Try the yellowtail. Sample the sturgeon. But whatever you do, save room for dessert.
The recently opened Nostrano, owned and run by Tim and Elizabeth Dahl, joins Harvest and L’Etoile as a destination restaurant on the Capitol Square. With a varied menu, soft lighting and beautifully balanced flavors, Nostrano is poised to win the hearts of foodies all over the city.
Start with a cocktail — a Lemon Flip, made with lemoncello, Death’s Door Gin and a little egg white to give it froth, or a 1917 concoction called a “Seelbach,” made with bourbon, Cointreau (orange liqueur) and cava in a flute (both $8). The wine list is succinct but decent; try an earthy French red like the ’07 Domaine Sainte-Eugenie ($7) or the ’08 Mas Carlot “Les Enfants Terribles” ($9 glass/$19 quartino, or carafe).
Appetizers and entrees are similar in size, and one of each could fill up a diner willing to linger. Hefty marinated olives with a skimpy portion of sourdough focaccia ($5) are fine; the charcuterie plate ($17) is worlds better (though once again with not enough bread, $2 for an additional portion). The latter comes piled with ribbons of salty salame nostrano, buttery salsiccia — an Italian sausage with flavors of fennel, vanilla, nutmeg and smoke — and a divine seared pork liver mousse.
Yellowtail crudo, slices of meltingly raw fish, came topped with curls of purple octopus, tiny wedges of orange and lightly dressed radicchio, a crunchy, salty-sweet tumble ($13). A warm, comforting appetizer of pear-topped risotto over tender pheasant confit ($12) could easily be a light supper.
Fish dishes were excellent. A stew of well-seasoned pink snapper, mussels, clams, octopus and squid ($17) had a warm, spicy kick from chile oil in tomato broth. Grilled sturgeon ($19), an assertive main dish, arrived atop perfectly cooked fall vegetables and olives with a sweet note from raisins.
Dark, nutty rye pasta anchored wonderful wild mushrooms under rabbit confit ($17), crispy and round like a crab cake. A slightly underseasoned pork shoulder ($17) sat on smoky, meaty broth with cannellini beans and kale, a nice pair with a glass of well-balanced Rioja (’07 Conde De Valdemar, $7).
A tender chicken dish ($16) was at once comforting and surprising. The thigh had a crunchy crust to contrast with fennel puree; pickled apples and bacon popped in a flavorful accompanying salad.
At the end of the meal, Elizabeth Dahl demonstrated a mastery of textures and temperatures in a series of terrific indulgences. Each dessert, all $8, embraced fall flavors, from pumpkin and chestnuts to apples and figs.
The finanziera was a humble yet stunning combination of crunchy, brown butter cake and roasted pears with hickory nuts and maple gelato. Stop mid-bite, fork poised over swirls of pomegranate, to make it last longer. Could Nostrano be the new Cocoliquot of desserts?
She reinforced that idea with chestnut crepes (crespelle) filled with mild sheep’s milk cheese, topped with grilled, fresh figs and a closed tulip of dark chocolate gelato — a heavenly arrangement.
Only occasionally did a dessert overcomplicate. Delicate goat’s milk cheesecake gave a funky edge to an almost too-tart lemon verbena sorbet. Affogato was scrumptious, though the cornmeal bombolini (like donuts) were unnecessary. Espresso and salted caramel gelato need no partner.
The service at Nostrano has yet to match the carefully crafted dishes emerging from the kitchen and lovingly decorated dining room, defined by salvaged windows and wine bottles in geometric patterns. One evening, a server rattled off alternate wine pairings with ease; on another, our server seemed confused and unfocused.
But even as Nostrano reaches its stride, the Dahls have made their standards clear with a well-crafted menu and desserts to dream about. And when diners leave happy, it’s a sure thing they’ll be back.