The menu is small, you have a window of only three days in a week, and the bread and butter of Nichole's is still pastry.
But this unique concept, a simple experience with good cuisine and thoughtful ingredients, does two things. First, it puts together good options, without fuss, leaving time in the kitchen to attend to details. Second, it allows for a reasonable price point that beats other fine dining establishments. If you have an adaptable palate and taste in atmosphere, you can enjoy stellar cuisine at franchise prices.
This isn't easy to appreciate until you go. Pan seared walleye at $15? Wild and white rice topped with a simple, shore-lunch-salt-and-pepper seasoning cooked to just past translucent leaves this mild fish with so much more flavor than what you normally taste in breaded renditions or gastro pub versions that spend a minute too long under a heat lamp. The beans are simply and appropriately dressed, unafraid of salt and crisp. The wine sauce seemed oddly bland against the seasonings on the remainder of the plate and was best left alone.
The unique take on shepherd's pie ($14) is more of a vegetable beef stew with a dollop of mashed potatoes but it interprets a meal that most often comes off as a mono-flavored hot dish as a comfort food with distinct textures and flavors. Again, well-seasoned, it does a complicated dish one step better by simplifying it.
Something similar happens with the stuffed red pepper that takes all its substance, not from the feta or tomato that brightens its flavor, but from the barley and corn that support it.
This attention to a side that some consider bland, and that frequently gets relegated to the sideline with the unfortunate designation of "starch", shows up again in the small dish of fried paneer. Paneer is a fresh cheese that can be so mild as to be almost flavorless, but on a bed of lentels, something happens that makes the Midwestern urge to spread salt on things easily resisted.
Above all, Nicole's is a pastry shop and it feels like one. Dessert is a highlight, and a trip to the pastry counter solidifies your choice. A word to the server and it comes to your table. For a traditional end to a meal for those with a taste for darker desserts, the tiramisu works for many. On the more refreshing end, the raspberry lemon mousse leaves a cleaner taste in your mouth. But Nichole's remains a pastry shop which means, during dinner, you will share the floor with self-serve coffee-and-cake customers along with the associated traffic, you will sit at less formal glass table tops and experience the more casual approach to serving.
One other thing worth mentioning. Our shepherd's pie, and some of the side dishes, arrived at our table considerably cooler than they ought to have been, apparently due to an equipment malfunction. Stewed dishes really need the heat. The problem was resolved quickly and in the best possible way.
Nichole's has always filled a niche in Fargo and Moorhead with konditorei-style pastries. This weekend dining option adds a more than reasonably priced experience to that already successful culinary art.
Nichole's Fine Pastry
Address: 13 8th St. S., Fargo
Food: 4 stars
Ambiance: 2.5 stars
Hours: Dinner served Thursday to Saturday 5:30 to 8 p.m.
Phone: (701) 232-6430
Reservations accepted: Yes
Credit cards accepted: Yes
Eric Daeuber is an instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Readers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.