Owner/chef Nick Difu has it all working — food, friendliness and atmosphere — at his restaurant in downtown Los Gatos. More recently, Nick’s on Main combined with Nick’s newer, larger restaurant and relocated a short distance away from the Main Street spot.)
(This review appeared in South Bay Accent in April of 2009)
Pleasure has greater currency during troubled times. For example, savoring five-cent chocolate bars helped many Americans get through the Great Depression. Self-nurturing is therapeutic and for South Bay residents seeking an antidote to today’s economic uncertainties, one of the best places to indulge is three-year-old Nick’s on Main in Los Gatos. Owner/chef Nick Difu serves big-flavored, rib-sticking, completely delicious cuisine that has helped make Nick’s the latest hot table in this popular restaurant town. Difu’s food is never precious, never intellectualized. Featuring lots of comforting protein and irresistibly caloric accompaniments like whipped potatoes and creamy risotto, the cooking here elicits sighs of pleasure. No wonder eager diners huddle near the front door nightly, waiting to get in.
Besides the people-pleasing menu, another draw of this teensy spot is the convivial atmosphere. About as wide as the soaring ceiling is tall, the handsome black-and-white dining room enforces group interaction and the staff is pleasantly attentive. However, the star of the show is the longtime Los Gatos chef whose name is on the door. Difu – who looks like a cross between Dustin Hoffman and Sylvester Stallone when both were young — is a local boy whose cooking resume includes places like Café Marcella, the Wine Cellar, 180 Restaurant & Lounge and, most recently, Los Gatos Country Club.
But these were just the warm-up acts for Nick’s on Main. Difu – who is as enjoyably extroverted as his cuisine – puts considerable energy both in and out of the kitchen to make his guests happy. His personal stamp is evident on much more than the cooking. The old black-and-white family photos on one wall are from his ancestors, who ran a well-known feed and grain operation in Cupertino. He’s been known to personally rearrange reservations and call to apologize to those rare guests who had a less-than-happy experience. And naturally, he’s a frequent presence in the dining room, making sure diners are delighted with their experience.
Blissful they are after diving into one of Difu’s scrumptious starters. For the full monty, order the sampler. My plate featured a few heavenly bites of the crab risotto, a junior version of a signature dish, TunaTarTarTower – a luscious mixture of raw tuna, avocado and ginger soy dressing on a crispy base – and a few tasty forkfuls of salmon tartare. Another hugely popular starter choice is steamed mussels, the plump crustaceans swimming in an assertive, Thai-flavored coconut milk broth. The addictive spicy fries on the side are for an over-the-top broth-dipping experience.
Difu’s short ribs in Mongolian sauce show off his skill in making any meat succulently fork-tender. The richness is cut with an accompanying cucumber salad. The starters also include a trio of composed salads such as a green salad jazzed up with toasted almonds, dried apricots and goat cheese. Even the Caesar is enhanced by atypical additions like local blue cheese, bacon and bitter greens.
Difu’s main courses are equally tasty. On the seafood side are a couple of standouts, particularly pan-roasted Chilean sea bass on a bed of creamy white beans and roasted tomatoes, crowned with basil pesto. Besides being beautiful to look at, the super-moist fish is an ideal foil for the hearty beans, sweet/tart tomatoes and basil. Another superb choice is salmon and Dungeness crab robed with a butter sauce perched on a lemony risotto.
Given the focus on big flavors, it’s no surprise that the menu’s poultry offerings are seared duck breast – the rich meat contrasted with a sweetish berry/port glaze – and remarkably moist, flavorful pheasant breast, whose better-than-chicken taste is nicely accented by rosemary veal demi glace. Both these dishes come with yummy brussel sprouts cooked with applewood-smoked bacon. If you hated this underappreciated vegetable as a kid, give Nick’s version a try and be prepared to change your tune. An occasional special well worth ordering is an outstanding version of duck confit with wild mushrooms and risotto.
The pat-your-tummy meat offerings are smartly concepted and executed. One of the signatures is “Nani’s Meatloaf” – named for his Sicilian granny, who’s also his cooking muse — a savory, deeply flavorful hunk of protein upleveled by wild mushroom gravy. Guests love the pan-roasted rib eye with black pepper cream sauce but a more exotic choice is roasted venison – a lean, full-flavored meat – slathered with a cherry wine sauce. Particularly divine is the rack of lamb, with twice the flavor and four times the tenderness of most versions. Difu gives it a Greek twist, adding Kalamata olives, feta cheese, tomatoes and an herby sauce. To accompany the boldly flavored dishes is a small, solid wine list rich with local offerings.
The restaurant serves hearty portions, so many guests might run out of gas before dessert. This isn’t necessarily bad, since the last-course choices aren’t remarkable. Most popular is banana bread pudding with rum sauce – rich enough to be a solo course. Otherwise, the most interesting item is a nicely puckery lemon tart.
Like most chefs, Difu is realizing a longtime dream by having his own place and has shrewdly calculated the optimal combination of people-pleasing dishes and companionable atmosphere. Dining at Nick’s on Main is like a particularly fabulous dinner party that can be repeated whenever you want.
Nick’s on Main, 35 E. Main St., Los Gatos, (408) 399-6457, http://www.nicksonmainst.com
HOURS: 11:30-2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday. Reservations strongly recommended.
PRICES: Starters, $10-16; entrees, $22-34; desserts, $6.