Saturday, December 20, 2014 · 6:32 a.m.

Restaurant Roamin' with Roman: Niko's

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Pickett's Farm trout and Georgia quail. (Photo: Staff)

Last week I found myself at Niko's in the downtown area's Southside. This looked to be a promising flavor adventure, with a mishmash of traditions from the Mediterranean and American Southeast. Chef/owner Nick Kryiakidis is from Greek heritage, helping his family launch The Acropolis (close to Hamilton Place) in '95 and then took over the Southside Grill in '07 with refined, locally harvested selections—I had a feeling my taste buds were about to do some talking while roamin' around this menu of both international and regional selections.

Niko's

★★★☆

Address
1400 Cowart St.
Chattanooga, TN 37408

Phone
423-266-6511

Hours
Monday-Thursday
11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.

Friday-Saturday
11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Sunday
Closed

Star Rankings
★★★★
An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.

★★★☆
A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you'll want to come back for again and again.

★★☆☆
A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.

★☆☆☆
A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.

☆☆☆☆
A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it's the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it's worth it.

Atmosphere and service
While walking up to Niko's, I was enamored with the edible landscaping decorating the outside. Herbs lined the main walkway, and inviting tomato plants sprouted their fruit along the front sidewalk. There was also a large seating area out front among this garden, but it was far too hot and humid to sit out there, so I opted to sit inside.

On this Thursday evening, I didn't have to wait for a table and was immediately seated. The interior was decorated with warm, comfortable colors, but the temperature inside the restaurant was also quite warm and a little uncomfortable. After my party informed my server, he had the temperature turned down some, which helped later on in the meal.

This server knew what he was doing and really heightened the experience by going above and beyond to make the evening as enjoyable as possible. He was extremely attentive, friendly and knowledgeable about all aspects of the menu. I had planned my flavor quest for Niko's beforehand, but found out when I got there that the online menu—at the time of this writing—was outdated.

So, I had to scrap my plan and figure out what I was going to do with my budget from scratch. Any question my party had was fully answered by this server, and because he seemed to be genuinely proud of the restaurant he was representing, I was very impressed as a guest to see what was to come.

Appetizers
My first stop in this flavor adventure was in Kryiakidis' home country of Greece with the $7 "dolmades." I actually had this dish a couple of times in Greece a few years ago, in both Athens and Rhodes, so I was hoping Niko's version would take me back there. 

These dolmades were a mixture of lamb, beef, dill and rice wrapped in grape leaves and topped with an egg and lemon sauce. Although the internal mixture was a tad on the dry side because of the lean meat cuts, after sopping up some of the lemon and egg sauce, the texture was just right. It was so full of flavor my taste buds sent my mind racing like an Olympian back to Greece's picturesque landscapes and historical charms—I could go on and on about Greece, but will spare you, for now …

On to the soups: The same lemon and egg emulsion on the dolmades was the basis for the "avgolemono" soup—which is also the traditional name for the aforementioned sauce. This soup also contained rice and a great deal of dill.

The extreme dill flavor of this soup may be off-putting for some, but it is traditional—in my Polish heritage, we also use heavy dill amounts in many dishes, and I'm a fan of it. The tartness of the lemon and dill and creaminess of the egg, with the rice giving it some body, were in perfect balance in this refreshing soup.

My taste buds then ventured down the Mediterranean across Italy and into France with Niko's tomato bisque. This smooth blend of roasted tomatoes, onion, garlic and fresh basil had a very strong flavor with a nice tang. This soup was also great for dipping with the bread served with all meals, which was firm and crusty with large pockets perfect for sopping up sauces. The olive oil accompanying the bread was also nicely seasoned with garlic and spices.

The main courses
Backtracking a bit, after making a decision on two of the entrées while ordering during the appetizers, I was torn on the third. My knowledgeable server came to the rescue, saying that it was possible to get Pickett's Farm trout and substitute pieces of the stuffed Georgia quail into the entrée ($18.50), so that's exactly what I did. 

