Before Nickels Grille opened on Dec. 11, the restaurant at 230 Mishawum Road in Woburn had been home to a T.G.I. Friday’s for 14 years.
While the ownership and management has largely remained the same throughout the transition, the switch in concepts was carefully orchestrated, the principals say.
“Because of the education people are getting through the Food Network, they tend to lump chain restaurants together,’’ said John DiPalma, director of operations for the restaurant. “When you’re an independent, you can deal with local vendors and run specials based on the freshest products.
“We know we can’t be everything to everybody, but our goal is to offer something for everyone.’’
With experience working in New York, Cape Cod, Florida, Maine, and New Hampshire, executive chef David Symonds has designed the menu around his specialty: American bistro fare with an accent on seafood.
Our four-person party was happy to put him to the test when we visited on a recent Sunday evening.
The calamari appetizer ($8.55) was lightly fried and tossed in olive oil with garlic and hot peppers that accentuated the flavor of the tender squid. The dish is served with two sauces, marinara and lemon aioli, which complemented each other well.
While every crisp ring of calamari was quickly eaten, the Creole crab dip ($11) earned mixed reactions. The dip, a creamy but slightly watery blend of Maine blue crab meat folded into cream cheese with sweet peppers, onion, garlic, and Creole spices, wasn’t as zesty as some at the table had hoped. All agreed that the accompanying homemade toasted pita and tortilla chips were a nice touch.
Our spicy-loving diner was completely satisfied, however, by the moist Caribbean jerk chicken ($16), which was seasoned with jerk spices, then char-broiled and topped with a 20-ingredient sauce; Symonds said he picked up the recipe from a Jamaican restaurant in New York many years ago. It is served with pineapple salsa, fluffy coconut rice, and corn bread.
While the steak tips in the steak and Gorgonzola salad ($14) were flavorful, extremely tender, and generously sized, the diner who ordered it wished there were more than four of them.
The rest of the salad - mixed greens sprinkled with roasted red peppers, grilled portabella mushrooms, crispy onions, and Gorgonzola cheese served with a blue cheese vinaigrette - was fresh but rather bland.
There was nothing ordinary, however, about the meaty St. Louis-style barbecue pork ribs ($12 for a half rack, $18 for a full rack), which were slow-roasted, slathered in sweet and smoky barbecue sauce, and served with coleslaw. The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender, and the diner appreciated the side of tangy barbecue sauce with which he covered every bit of meat.
Instead of going with the french fries that usually accompany the ribs, he opted for mashed potatoes, which were deliciously creamy with bits of skin.
The fresh and flaky coconut haddock ($17.45) was dipped in coconut, pan-seared, topped with homemade citrus rum sauce, and served with rice pilaf and pineapple salsa that had mint and honey, but too much onion for this diner’s taste. While there were plenty of coconut flakes visible on the fish, the flavor wasn’t overpowering because they were on just one side.
All desserts are homemade, and we had difficulty narrowing our decision to two. The Key lime pie ($6) had a thin graham-cracker crust and a pleasingly tartness, thanks to the juice from real Florida Key limes. John & Dave’s Signature Strawberry Ice Cream Pie ($7) was a complex combination of flavors, with white chocolate layered between a vanilla wafer crust and strawberry ice cream. It was topped with homemade whipped cream and a white chocolate-dipped strawberry.
In these budget-conscious times, DiPalma said, his goal for Nickels Grille is to provide good value and variety for all levels of income.
“We’re growing every day.’’