Golden flash-fried calamari rings and tiny white beans hang like tree ornaments on a tousled heap of frisee dressed only by lemon juice, fruity olive oil and a dusting of Parmesan. Long slivers of artichoke heart, thin reeds of asparagus and firm green peas (all fresh in February!) tossed around with shiitake mushrooms, basil, olive oil and penne generate a fabulous vegetarian pasta you know you could make at home but never do. A truly colossal "wedge" of iceberg drenched in a creamy, roasted garlic and blue cheese dressing is crowned with a novel crouton substitute -- crunchy, quick-fried onion rings -- but the salad's jewel is a saucer-size, wet tomato slice speckled with cracked black pepper. Several entrees come with a "salad," or tuft, of bare arugula. Even a foggy green, tart slice of key lime pie tastes like an islander is squeezing key lime juice into your mouth with one hand and sugar cane sap with the other.
Owner Eric Bay worked the kitchen of his nearly 3-year-old restaurant for much of last year, until he realized that he missed seeing his customers; then he and Chef Michael Uddo struck a deal. Uddo is best known for G&E Courtyard Grill, a restaurant he owned on Decatur Street in the 1990s, and also for the former New Harvest Market on St. Charles Avenue, where Foodies Kitchen is now located. The current menu at Nautical seems to be a collaboration of what the Nautical style has always represented (clean, fresh, produce-minded food) and what Uddo (a New Orleans native from a long line of Sicilians) has brought to the table. Here's a man with a sense of local food traditions, a way with garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and herbs that would appeal to the Mediterranean palate, and a deep love for cracked black pepper. The combination equals a selection of dishes that is neither especially classic nor exceptionally unique. But like with the sometimes overly informal staff, if you take a casual attitude toward the fussy details, they create an utterly pleasurable evening.
Moon-shaped cheese ravioli in a nightly special might be tepid inside, but the chunky, puttanesca-style sauce with garlic shards, kalamata olives and capers keeps you from sending them back. Nearly raw "char-grilled" oysters with crunchy choupique caviar and feathery mixed greens haven't a hint of charred flavor, and their tarragon aioli dressing is too intense with stinging anise, but so many sensations embodied in one bite is habit-forming nonetheless. It's impossible to intellectualize why it is so, but grilled swordfish, goat cheese mashed potatoes and lemon-butter-caper sauce make a lovely, even subtle, combination. And while I can think of better "spring vegetables" than red cabbage and zucchini as a side dish for salmon, I had never imagined a salmon fillet as spectacular as the one that wore a brittle, sticky caramelized topcoat.
BYOB was the rule at Nautical until December, when Bay acquired a long-awaited and controversial liquor license (something Uddo never accomplished at New Harvest Market). So far the list, and a ledge that runs around the restaurant, is a showcase for big California labels. All the Kendall Jacksons, the Simis, the Sterlings and the Ferrari-Caranos are present. White wines offered by the glass include two Chardonnays and one White Zinfandel. Fortunately for serious wine geeks, the corkage fee is only $8. And you can't buy it by the shot yet, but Bushmills Irish Whiskey makes a fine sauce for the signature, better-than-Commander's chocolate chip bread pudding souffle.
Inside and out, Nautical looks like a Creole cottage that spends summers on Cape Cod. The walls are light yellow like the cream sherry sabayon that's served with organic berries for dessert, and a banquette is the soft blue of skies depicted in seascape watercolors like the ones hanging throughout the restaurant. It's the kind of wood-floored, white-tableclothed, charming little place where you might run into your favorite neighbor; where you would consider proposing if Bella Luna was booked; where you can expect a disinterested waitress but an attentive owner out front; and where you can send a health-minded acquaintance whose sensibilities ache at the very idea of another fried green tomato.