I was excited to try Nana’s, one of the Triangle Area’s best-known fine-dining restaurants. Scott Howell, Chef and Owner, opened Nana’s in 1992 after stints at Bouley and Campanile in New York. After seeing items such as grilled local striped bass and cast iron roasted duck breast featured on the restaurant’s web menu, I was hoping for a fantastic dining experience, or at least, some great grub.
Nana’s website lists their hours “Monday through Saturday 5-?” A few days before our date of dining, I reserved a table for 2 at 8:30PM. Due to my habitual tardiness, I phoned on our way to Nana’s letting them know we were about 20 minutes behind schedule. The hostess was courteous and accommodating over the phone. We entered the restaurant at 8:55 and were briskly led to a table with nothing more than a “right this way.” I guessed they had been waiting for us and that we were the last reservation of the evening since the hostess began walking us to the table before I had finished telling her my name.
The hostess led us to a preliminary space separated from the main dining area by a second entryway. She seated us at a corner table that stood quite close to our neighboring diners. We felt more a part of the adjacent bar and lounge area than the dining room, unable to see the “dramatic chandeliers” mentioned on Nana’s web page or any portion of the central area. The ambience felt stale. A set of abstract original paintings hung on the walls of our dining section, offering the only visual stimulation we could find in the room. The water-spotted acoustic ceilings cause the restaurant to feel dated, as does the selection of muddy-melon and brighter-than-brick paint combinations. The banquette across from us had a noticeable build-up of dirt near the base further adding to our overall feeling of; we are somewhere old and tired.
When I asked a member of the staff if Chef Howell designates Nana’s as “fine dining,” the associate told me that Howell prefers to stay away from that label and the pretentiousness it implies, but that the restaurant offers a “nicer” dining experience and suggests (but doesn’t enforce) business casual attire. In my opinion, Howell might better Nana’s by embracing a few more fine-dining standards. Why bother with white tablecloths if no attempt is made to smooth out the creases? Linen napkins look nice, but if they feel like sandpaper, no one feels appreciative. While we found the service prompt and attentive, it would have increased the joy of the overall experience, if the servers hadn’t stacked our plates in front of us and had shown us the back of their arms less when reaching in to service the table. Maybe I’m overly discriminating in my search for a perfect feast, but simple adjustments go a long way in the suspension of reality that exists in any unique and satisfying dining adventure.
While seating us, the hostess placed the paper menus on the table which included an offering of bottles of wines on one page and a separate page listing the dining options and wines available by the glass. Someone came to offer us “bottle or tap” water, and promptly after, our server for the evening greeted us. He noted a specialty appetizer addition to the menu and offered drinks. Nana’s does not offer a beer or specialty cocktail menu, but the restaurant does feature a fully-stocked bar and a few local draft beer selections. During the course of our dinner we each enjoyed a few rounds of drinks, all of which arrived promptly. My only issue with the beverage service is that I would have preferred my wine to be poured tableside rather than pre-poured at the bar.
Before ordering dinner, we asked our server for recommendations, which he recited promptly and convincingly. Less than 5 minutes passed before our first course arrived: Heirloom Tomato Salad with Fried Okra for my dining companion and Chilled Melon Soup with Mint Chantilly for me. The tomatoes were fresh and delicious and the variations in red and golden tomatoes made for a pretty plate. The okra was light and crispy; very tasty. The tomatoes were dressed with a Balsamic-Shallot vinaigrette and local Feta cheese from one of my favorites, Chapel Hill Creamery. This first course was one of the best out of the 7 dishes we ordered throughout the evening.
The melon soup, unfortunately, didn’t impress. I expected fresh, chilled melon broth decorated with a bright splash of mint cream. Howell instead presents a yellowish cream-based puree with a dollop of white Chantilly and 13 mint leaves. After a few bites, I became tired of the textural monotony of the dish and overwhelmed by the strong flavor of the superfluous mint leaves. The temperature felt wrong also. The soup arrived at the table only a touch colder than room temperature.
For a mid-course I chose the Crab Salad served with Green Asparagus and Steelhead Roe. The dish stood out, a second highlight during our evening at Nana’s. The salty roe was a delicious foil to the sweet crab-meat and along with the crisp asparagus created a lovely diversity of textures within the dish. A garnish of crème fraiche was an unnecessary, but excusable, finishing touch to an otherwise tasty selection.
We also ordered the Lamb Cheek Ravioli with Ricotta Salata and Hans Shimeji Mushrooms. I found the dish neither offensive nor outstanding. The pasta dough felt too firm; the mushrooms too soft; the sauce over-salted. It was edible enough, but no component surprised or impressed. Unfortunately, I must say the same of both entrées we ordered on the server’s recommendation: Roasted Duck Breast and Seared Scallops.
The duck breast arrived to the table slightly overdone, but was otherwise tasty itself with a pleasantly crisp outside and tender inside. The sweet corn cake served alongside the duck was also tasty, although a bit too soft in the middle for my tastes. I couldn’t find harmony, though, in Howell’s other accompaniments to the duck. The choice to plate lentils and baby leeks in what appeared to be a blueberry broth ruined the lentils for me and left a perfume-like taste coating my mouth.
My dining partner’s scallops looked appetizing sitting over a mixture of French Beans and Purple Fingerling Potatoes. Ultimately though, this preparation was another that fell flat. The star of the plate did feature the satisfying crust that a perfectly seared scallop should present. But, the scallops themselves were flavorless. The potatoes, beans, and artichokes offered more taste, but carried a curious, unappetizing aroma
Although unimpressed with our overall experience at Nana’s so far, we pushed onward toward dessert with another round of drinks and hopeful expectation that the sweetest course would shine. We settled on sharing the Vanilla Crème Brulee. The custard was delicious and perfectly cold. Unfortunately, the top had been over-torched. The slightly-burned taste that accompanied each bite didn’t completely destroy our enjoyment of the crème brulee, but it certainly detracted a good deal.
Overall, I’m sad to say Nana’s didn’t deliver on my high expectations. However, their service staff seems educated, accommodating, and anticipatory towards the guests. Throughout the menu Howell offers a few burst of intelligently chosen and well-prepared ingredients and I am hopeful that a future visit might thrill me more.