The real Nick Ryan's legend dates to 1905. At his peak, he owned an interest in five watering holes when Prohibition, one of America's nastier crusades, hit. That adventure is long gone, but it has taken a few more decades to resurrect the legacy. The grand reopening of Nick Ryan's Saloon, a hugely successful idea whose time had come, happened last year.
No reservations are taken at the relatively small space that will be both roomier and lovelier when the French doors can be thrown open come warm weather. Therefore, the early birds get the tables. No one, however, seems disgruntled to wait at the bar, drinking cocktails developed in-house, such as the excellent bourbon-based Kentucky pain killer, or classics like the French 75, brought back a couple of years ago by Soundbar.
The menu, too, offers a synthesis of bar, aka saloon, food and restaurant fare, tradition modernized to suit the 21st-century palate, and very considerate of the 2011 pocketbook.
There also are strange items, just to make sure you're paying attention. The best example is a dessert of deep-fried Oreos. They're really just a gimmick because they are not very good, but they represent the South's admirable desire and passion to push the envelope on whatever can be battered and cooked in hot oil. Oh, well, at $5, it is inexpensive fun.
But most of the time, Nick Ryan's gets it right, and any missteps seem to happen in the details.
I could, for instance, eat the perfect butternut squash ravioli once a week, so outstanding is the pasta itself. (Push aside the ropy mushroom topping that is chewy, like shiitake jerky.) Also marvelous are the meltingly tender short ribs in red wine sauce, accompanied by light and creamy cauliflower mousseline. When paired with thin asparagus, this is a dream entrée — and a reasonable one at $18. If you're really hungry, get the 12-ounce pork chop, seasoned just right, with a generous helping of simple mashed potatoes. It's $19.
Another high note is the crab cake appetizer. Packed with crab, with a slightly crunchy crust and an almost fluffy interior, it is the perfect way to begin a meal, as is a simple cup of white bean and ham soup. Chicken duros are a nice riff on nachos because of the raft of puffed wheat — much lighter than chips — spicy salsa and grilled chicken. But it was awkward to eat: The large chunks of raw cabbage were hard to navigate, and the crema that replaced cheese made everything slippery.
Salads are fine, if not remarkable, especially the beet and goat cheese.
Seafood dishes were the least exciting. The shrimp and grits, although competently done, were nothing novel; I suppose there is nothing wrong with that.
But the mussels, which I tasted twice, had an overpowering smell that competed with every other ingredient on the plate. If you can get past that, I would always pick the version in cream sauce over the herb-baked one because of the mussel liquor and slight anise scent.
They are served, like your standard moules frites, with fries (also available separately) that are tossed with truffle oil. That's a popular trick that has always struck me as pretentious because it creates a greasy coating and adds little more than a luxurious perfume. That said, this trend has its advocates.
So, the spirit of Lexington's saloon past is being resurrected, minus the tedious abstinence of Prohibition, and Jefferson Street continues its own ascent of the phoenix as a grass-roots culinary destination. Stay tuned.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.