I couldn't review Nico anonymously. Owner Tom Schmidt busted me as a restaurant critic when I visited his first venture, Franco, five years ago. Our paths have crossed many times since then, especially over the past nine months as he transformed the old Brandt's Café space in the Delmar Loop, just up the street from Riverfront Times' offices, into Nico. No restaurant-critic trickery — not reservations made in the name of a 1980s-era utility infielder, not wig, not even Groucho Marx mustache/glasses — could have prevented the moment when I walked into Nico for lunch and Schmidt greeted me with a smile and a handshake.
Did it make any difference? Well, the lamb burger I had that afternoon certainly was excellent. The patty itself, cooked medium-rare, was juicy, lamb's natural flavor given added depth and spice with the addition of pork belly and harissa to the grind. The fried egg served atop the patty added an exquisite richness, while baby spinach leaves and a cool, tangy mint and yogurt sauce provided welcome contrasts in flavors and textures. The lamb burger comes with French fries, which, as at Franco, are textbook-perfect: crisp outside, soft as a cloud inside, the flavor an ideal balance of potato, salt and lingering oil from their frying.
Schmidt calls Nico "Franco's younger brother": The eponymous Nico (that's his photograph on the wall between the entrance and the bar) is Schmidt's nephew and also the younger brother of Franco's own namesake. Like any younger brother, Nico the restaurant aspires to match or outdo the older sibling — in this case Franco's winning blend of urbane cool, French elegance and Soulard charm — but also to establish a unique signature style. The result is a strange amalgam: The wallpaper and wan Edison bulbs call to mind a cozy Parisian café, but the blond-wood shelves that form the bar are straight out of IKEA. Of course, this being the Loop, the décor is secondary to the people-watching vista beyond the restaurant storefront's wall of windows.
When Nico opened in February, Franco executive chef Chris Williams helmed the stove. After Williams departed both restaurants in April, sous chef Darin Since took over Nico's kitchen. His menu bears some traces of Franco's French-bistro DNA, but the influences here are more broadly Mediterranean: Italian pork ragu over housemade pappardelle; leg of lamb with traditional, fiery North African harissa; tapas including fried almonds and marinated mushrooms. When it works, as with that lamb burger, it suggests what Nico could be: a destination for vibrant, unpretentious fare. Indeed, an appetizer of three plump diver-harvested sea scallops, seared a gorgeous caramel brown and served atop a cauliflower purée with asparagus and pickled ramps, is the sort of quietly elegant, seasonally appropriate dining the Loop is starved for.
Yet too often, as unanonymous as I was, my visits were marred by dishes that were flawed in execution or conception. Take the pappardelle with pork ragu: The pasta had been overcooked into ribbons of mush. And for all the pork in the sauce — belly, shoulder, pancetta — the ragu managed only a faint meaty note and was overwhelmed by a generic, acidic flavor redolent of TV-dinner lasagna. The "Seared Lamb" entrée brings several slices of lamb leg, the center of each a dusky medium-rare. The meat's flavor was strong, but — unsurprisingly for a cut that is typically slowly roasted — the texture was too chewy. The lamb is served atop pearl couscous seasoned with saffron and tossed with eggplant, chickpeas, tomato and piquillo peppers. For all these components, the resulting dish packs little punch. The harissa the menu promises comes in a little cup on the side. You'll need it.
A strip-steak entrée arrived with all the cheer of an unwanted guest: The steak itself was an OK cut, a tad too fatty around the edges, and its temperature suggested a few minutes spent waiting (as opposed to resting) on the kitchen pass. A perfunctory Béarnaise sauce graced the top of the steak; a few skinny stalks of asparagus sat beside it. And the fries. Oh, what did they do to the fries? Scooped them from the bottom of the fry basket several minutes after the last batch was cooked, most likely.
Such moments accumulated. The menus are folded paper and sometimes creased. The bar features cocktails named after St. Louis Walk of Fame inductees (the "Jack Buck," for example, is a swank variation on the classic Moscow Mule, mixing gin and Aperol with ginger beer and lemon; it's dangerously refreshing), but the printed menu misspells several of their names ("Henery" Shaw; "Phllyis" Diller). The wine list focuses on moderately priced old-world reds and whites. The beer selection highlights several of St. Louis' new craft breweries.
Service on most of my visits was efficient and friendly, but the restaurant seemed entirely unprepared for a pleasant Saturday evening, with too few servers covering too many tables, leading to an unfortunate series (at our table and others) of long waits to order, wrong plates, misprinted checks and the like.
Every new restaurant has its bumps, of course. But part of what made Franco a critical and popular success from the start is that Schmidt got so many of these little things right (and has kept them right through numerous changes in personnel). Which gives me hope that Nico can smooth out its issues. It'll have to. With its pedigree and prime location, little brother has nowhere to hide.