Thus, after my Mediterranean flavor excursion with the appetizers, my taste buds found themselves right back in the Tennessee Valley area, as, according to my server, my trout was so fresh it had been swimming around at Pickett's Trout Ranch that morning—this sustainable trout farm in Whitwell, Tenn., is a haven for providing the Chattanooga region with fresh fish (you can catch your own dinner there, too).

Not only was this trout fresh, but it was also perfectly cooked. It was lightly flaky, moist and flavorful, with chickpeas, lightly roasted arugula, beets and tomatoes, all sauced with a dill vinaigrette—a much lighter dill flavor than the avgolemono for those who fear the dill. This was a delectable piece of fish and one of the best I've had in a while.

The Georgia quail breasts had an apple bread stuffing and were wrapped in thick-cut bacon. And not only does that just sound awesome, the execution was exquisite. These pieces were little flavor bombs ready to pummel some taste buds with layers of flavors coming in waves. The quail breast itself was perfectly cooked and juicy, while the apple stuffing, bacon and balsamic reduction played a tug-of-war of lightly sweet and savory with my palate.

The next dish whisked me down to the Louisiana bayou via North Georgia's Riverview Farms with Niko's New Orleans-inspired shrimp and grits ($16). Shrimp and grits is one of my favorite dishes, and I've previously reviewed a good Charleston-style version at Aretha Frankensteins, but I like the dish done Cajun-style as well, and Niko's version is obviously more refined—plus Aretha's terrible service isn't even close to what I received here.

The grits came from certified-organic Riverview Farms and were creamy, firm and perfectly cooked. These grits were topped with roasted peppers, onions and hunks of spicy Andouille sausage and large Gulf shrimp. This concoction was sprinkled with green onions and smothered in a porky tasso gravy that brought it all together. These powerful N'awlins flavors were a jazzy harmony of hominy grit beads throwing an upscale Mardi Gras party in my mouth.

For my vegetarian option this evening, my taste buds ventured back to Niko's Mediterranean influences with the eggplant Napoleon. This was like an eggplant Parmesan stacked Napoleon-style in layers of crispy-breaded eggplant alternating with a roasted squash, zucchini, onion, artichoke and spinach mix. This veggie tower was smothered in a tomato basil sauce with a crown of melted mozzarella and feta cheeses, adorned with chopped green onions.

There was a high risk of the dish becoming slimy with the types of veggies used in its construction soaking up the sauce. Although it had a slight Pisa-style lean, this tower stood firm, and every component was perfectly cooked and extremely flavorful. In addition to it being a wonderful vegetarian option, at $13 this was also one of the lower-priced menu options for the budget-minded to consider.

Dessert and overall thoughts
For dessert, I grabbed a $5 slice of their popular strawberry patch cake, and this cake is popular for a reason. The moist cake layers were loaded with fresh strawberries, iced with a lightly sweet whipped vanilla cream and scattered with chopped almonds along the exterior. As I've said before, I'm not typically a cake kind of dude, but man, this was insanely awesome. Let's just say I had more than my intended "couple of bites." 

I am giving Niko's a solid 3 stars—pushing toward 4 stars—for giving me the flavor journey I was hoping for around the Mediterranean and Southeast U.S. My service was impeccable and couldn't have possibly been better. My food was high-quality and supported Chattanooga's regional agriculture with fresh, local ingredients, while also whisking me back to happy memories of the Mediterranean. Kryiakidis is both representing his present Southern locale and Greek heritage in fantastic ways with a product to be proud of.

Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga's food scene. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter or contact him at roaminwithroman@gmail.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

Niko's is located in Chattanooga's Southside, on Cowart Street. (Photo: Staff)
Eggplant Napoleon. (Photo: Staff)
Strawberry patch cake. (Photo: Staff)
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