Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Oh You Pretty Thing!

Unless you believe a couple KEOs, a loaded tray of grilled meats and a bottomless appetite constitute the epitome of gourmet, haute cuisine is hard to come by in Nicosia. Only a handful of local restaurants possess the creativity, refinement and technique to produce truly innovative and hedonistic food, and none of them are better than No Reservations.

Center stage at No Reservations
After strapping a sleepy Little Miss Despot to her crib and letting the babysitters in on her head-swaying fondness for David Bowie's "Oh You Pretty Things" in case of emergency, The Wife, Ph.D., and I marked our first night out in what seemed like centuries with a visit to Chef Martino Speciale's restaurant. Housed on Stasinou 16 only a few meters away from the D'Avila Bastion, the high-end eatery is sparsely yet tastefully decorated and seats about thirty patrons. All eyes though land on the rectangular cream-colored bar and kitchen in the middle of the room that serves as culinary laboratory for Chef Speciale and his team. The tasting menu is fixed, a unique practice for a gourmet establishment on The Rock, and ch-ch-changes every two weeks based on seasonality and availability of fresh ingredients. Diners may opt for fifteen (35 Euros), twelve (30 Euros) or five (20 Euros) tasting dishes, and the hunky-dory wine list focuses on Italy—the 2008 La Braccesca Vino Nobile di Montepulciano for us that evening—with a few other Old and New World selections.

If I had to pick one word to describe our fifteen-course meal, subtlety comes to mind. The most successful dishes were balanced, delicate and artfully presented. We kicked off with a crunchy fried mozzarella ball that sat like a little egg on a nest of spinach chiffonade with smoked pepper. The potato-stuffed tortelloni with broccoli and Taleggio cheese that followed melted in my mouth, and the simple homemade orecchiette with shrimp and a tomato-chestnut broth was something your nonna would prepare on a cold night yet rather refined. Likewise, the seared scallop with pancetta and a cream of peas, as well as the foie gras terrine with figs and olives, were perfectly executed, while the five mini desserts, spearheaded by the luscious flavors found in the chocolate lava cake, amaretto ice cream and pistachio crème brûlée, were a fitting culmination to a local gourmand's dream of something—anything—different in The Rock's capital.

Dessert anyone?
Other components of the meal, I thought, would have benefited from some slight tweaking. While matched with a vibrant, aromatic truffle oil foam, the porcini mushroom strudel was too doughy and overwhelmed its stuffing's inviting earthiness. The polenta and cod cakes with stewed garbanzo beans called for a dash of acidity and some textural contrast to brighten the dish. Furthermore, the veal cheek, albeit tender and tasty, was plopped next to the turkey with rosemary-infused stuffing and seasonal vegetables instead of being served separately, something that would have prevented the muddling of each creation's fine flavors. Finally, and of crucial importance to an amateur wine aficionado like myself, this style of meal screams for a wine tasting menu (say, two whites, two reds and a dessert wine) to complement the courses and their well-thought-out progression.

Despite these minor hiccups, I crave a return visit to No Reservations to see what sort of brave new culinary tricks Chef Speciale has up his sleeves. Next time, though, I hope to drag along the temperamental Little Miss Despot—stroller, rattles, Ziggy Stardust action figure, polka-dot tights, drool and all—to introduce her to Nicosia's most refined restaurant and give the valiant babysitters a well-deserved rest.

Whine On The Rocks Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Sparkling Spatulas

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