Thursday, July 18, 2013

First Impressions - Novel

Kansas City's Newest Restaurant, Novel located 
in the charming Westside neighborhood
The little intersection at 17th & Summit in Kansas City's Westside neighborhood just keeps getting better. Last week Novel opened in a charming century-old house that overlooks 17th Street from its perch atop a small hill there. It's clear that they have been busy getting this place ready. I have personally rehabbed a 100-year-old house before and it's a lot of work. This space used to be home to Lill's on 17th so chef/owner Ryan Brazeal and team had a head start but they undertook some serious renovations all the same. The kitchen is significantly larger (no small feat) and they have added a cozy little bar tucked just off the entrance (a bit like the bar at The Westside Local just around the corner). This place oozes charm and feels like the neighborhood restaurant that it is.

Ryan Brazeal (center) and staff at work in the new kitchen.

This is a homecoming for Brazeal who graduated from the culinary program at Johnson County Community College in 2003. Not long afterward he moved to New York City to hone his cooking chops at several well known restaurants - winding up his stint as sous chef at David Chang's Momofuku (Chang recently tweeted a message of support for Brazeal to his nearly 75,000 Twitter followers - nice).

A Little Help From My Friends
Former boss David Chang tweets support
for Ryan Brazeal's maiden voyage.
And it didn't end with celebrity chef Chang. According to Brazeal he has been overwhelmed by the support of local chefs and restauranteurs who, in many other cities, might consider Brazeal an interloper. "It's amazing how (they) have stepped up to offer their help", he shared with me as we stood in his shiny new kitchen. And the list of helping hands is a who's whom of KC culinary that according to Brazeal includes: Howard Hanna (Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange), Pete Perterman (Peanches), Colby Garrelts (Bluestem), Eric Willey (Bluestem), Michael Smith (Michael Smith & Extra Virgin), Michael Foust (The Farmhouse), Debbie Gold (Red Door Grill),  Ted Habiger (Room 39), and Jonathan Justus (Justus Drugstore) - cue the Oscars music - no more thank you's please, we are out of time.

The upstairs dining area glows with natural light.
When I made my reservations the long-term weather forecast was showing 90º+ for Saturday afternoon and I opted for dining inside. As it turns out, by dinnertime it was exceedingly nice outside and we took our hostess up on her offer to seat us on the patio. While our table was being readied I introduced myself to Vic the bartender and asked him which of his cocktails he was most proud. Without hesitation he mixed me an Old Hat (Buffalo Trace, Dry Curacao, Tart Cherry) - a clever hybrid between an Old Fashioned and a Manhattan and the kind of drink you could bookend your meal with. I'm using the fact that I don't have a decent photo of the Old Hat as an excuse to make a return trip for another.

The patio is quite nice, almost a courtyard really, and with some more local foot traffic as the neighborhood culinary/retail scene grows I can imagine it being one of the best seats on the block - not unlike Julian in Brookside or Gram & Dun on the Plaza. I did sneak upstairs with my camera to see where I might have sat had I stayed indoors and found a warm, naturally lit dining area with wide-plank horizontal wood walls and well-worn wood floors that are probably dying to give up their decades of secrets.

On to the food. The entire menu consists of five starters and six entrees. This is neither good nor bad - just a statement of fact. We were a party of four and haven't forgotten our childhood sharing skills so a representative sampling of most of the menu was in store.

Tomato Salad 
(pickled strawberry, yuzu-ginger vinaigrette, herbs)
Early tweets and Facebook posts by food-inspired friends indicated the Baby Iceberg Wedge (lamb bacon, summer peas, anchovy aioli) was not to be missed. And it was certainly good - especially if the stronger notes of lamb and anchovy appeal to you. If I had to choose just one salad from this menu however it would be the Tomato Salad. Visually appealing with a full palette of summery colors it didn't disappoint the other palate either. I enjoyed this dish so much I asked Brazeal about the inspiration for it. "The tomato salad is a combination of a variety of tomato salads that I have made over the years. The yuzu vinaigrette is reminiscent of Nobu's tomato ceviche and the strawberries are a riff on David Bouley's pickled raspberry marinated tomatoes. The cured cukes and onions are for additional texture and flavor and the crispy garlic gives it a savory crunchy kick." Get this one while the tomatoes are still in season folks.

My plating technique, not Novel's. All four of our
shared starters are represented here. Note the
deliciously runny yolk of the Crispy Egg.

Our other starters included the Fluke Crudo and the Crispy Egg (photos and descriptions below) - both of which were unique and quite tasty. I am especially fond of runny egg yolks and that's the treasure that awaits you when you cut into the crispy egg (see photo above).

As mentioned earlier, there are exactly six entree choices on this menu. We ordered four of them and it was smiles all around. Here they are with my tasting notes:
  • Ricotta Gnocchi (zucchini, tomato butter, olive) - this is the only vegetarian choice on the entree menu. Perfectly cooked and delicate tasting gnocchi accented with the summery richness of tomato butter. 
  • Grilled Arctic Char (trout roe, fingerling potato, smoked cream, lemon) - a standout dish. If you're not familiar with Arctic Char, think salmon. Same family, same look, same taste. As good as the fish is the real stars of this plate are the potatoes and the crème fraiche - both of which are cold-smoked in-house with hickory. The smokiness never overpowers and the flavors and textures meld to a very tasty forkful of food.
  • Chicken Brick (sourdough, summer squash, upland cress, mustard seed) - a riff on roasted chicken with stuffing this very sharable dish (it comes conveniently cut in four pieces) was nearly perfect. Each piece of chicken includes both white and dark meat and while the dark meat was tender, moist and flavorful the white pieces were slightly on the dry side.
  • Country Rib Chop (spicy pork belly ragu, rice späetzle, baby bok choy) - this was the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the evening and should be encouraging to the real carnivores out there. This baby would not be out of place at one of KC's better steakhouses. It's 12 ounces of heritage-breed Duroc pork, dry aged for 14 days and brined for two hours in a salt/sugar solution. On it's own this would be a winner but it's also surrounded with bits of spicy/sweet dry cured pork belly. Heaven.
And although there was no practical reason to do so, we ordered dessert (all pictured below). All were worthy but the Peach Cake was the clear favorite. Dense, peachy (I'm running out of adjectives) cake with sweet whipped ricotta and fresh berries. Oh, summer!

The wine list offers some familiar as well as less obvious choices - all at per glass and bottle prices that are well within reach. In addition to cocktails we enjoyed a nice bottle of Red Car Rosé, and several glasses of both the Mas des Bressades Grenache/Syrah and the Scaia Corvina. Though tempted to have another Old Hat I finished the evening with a nice Sauterne and a satisfied smile.

Photos below and while pictures last longer I suggest you get to Novel to taste some of this goodness yourself.


Baby Iceberg Wedge 
Lamb bacon, summer peas, anchovy aioli

Fluke Crudo
Salted avocado, lime, jicama

Crispy Egg
Tripe, chipotle, bacon hushpuppies

Ricotta Gnocchi 
Zucchini, tomato butter, olive

Chicken Brick
Sourdough, summer squash, upland cress, mustard seed

Grilled Arctic Char 
Trout roe, fingerling potato, smoked cream, lemon
Country Rib Chop
Spicy pork belly ragu, rice späetzle, baby bok choy

Panna Cotta
Pineapple, sarsparilla

Peach Cake 
Ricotta, Crispy Oats, Blueberry
Bourbon caramel, peanuts

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