With only 35 seats — and each of them snuggled close together — Nick’s on Main in Los Gatos is small on space, but vast on charm and warmth.
I’m not the only one who thinks so, either, as evidenced by the crowds that can’t wait to get in each evening to enjoy Chef-Owner Nick Difu’s robust comfort food.
Difu, 40, is a Santa Clara County native with legions of fans in the South Bay, who have followed him as he’s cooked his way around Los Gatos from Cafe Marcella to the Wine Cellar and to 180 Restaurant.
As evidenced by the name, Nick’s on Main is the restaurant he can finally call his own. Opened three years ago, this intimate space is done up in classic black and white with framed old family photos adorning one large wall and the other decorated with a striking carving emblazoned with the restaurant’s logo.
Recently, I treated my friend Donna to dinner here for her birthday. It was her first time dining here, and she couldn’t help but remark how it felt like she was eating in someone’s home, rather than in a restaurant.
That’s because Difu makes you feel welcome from the get-go. He’s out in the dining room a lot, serving courses to tables, greeting regulars and making sure the folks waiting outside to get in are comfortable.
I first met Difu eight years ago, when I wrote a profile story about him when I was the food writer at the San Jose Mercury News. With his infectious grin and gregarious nature, Difu is hard to miss. But what you might not detect at first until he confidently extends his hand to shake yours is the fact that he has only three fingers — all on his left hand. Difu was born with all of his fingers, but when he was 6 months old, blood clots developed that caused his other fingers to fall off.
Despite that, he graduated from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, and worked his way up through a series of Bay Area restaurants, always impressing the chefs who had hired him with his work ethic and good cheer. Indeed, it was another fellow chef years ago who bestowed upon him the nickname of “chef3lefty,” which Difu still readily answers to with pride.
One of his personal touches on the menu is the fun starter of “Trust the Chef” ($15). You’re never sure what dish might be placed before you when you order it, though, your server will ask you if you have any food allergies or vehement dislikes beforehand.
The night I ordered it, what came to the table was a lusty dish of venison, pork belly, Brussels sprouts and port cherries. It was fruity, meaty and richly satisfying.
We also shared the tuna tartare tower ($13) that was crowned with a big crisp chip. The chopped tuna was dressed with an Asian-style sesame-ginger-soy dressing that had a kick of heat.
Although I paid our tab, Difu couldn’t resist bringing out one dish on the house — panko-crusted abalone ($15). It’s been on practically every menu at every restaurant he’s overseen, and he knows it’s one of my favorite dishes that he does. After all, what’s not to like about tender, lightly pounded abalone drizzled with lemon chive butter?
For mains, we had the succulent “Loch Duart” salmon piled with Dungeness crab and served atop lemon risotto ($23). Velvety chive beurre blanc napped the dish.
His rendition of pan-roasted pheasant breast ($25) makes you wonder why you don’t see this bird on more menus. Succulent and deeper in flavor than chicken, the pheasant was fanned over Tuscan white beans, framed with sweet corn and baby artichokes, and finished with an intense roasted garlic demi glace.
For dessert, there was a moist, custardy banana bread pudding spiked with rum-soaked raisins.
The check arrived tucked inside a copy of the book, “The Food Lover’s Companion.” Its pages were worn and dog-earred — just like the copy you’d have on a shelf at home.
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