Crystal and I spent almost twenty minutes prowling the middle of freaking nowhere Nanaimo looking for The Nest Bistro, a highly recommended chef-owned joint which we had made dinner reservations for. We’d already passed a Phillipino mother smoking and breastfeeding in her doorway, a drunken soon-to-be domestic call two doors down and an elderly man with no shirt and one shoe chasing a cat back and forth across the road. It felt, magically, like we were back in our old neighbourhood in East Van – At first glance kind of ghetto, but the Tibetan prayer flags over everyone’s door made it okay.
We parked the car in the world’s cheapest and emptiest parking lot and crossed over to where The Nest peeks out from between two housing units. Down on the next block there appeared to be a trendy-looking little coffee shop/cafe likewise sprouting from between a couple more tenements. I was really digging this block!
The Nest is a whole other world unto itself – Soft ambient lighting, weird avian-themed art and slick dark wood tables packed full of quietly chattering people having a great night out. The dining room was tiny (thirty seats?) but accommodating enough to never feel cramped. We sat, joking with the people next to us and made an instant connection with our server.
We were started off with a mason jar-full of Dali-esque bread sticks, an impressive wine list and (for me) a Blue Buck Ale. The vibe was relaxed and expectant of great things.
There was no way to decide between all the great appetizers so Crystal (grinning devilishly) and I decided to double up, getting both the Ninja Prawns and the Forest Mushroom and Brie Tart.
The deep-fried tempura (actually closer to Nanban-style) prawns were crispy, greasy, slathered in mayo and sweet sauce and very satisfying. Exactly the snack I would want at 3am after a night of downing Tsingtaos in some dumpy Chinatown club. I was really impressed with the bed of crispy kale chips underneath the prawns as well. They were bitter, herbal and still crispy after being exposed to all that sauce. I ‘gotta try making them at home!
In contrast to the junk-soul food overload of the prawns, the tart was a composition of subtle tastes and textures. The short-crust pastry gave way in a crackling shower under our fork onslaught, spilling forth a velvety amalgam of Little Qualicum Brie and sautéed fungi. The flavours were woodsy and deep, but delicate. The accompanying salad was filled with pretty little micro greens and dressed in a light pesto vinaigrette.
For an entree I went with the Five Spice Pan Seared Duck Breast because… well… It’s duck and I can never resist a perfectly cooked duck. Tender and coloured medium rare (as it should be!) the thin layer of skin skating over the fat was crisp as baked phyllo pastry. The Chinese five spice was nice ‘n subtle and played well with the overall fattiness of the dish. The various scattered veg, pickled cabbage (nicely cutting the fat) and potato croquettes hit all the right notes while a turnip (or was it parsnip?) puree tied it all together.
Crystal had the Herbed Chicken à la Wes and was nice enough to give me a couple bites. Now, I’ve eaten a lot of chicken, hell I’ve cooked a lot of chicken too. I know that the moisture-to-doneness balance is the key to a good chicken breast and, man oh man, this one was perfectly cooked! It was plucked from the pan just as it was about to cook through. As the outside crisped and the inside flesh was just blushing it must have been rested and the residual heat finished the job. The Brie stuffed inside definitely helped, but still… A darn impressive show of à la minute cooking.
The whole menu was pretty straightforward bistro fare, but cheffed up enough to be exciting for diner to order ‘n eat and cook to prepare. It was also a very reasonably priced meal for two people having an appy, entree and dessert each. I expected to pay a lot more.
It’s the perfect place to take a date: It’s intimate, already got a hipster buzz, food’s great, wine’s informed, it’s cheap and you’ll look very manly as you march past the shambling drunks between your car and The Nest’s front door. Your date will think you’re very brave. *laughs*
It makes me want to go back to Van and open a bistro on the Drive.