A small number of restaurants in The Woodlands offer intimate, tailored wine dinners, and Nick's Fish Dive & Oyster Bar on The Waterway offers an excellent food and wine pairing. The talented team of Executive chef Aaron Nelson, and General Manager/house sommelier Mark Hawkins are able to create excellent menus combining Aaron's culinary skills with Mark's wine knowledge resulting in a meal you won't soon forget. Yes, Mark and Aaron are back and the food, wines, and experience is even better than before.First Course
Our meal began with Oysters & Pearls, an oyster shell filled with Nick's Spinach & Artichoke Dip, then topped with a single breaded & fried oyster finished off with a generous portion of sturgeon caviar. This was presented delicately placed atop a small serving of baby kale salad with house-made Caesar dressing. The flavor profile was a great combination of sultry and smooth - we loved the creaminess of the spinach dip with the crispy seasoned breading on the oyster. Anyone who has any hesitation when it comes to raw oysters can rest easy with these lightly fried, bivalve mollusks. The particular blend of seasonings in the breading is remeniscent of an Italian delicacy, and when coupled with the spinach & artichoke dip will almost make you forget your name.
This first course was paired with a Chateau Frank sparkling Brut from New York (2009). These particular grapes hail from the Finger Lakes region of New York, and the crisp, fruity flavor was excellent with the fried oyster.Second Course
Our second course consisted of a half-dozen or so baby scallops, grilled and nestled within several strips of griddled Prosciutto ham, and just below pickled heirloom green beans. This was served over a bed of parsnip puree, and dressed with a dash of red-eye gravy. If you enjoy bacon-wrapped scallops, you will most definitely enjoy Chef Aaron's take on this dish; Prosciutto brings a nice saltiness without being overbearing, or greasy. The baby scallops were very well prepared, neither under nor overdone, and the freshness of the seafood shone through. Many of Aaron's methods in his kitchen are unique in the sense of "it's the little things," and so with this course, for example, it was the red-eye gravy he used as a dressing, and the pickled heirloom green beans, which he pickles in-house. As for that parsnip puree? We both decided we needed to add parsnips to our list of vegetables we rotate through on a regular basis after tasting this delightfully creamy dish.
Once again, Mark selected an excellent wine, this time pairing a Paraiso Pinot Noir out of Monterey County (2013). The Pinot had a warm, oaky finish, and its rich cherry/plum fruit accented the scallops quite well. It was during this course that Mark filled us in with a bit of his background, including his many years with Tommy Bahama; he opened The Woodlands location, and for many years kept it one of the top-performing locations. Mark also opened Nick's Fish Dive & Oyster Bar, then took a sabbatical which included six years spent with his own vineyards in Napa Valley, California, before returning to The Woodlands to re-take the helm at Nick's on the Waterway.Main Course
For our main course, Aaron presented us with pan-seared grouper, accented with Champagne Beurre Blanc and served with fried-smashed fingerling potatoes, grilled asparagus, and topped with crispy parsnip strips. At the risk of repeating ourselves, everything was so fresh. The grouper was slightly dry but otherwise flakey and delicious. He explained he preferred grouper as using it helped to alleviate the over-fishing of the popular red snapper. And we loved how Aaron prepared the potatoes. He first boiled them, seasoned as you would for a crab boil, pulling them just as they approached al dente, and smashing them flat before frying them every so slightly - leaving them with a soft, fluffy interior in a crisp shell. Once again surprising us with parsnips, it was easy to consider how crispy strips of this root could unseat potato chips as a go-to snack.
To accompany the grouper, Mark brought us an excellent 2014 Chardonnay from the hills above the Russian River valley of Sonoma County; "Starry Night." This Chardonnay is barrel fermented in a combination of American and French oak barrels, and had round and full rich flavors of apples, pears and vanilla with a warm creamy finish. Once again, a superb choice that clears the palate allowing every subsequent bite of the Grouper to be just like the first.Dessert
A real treat for us tonight (as if the meal hadn't already been fantastic, start to finish) was the opportunity to be the first to try Aaron's Flourless Chocolate Cake. Though certainly an indulgent dessert, you really don't want to pass up the opportunity to try this one, should the chance arise. The flourless chocolate cake is made without flour (obviously), and is safe for a gluten-free option, if you so need or desire. Aaron bakes his in a water bath, then tops it with a smooth chocolate ganache. Helping to moderate and tone the rich chocolate is hand-whipped cream, as well as drunken strawberries prepared by macerating them in a fine Texas bourbon.
Our wine selection was a rare 2006 Sempre Vive Petit Verdot from the Napa Valley. This multiple award-winning wine is lush and fragrant with berry compote, leather, bramble, tobacco, black tea, dried fig, and violet on the nose. Mark really out-did himself with each successful wine.
Chef Aaron is extremely humble and laid-back, despite having descended from such a fine pedigree of culinary experience. After our meal he filled us in a little on his background; his father is a 1986 Michelin star chef, who met his mother when they worked together in the same kitchen where she served as a pastry chef. Though Aaron grew up in the kitchen, he pursued other passions before heading to culinary school at age 29. In 2011, Aaron won Texas Chef Association student chef of the year for the entire state of Texas, and was 3rd in American Culinary Federation south region. Aaron also has two gold medals, one silver, and two bronze medals in American Culinary Federation competitions for both cooking and knowledge of the culinary arts. He and Mark were the original team behind Nick's Fish Dive & Oyster Bar in The Woodlands, and after they both went separate ways for a short time, business began to falter and the owners of Nick's realized that these two gentlemen were absolutely critical for success in The Woodlands.
Whether you're looking for a fine-dining, wine-paired, multi-course meal, or would rather grab a burger and drinks with friends, we think you'll find yourself right at home at Nick's Fish Dive & Oyster Bar. The restaurant is quite clearly chef-driven, and Chef Aaron deservingly has complete control of the menu, allowing him to provide diners with excellent seafood selections, as well as his preference for locally-sourced meats and vegetables - so you know it's all fresh. Dining at Nick's can be as formal or as relaxed as you like, and even if you're not a seafood fan, the menu is diverse enough for a range of tastes. Give them a try for yourself, and let us know what you think!
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