John Fraser’s always had a thing for vegetables. So in addition to all the stuff you might expect at a posh, Michelin-starred hotspot on the Upper West Side, the chef assembled a vegetarian tasting menu at Dovetail, and drew chic vegans once a week, when he observed meatless Mondays. At Narcissa, just as everyone’s patience for roast beets was beginning to wane, Fraser brought us back by spinning the gnarliest-looking roots he could find in the rotisserie for many hours, until they were unbelievably sweet and tender inside.
It’s no surprise that at his new restaurant, Nix, he’s cooking vegetables every night of the week. And while opening a vegetarian restaurant makes a clear political statement about food values, Nix isn’t the kind of place that will deliver a spiel about chasing the vague, feel-good benefits of clean living, or insist that you're saving the planet one spoonful of coconut oil at a time. The staff is not interested in patting you on the back for choosing to eat one way over another. Your reward for going to Nix, if you’re looking for one, is simple: pleasure.
To deliver it, Fraser has nicked a lot of techniques from the world’s great kitchens, expanding on the kind of new American cooking that draws from many different traditions, then synthesizes them all in the name of deliciousness.
There are rolls of roasted butternut squash under a tomatillo-pepita salsa, reminiscent of a Mexican pipián verde, demonstrating the fine, grainy creaminess of pureed pumpkin seeds. The squash is wrapped inside a thin layer of soy milk skin to make an elegant little enchilada. Fraser looks to North Africa, too: The baby carrots cooked inside a fold of parchment paper are slathered with butter that runs bright red, infused with a warming spice mixture with roots in Morocco.
For anyone who’s come to associate vegetarian with restrictive diet food, Nix offers a helpful reminder that vegetarian food can also be fun, rich, and deeply satisfying. There's a loaded potato fry bread, and DIY steamed buns are served with deep-fried cauliflower, their edges soaked generously in a hot, sticky sauce. It’s a beautiful mess to eat, with all the weight and texture of a crisp-skinned pork bun, and even more of a resilient crunch. And it’s vegan. That faintly creamy mayonnaise on the side? It isn’t made from egg yolks and oil, but whipped tofu.
James Truman, the former editorial director of Condé Nast, is a partner. Maybe that, too, has something to do with why the restaurant is immensely popular, packed nightly with beautiful people. If you sit at the two-tops by the bar, chances are a young woman will bump into you with her vegan leather backpack, or that a man nursing his sake and almond milk on ice will stand for a half hour with his bottom right in your face while scrolling his phone. If you like a little more space, ask to sit in the roomier back dining room when you make a reservation.
Though the cluster of raw vegetables that start the meal can be a little warm and limp, the edges of the leaves crumpled and dry, missteps at Nix are rare; even a simple avocado can become a luxurious bite. No, it’s not smooshed onto toast—Fraser is retooling vegetarian clichés as well as meaty ones. The avocado is peeled, charred in the tandoor, and still warm inside by the time it gets to you. You spoon it up from a bowl of tomato water and mung beans and wonder how you got so lucky. Yes, I know how mung beans and tomato water sound—lean, bland, out of season—but the effect is remarkable. To make the liquid, Fraser buzzes beefsteak tomatoes and lets them strain very slowly. The resulting liquid is less like water and more like a precious, summery elixir, both savory and sweet, upgrading everything it touches, so freakishly delicious you’ll want to tip the bowl back and slurp the dregs.
At this point, you might consider the restaurant’s name: In Nix v. Hedden, the Supreme Court ruled that under U.S. custom regulations, the tomato was officially classified as a vegetable, not a fruit. It’s a funny choice for a restaurant that doesn’t fuss over categories and that succeeds in its mission precisely because it cares so little about following the rules.
Nix is at 72 University Place (West Village); (212) 498-9393 or nixny.com
Rating: Two Stars (Very Good)
What to Order: Baby carrots on papillote ($14); Avocado a la plancha ($16); Cauliflower tempura and steamed buns ($16); Pea green dumplings ($19); Tofu-skin pockets with sweet potato ($15); Yukon potato fry bread ($15);
Need to Know: A vegan menu is also available; if you can’t find a reservation and you’re part of a small group, the full menu is available at the bar, and you can walk in.