Restaurateur David Machado seems to have a thing for culinary trysts—those places where the foods of two or more cultures, after a night of steamy passion, find themselves with delicious child. His first two restaurants, Vindalho and Lauro Kitchen, serve dishes inspired by the great culinary crossroads of the spice road and the Mediterranean. His latest enterprise, the house restaurant for Hotel Modera, continues the theme: Nel Centro's menu draws from the border-crossing cookery of Nice and Genoa.
Aesthetically the restaurant is a bit of a departure. Nel Centro occupies a corner in the heart of downtown's banking district, with windows looking out on the Unitas Plaza and the hotel's own lovely garden courtyard, a bright cove of hardwood and ceramic tiles where diners can sit by firepits and the city's only "living wall." The 150-seat dining room, designed by Holst Architecture, is stunning: strips of chocolate-brown paneling and white columns accented with blond wood and gleaming glass light fixtures.
The spacious kitchen prominently features a large rotisserie (fire is a Machado signature) that turns out excellent roast chicken and lamb ($18). The menu is a notch more expensive than Lauro's—entrees average $21—but equally broad in appeal. The housemade pastas ($15-$17) are excellent, the meats moist and desserts delicious. And don't skimp on wine—David Holstrom's wine list is exceptional in quality but not in price.
While you might expect Nel Centro to slouch during non-dinner meals, when it caters primarily to an audience of hotel guests, such is not the case. Brunch was the most well-rounded meal we've had at the restaurant, and the most economical. The kitchen's take on eggs Benedict, on polenta with cured pork loin ($12), was flawlessly prepared. Even better is the steak-and-eggs platter ($14), which pairs a New York strip with two eggs, roasted peppers and a mound of oven-fried potatoes.
The restaurant does have a few odd flaws. The chairs are too short, leaving taller diners aching from stress on the knees. This makes for an uncomfortable dinner, and I imagine could be excruciating for an older customer. Fortunately for the Big & Tall set, the booths and bar stools are just fine.
The kitchen is also less consistent than at Lauro and Vindalho—herb gnocchi ($17) varied between heavenly soft and unpleasantly chewy, and some items ("Burrida" seafood stew; croutons) were shockingly oversalted—but generally quite good. We imagine food consistency will improve with time; we can't say the same for the seating.
- Order this: Anything rotisserie. The half chicken with roasted spuds ($18) is huge.
- Best deal: Ravioli Niçoise with butter and Parmesan ($15). Rich, beefy perfection.
- I’ll pass: The salt-cod croquettes ($10) don’t compare to Toro Bravo’s fritters.
Nel Centro, 1408 SW 6th Ave., 484-1099, nelcentro.com. Dinner 5-9 pm Sunday-Thursday, 5-10 pm Friday-Saturday; lunch 11:30-2:30 pm Monday-Friday; breakfast 6:30-10:30 am Monday-Friday, 7:30-11:30 am Saturday; brunch 8 am-2 pm Sunday. $$-$$$ Moderate-expensive.