In the not-so-distant past, “sexy vegetarian” would have been an oxymoron. However, Beyoncé, Brad Pitt, Samuel L. Jackson, Woody Harrelson, Ariana Grande, Liam Hemsworth and Natalie Portman have definitively proven that such creatures exist and freely roam the earth. PETA even names the two “sexiest vegetarians” annually. But a sexy vegetarian restaurant? Extremely hard to find in the precincts of Manhattan until very recently. During the dark days of 2016, an annus horribilis if ever there was one, at least one bright spot appeared on the horizon: restaurant Nix opened on February 29th. Perhaps not since the Garden of Eden has being surrounded by plants been so interesting.
The restaurant, located on University Place in the Village, is the brainchild of James Truman and Chef John Fraser. Truman is the urbane and insightful former editor-in-chief of Details magazine and longtime Editorial Director at Condé Nast. After a hiatus in the art world, Truman turned his formidable talents to the restaurant world, first as a culinary consultant to hotelier André Balazs at restaurant Narcissa in the East Village and the Chiltern Firehouse in London. Now, with Nix, he’s the front man of the only Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant in the country.
Where did that unusual name come from, you say? A US Supreme Court case in 1893, in which the Court unanimously decreed that the tomato be classified as a vegetable rather than a fruit, called Nix v. Hedden. John Nix was a fruit seller who brought the case in an attempt to avoid paying taxes on his tomatoes at the higher vegetable rate, given that while they are commonly understood to be vegetables, botanists classify them as fruit. A litigious businessman – he sounds like a real New Yorker.
Despite his loss, Nix’s current-day namesake appears to be a winner. It’s a charming vest-pocket of a restaurant, wonderfully intimate and designed with an eye to achieving precisely the right balance of soft and hard surfaces; natural and constructed elements; the expected and the surprising. Welcoming folk music plays softly overhead; the floors are a warm beige-grey. The walls have a rough, unfinished surface, but are painted a soothing cream. Demure blond wood tables sans tablecloths are surrounded by dark wood chairs, and graced by austere white ceramic plates and light blue napkins. But bold pops of color radiate from the white bud vases holding tomato-red poppies at each table (never fear, they’re fashioned from paper, made by Livia Cetti, who sells them at John Derian in the East Village; no actual plants were harmed in making of this décor).
The lighting fixtures are varied and intriguing: curvy lamps fashioned from what appears to be driftwood line both sides of the dining room (turns out they’re juniper roots). A skylight in the back of the room provides enough natural light for a small collection of potted plants perched above the windows into the kitchen. The overall effect is subtle cues about the natural world placed ever-so-lightly in the dining room’s scheme. No detail has been left to chance, but the overall spirit of the place by day is simple, gracious and coolly elegant. And at night, as the light level dims and the glow of candlelight intensifies, it becomes that most elusive of things: both smart and sexy. According to the New York Times, after dark the dining room is filled with stylish members of the creative class, and it “ripples with the energy of hookups in progress.” Must be all those antioxidants at work.
Chef John Fraser has created a menu full of interesting and inventive combinations that even an omnivore can love (even by the light of day). Even one like me! Having been raised in Detroit firmly in the Midwestern tradition of meat and potatoes at every dinner, for quite some time the very idea of a vegetarian restaurant seemed alien to me (to this day, my family members are put off if an evening meal is served that doesn’t include beef, pork or chicken – it’s a sign of either disrespect or hard times).
To further illustrate this point, the first visit I made to Nix was with our Dandelion Chandelier Staff Photographer – a guy’s guy and committed steak devotee. He was willing to tag along only because our editorial team has embarked on an exploration of the pressing topic of “steak versus salad.” In our quest to understand whether a truly luxurious fine dining experience still requires a large chunk of protein center stage, we’ve been visiting a series of steakhouses and “vegetable forward” restaurants in Manhattan. Nix was on our list because it has been hailed as “New York’s best new vegetarian restaurant.” If we couldn’t make it work there, Team Salad seemed done for.
As we settled into our corner booth for lunch in mid-August, we were immediately offered both still and sparkling water. We learned later that Truman made this part of the service regimen from the beginning: “we hate that first question, ‘do you want tap, still or sparkling? Let’s move on to the stuff we care about.” It’s a subtlety, but strangely, it works. (It also reminds us of when the late Nora Ephron railed in an essay: why do restaurants always interrupt to ask you if you want ground pepper? Nobody wants ground pepper!)
