When Daniel Clayton, the owner of Nibblers Eatery and Wine Bar, calls his restaurant "international" and "eclectic," he isn't exaggerating: Photos of Egyptian sarcophagi face Italian landscapes across the pale yellow room. The all-a cappella soundtrack ranges from Bulgarian women's choirs to folk-pop covers of "Strawberry Fields Forever." Diners find themselves making a meal of kibbeh, gyoza, paella, and pizzettas. Luckily, it's not as exhausting as it sounds.
With the opening of Nibblers five months ago, small-plates dining has migrated even further inland from San Francisco, where it incubated in the tapas-loving 1990s and then exploded at the turn of the millennium. Thanks to Clayton, who grew up in a family specialty-foods import business and has worked at local restaurants such as Lark Creek Walnut Creek and Concord's Luna, American-style dim sum has made its way to a strip mall in a residential section of Pleasant Hill, alongside Back Forty Texas BBQ and Latte-Da Espresso & More.
Nibblers Eatery looks like a comfortable neighborhood bistro, adorned in the equivalent of Dockers and a nicely pressed shirt. The vibe is low-key, the customers are local, and, the service, when it's on, can be spectacularly efficient. During my first meal on a slow weeknight, little plates kept appearing in front of us, and my companions and I would have to stop our conversation and run mental replays to pinpoint when the buser had slipped them onto the table.
Clayton, who designs the dishes, and Habib Jacifi, who executes them, organize their menu into plates of decreasing smallness: nibbles and "accoutrements," pizzettas, small plates, and larger plates, priced from $2 to $14. Clayton's wine list, equally eclectic, covers the world of wine, venturing in to some of its nooks and byways.
Such rampant culture-hopping is often a warning flare, but Jacifi, especially on my first meal, maintained control over the many tastes, working with a palette of seasonal, artisanally produced ingredients. At his best, the chef flushes big flavors out of tiny dishes. He sets boldly seasoned kibbeh cigars -- pinky-sized logs of ground lamb and bulgur -- atop a concentrated, spiced-up tomato sauce. He skewers nickel-sized rock shrimp on oversize toothpicks and rubs them in lip-warming mole, then pairs the grilled skewers with a mound of chopped salsa, spicier than many and sweeter, too, thanks to the addition of watermelon chunks to the standard onions, cilantro, and chiles. He rubs a few spears of broccolini (a hybrid of broccoli and "Chinese broccoli," or gai lan) in oil and grills them until the exteriors begin to blister, then serves them with twin jolts of cracked pepper and lime juice.
Occasionally, though, there are too many flavors to juggle. The roasted tomatoes and piquillo peppers on a Spanish-themed pizzetta come off tangy and sharp, overpowering Manchego cheese and slivers of Serrano-style ham, ingredients that normally hold their own. And desserts such as a dry persimmon bread pudding with half a persimmon and an odd pear-custard tart with lemon sorbet spread thickly overtop aren't very compelling. Substitute another savory nibble, such as the grapefruit-size pizzetta with a puffy, oil-brushed crust and a finely balanced mix of roasted wild mushrooms, sweet cippolini onions, and Shaft's Bleu Vein cheese mounded on top.
I was happy to discover that Nibblers Eatery transcended its cutesy name. (Ask me how I was able to ask about the "signature nibble of the day" with a straight face and I may show you the scars.) The dish that made it all happen was the chicken-apple gyoza: A nutty-brown butter napped overtop called out the hint of fruit in the "potstickers," their thin skins pinched into precise squares. Translucent, papery, deep-fried spinach leaves scattered across the plate intensified the dumplings' autumnal charm. Then there was the chanterelle-topped polenta, with enough cream to give it a mousselike texture and a haunting fragrance from a dash of Madeira. We got our nibble on.
At both meals, my friends and I spent $40 each, including a glass of wine and tip -- about what I'd expect to drop at a traditional bistro in Oakland. Yet I've heard locals complain that the restaurant is expensive. The main reason? Well, Nibblers' dishes are, literally, nibbles. It takes four or five per person to make up a full meal, and few of the plates are larger than a tea saucer. When you pay $11.75 for an entrée of baked ziti with Calabrese sausage and the bowl it comes in is the size of a coffee mug, or when a $6.75 salad of butter lettuce with baked goat cheese contains no more than a handful of greens, no matter how great those two bites, it's hard to feel satisfied. A matter of perception, I suppose.
But also of logistics: On my second visit, a weekend night, the restaurant got slammed. The front and the back of house both appeared to be a person short, and the need to produce so many nibbles for so many tables resulted in confused waiters, seething patrons, and some sloppy food. Miniature Vietnamese rice-flour pancakes flecked with chives were oily and smeared with hoisin sauce. The Champagne cream sauce pooling around a small fillet of sautéed halibut -- this "larger plate" was half the size of an average appetizer -- looked dirty and had absorbed an extra teaspoon of salt. The panko-breaded calamari rings were tender, but had been allowed to cool long enough that the crackle had faded from the crust by the time we received them.
Having endured kitchen nightmares from the inside, I can forgive any place one awful night, especially since the long waits gave my table more time to socialize. But for a restaurant with as many items on the menu as there are seats in the dining room, a little streamlining might prevent recurrences.
Despite the rough edges, Nibblers has the lock on what a good neighborhood bistro should be -- promising food, smart wine list, the capacity for smooth service -- and a Pleasant Hill neighborhood that dearly needs one. Nibble on.
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