking on (fontina, maybe?) This was probably my favorite, but I also love fiddleheads since you don’t see them too often around here.
- Roasted cauliflower: D. really wanted to try this, so we threw it into the mix, and were really glad we did. While the dish is simple, it was excellent, and really showcased what a wood oven can do with vegetables.
- Tarte tatin: Okay. This apple tart was quite tasty, but it was not a tarte tatin in the slightest, which was a bit of an issue for D., who’s a connoisseur of tarte tatins and has been through about a dozen recipes over the last few years trying to make the perfect one. A traditional tarte tatin features apples caramelized in butter and sugar until they’re a deep caramel color, covered with a pastry crust, baked in the same pan until the apples and crust meld, and then inverted and served like an upside-down cake. Nex’s version has lovely baked apples sitting delicately atop puff pastry, but there’s no caramelizing to be found. My vote: keep this on the menu—it’s yummy, especially with the cream alongside—but change the name to “apple tart” to avoid deeply disappointing tarte tatin fans. Meanwhile, our search for a great tarte tatin in Oakland continues…
- Funnel cake fingers: This was probably the most interesting dish of the meal. Essentially, it’s sweet french fries made of funnel cake batter, served with chocolate (listed on the menu as spicy, but the chocolate we got seemed not to be) and fruit sauce. This is a variation on the fritter/doughnut theme that so many restaurants around town feature right now. We order it every place we see it, too, since both D. and I love really good doughnuts. I didn’t love this version simply because there’s more outside than inside to the treats, and I love the soft inside of bomboloni and zeppole and the like. However, these got points for being creative and unusual, and they really did taste like funnel cake, which was fun. So basically, we probably wouldn’t get them again, but were glad we ordered them once.
- Cocktails, wine, and beer: We were pleased with the lists for all three of these. Beer is only in the bottle, but they have a great selection. Manhattan was similar to (though not quite as sweet as) the version served next-door at Mu, which I like a lot. Prices on par with most other spots of this flavor in town.
Overall, I was pleased with our first meal at Nex, especially since we were there just days after they opened, so it’s likely to keep getting better. The most exciting part is that the mood is pretty mellow compared to Mua; while we really enjoy Mua (and other spots like Shashamane across the street), these places start spinning music by 10 on weekend nights and become loud and hip. And, well, we’re old! (Okay, not really, but we’re not twenty-somethings anymore and sometimes Mua is just too loud for what we need on a Friday night.) So Nex is a great addition to the neighborhood. I have a feeling as they refine the menu in the coming weeks and months, they’ll get the few kinks out, and it will be the perfect spot. The server (who was great, and even IDed some of the fabulous 80’s they were playing to settle some debates) also reports that the owners are exploring adding outdoor tables, too, which would be great. In fact, the only slightly bittersweet part is that we’re back to having no coffee shop in the immediate neighborhood (unless you count Whole Foods Café, which I don’t, but apparently half the neighborhood does since it’s always packed!) Won’t somebody please open a coffee shop here??
On the opening front, though, I was excited to see that Café Randevu is on the verge of opening across the street from Nex, too. Our little corner of Oakland is slowly turning into a culinary hotspot!