The service at Nix is warm, quick and knowledgeable. Our servers seemed genuinely excited about the menu and happily explained the various options and made sensible suggestions about what we might like after we explained that the Staff Photographer had never eaten at a vegetarian restaurant, and I had not been in one for at least 15 years. Everything on the menu is vegetarian, and almost all of the dishes can be made vegan. We ordered a number of different items so that we could give the concept every chance to succeed.
While we waited, we surveyed our fellow diners. We expected a wholly female crowd, but that day the lunch clientele could be described as at least one-third “cool dude:” a disproportionate number of men with facial hair and great shoes, some with female companions and some seemingly conducting business over lunch, based on our admittedly imperfect eavesdropping. When we talked with Truman later, he was candid about the gender mix – “we always assumed the women would come first, and they’d ultimately bring the men.” That seems to be happening organically, right on schedule.
And why not? I’d describe the food at Nix as provocative, evocative, surprising, photogenic and filling. To ease us in, our server suggested starting with the tandoor bread with three dips: hummus, smoky eggplant, and curry avocado mint. Bread, you say? We’re in. The Staff Photographer and I ended up arm-wrestling over the last bit of naan. The three dips were a revelation – we love hummus and avocado, and Nix’s is good – but the smoked eggplant was ridiculously tasty.
Next up? “Egg salad,” which turns out to be half a hard-boiled egg doused with habanero cream and topped with frizzled potato crisps – it’s beautifully reminiscent of a bird’s nest, and is somehow cool, smooth, crunchy, spicy and mild all in one bite. I was taken aback, actually, by how much I liked it. The red, yellow and green tomatoes with basil and burrata, our third dish, were fresh and delicious – late summer on a plate.
Things were looking reasonably good – and then the next couple of dishes arrived. The Staff Photographer had been steered toward the patty melt – toasted bread with caramelized onions, Swiss cheese, and house-made thousand-island dressing on the side. I opted for the English pea dumplings with radish, ginger and scallion oil, which I loved – its deeply-flavored rich broth was as satisfying as any beef or chicken consommé I’ve ever had. But the acid test was my companion. I waited while he polished off the first half of his sandwich. He paused, then smiled, and pronounced it “not as good as beef. But not bad. Really not bad.” Then he proceeded to demolish the other half in under a minute. Well played, Nix.
After that, dessert was a cake-walk. We had berry sorbet (enhanced with sea salt, which was a happy surprise); carrot cake moon pies topped with fresh apricots, and piping-hot Nun’s Puffs – beignets dusted with confectioner’s sugar with chocolate and raspberry-hibiscus sauces on the side. At dessert, the Staff Photographer decreed, we can definitely all be vegetarians.
I returned for a second lunch with James Truman himself. He urged me to try completely different dishes than the first time, so I sampled the stracciatella, strawberries and lemon verbena; polenta fries with dill and creamy feta; ribbons of jicama with fresno chili and blood oranges; and the summer ramen with mushrooms and miso vinaigrette. All of these were splendid (especially the polenta fries). Consistently at Nix, each dish is composed with real balance – mild and assertive, smooth and textured – and they’re also just really pretty.
But it’s the final dish on this second visit that I cannot stop thinking about: the cauliflower tempura with steamed buns and house pickles has to be one of the most unusual, interesting and downright delicious things I’ve ever eaten. So many different textures and flavors in such a simple dish. Truman confides that part of the secret is that while people assume the spices in the dish are Asian, they’re actually Italian – similar to the ones used to make pepperoni. All I can say to that is: more, please!
A quick word on beverages. There are “modestly alcoholic” and refreshing cocktails on the lunch menu (I highly recommend the cherry one, with lilet blanc, fresh cherries and orange) as well as three traditional full-test cocktails. There are also non-alcoholic juices, sodas and iced tea. Somehow I didn’t miss my usual Diet Coke.
After my first visit, I had concluded that it would be extremely easy and pleasant to eat this way all summer long. My second visit confirmed that idea. I don’t see myself becoming a vegetarian – but eating this way for a season would feel right, I think. Truman agreed, saying “the point isn’t necessarily to become a vegetarian. The point is that you don’t have to eat meat every day.”
If every meal can be like the ones we’ve had at Nix, we think Team Salad might be the surprise winner in this little competition. Stay tuned for further reports from the field. And in the meantime, definitely stop in at Nix – it’s the perfect place to get out of your carnivore comfort zone. The next phase of development there will be tooling up for a take-out service so that you can eat in or on the go. Truman notes that he’s happy to be in a business that isn’t going to be disrupted by technology. “VR may disrupt many things. But food, and sharing a meal – those things cannot be replaced.” Thank heaven.
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