Novel is both new and original, and off to an impressive start

08/14/2013 6:31 PM

08/14/2013 6:31 PM

I once heard writer John Barth express his preference for penning novels rather than short stories by saying that the longer form — and Barth wrote some very long ones — gave him “room to swing a cat in.”

At Novel, the buzz-bombed new restaurant on the West Side hilltop, the dining rooms feel a little small for cat-swinging, but the ethos of experimentation, digression and creativity operates at full throttle.

Ryan Brazeal, a graduate of Johnson County Community College’s culinary program, didn’t exactly have literary fiction on his mind when planning the restaurant he recently opened in his hometown after a fruitful, decade-long apprenticeship in top-flight New York restaurants.

His website includes the dictionary definition of “novel” as new and original works, and it also includes a manifesto emphasizing his desire to rethink what it means now to talk about “new American cuisine”: “New American sought to showcase the natural flavors of the products as they were meant to taste. Today’s chefs don’t necessarily mask the flavors of the intended products but they do manipulate them and make them greater than the sum of their parts in some instances.”

The very first line of Novel’s menu — “fluke crudo” — announces that something out of the ordinary is going on here. Keep reading and the point becomes clearer: It lists seaweed and clams in the chilled corn soup, veal cheek in the green bean salad, pickled strawberry with the tomatoes, bone marrow with the diver scallop, lamb bacon on a plate of melon and chicken skin in a bowl of kale.

So, yes, the parts tend to intrigue if not dazzle — especially if you’re an adventurous eater — and the sum of most dishes is exceptionally strong.

Over three recent meals, I sampled almost everything on Novel’s small but growing menu. “There’s nothing that could’ve been done better,” one tablemate said early on. Though that might have been a slight overstatement, I’m happy to suggest that Novel is the real deal and certainly earning its word-of-mouth reputation as one of the most exciting new restaurants in town.

The restaurant operates in the two-story, Victorian-era house previously known as Lill’s on 17th. Brazeal, the chef/owner, gutted and expanded the kitchen, rebuilt the bar (and, with bar manager Vic Rodriguez, gave it a serious craft-cocktail makeover) and otherwise freshened up the former antique-shop ambiance.

With warm colors and surfaces of reclaimed wood, a sense of casual intimacy prevails. The first-floor dining room seats 16 to 20; a small room upstairs holds a few more, though as it filled up the night my party of four was seated there, it felt a little cramped. There’s also a private dining room on the second floor, and patio seating out front.

Brazeal tweaks the menu frequently, constantly introducing ingredients and accents. He responds to what’s available from local farmers and, he said, makes adjustments after seeing what works and what doesn’t. The daily menu presents six or seven small-plate appetizers, six entrees, three recently added sophisticated sides and a short list of desserts.

Meals start out with samples of bread from Fervere, the exceptional bakery around the corner. That’s a subtle affirmation of Brazeal’s preference for what’s locally sourced and fresh.

Among the starting highlights, the crispy egg — cornmeal-coated, quick fried and miraculously still poached — sits atop bits of tripe, bacon hush puppies and a green thicket of frisée.

When I cut into the egg and the lovely yolk oozed out, I couldn’t help but think of David Chang’s pronouncement, in the “Mind of a Chef” TV series, that cooking an egg is the foundation of a true chef’s success. This egg is actually cooked three times, Brazeal told me later, a process too detailed to explain here, but “tedious” and quite worth it. (Find a description of the process at The Star’s

Chow Town

website.)

Chang is the founding wild-mind spirit of Momufuko and other New York restaurants, and Brazeal spent a couple of years working at his places, most directly with chef Tien Ho at Ssam Bar. Among the most important lessons he learned there was don’t be afraid to make mistakes — and to learn from them and grow.

That fluke crudo (think of it as a kind of Italian or East Coast sashimi) was another standout starter. A half dozen bites of a tender sushi-grade fish are dressed with micro-bursts of salted avocado and lime and a sprinkling of nano-cubes of kohlrabi. Fried pig head ravioli does not exactly speak comfort to the timid, but the dish made an earthy statement with its braised cheeks and jowls inside discs of pasta, plus seasonal pieces of a juicy Missouri peach, ribbons of cabbage and hairpin slivers of crispy pig ear.

At one meal, I split a bowl of chilled corn soup with my companion du jour. The soup was a concentrated corn liquid as soft and slightly sweet and as viscously creamy as I’ve ever experienced in a soup bowl. There was a tender clam in each of our dishes, plus bits of seaweed, herbs and a sliver of a bracing jalapeno pepper.

At one point as we silently dipped our spoons, I looked up and caught my friend’s eyes across the table, and ... oh well. Did I mention the soup was chilled? When it came time for dessert, my friend and I wondered if we should have more of the soup. I swear I woke up the next morning dreaming of it, and later we talked about it again as if that soup were some distant, lost fling.

Among entrees, seafood is celebrated with a very good plate of seared diver scallops, teamed with a medley of mushrooms, leeks and chilies, and a beautifully made and presented grilled Arctic char, its pink flesh served tender and flaky along with fingerling potatoes and little buoys of salty trout roe floating in pools of hickory-smoked creme fraiche.

A chicken brick is named for its layered composition of tender, squared-up pieces of white and dark meat, and, with its bed of summer squash, it proved to be more than a curiosity. Ricotta gnocchi is a simple and surprisingly light dish showing off the season’s zucchini in a bath of tomato butter. And the Duroc pork chop presents a large (12 ounces or more), supremely tender and richly flavored bone-in beast, doubled down with a peppery pork belly ragu on top.

The chop came with some baby bok choy on the side and one of the few disappointments — a pan-fried spaetzle that seemed tired and dried out. Other slips included one night’s grilled flank steak, which was merely serviceable, a bit too underdone and chewy, and a green bean salad that featured veal cheek, bonito vinaigrette and horseradish, a dish that seemed more cleverly impish than generally appealing.

Extra side dishes are made for sharing, and a couple I tried were lively and surprisingly complex compositions: shreds of black Tuscan kale (not usually my favorite green) got a playful treatment with buttermilk, strips of chicken skin and chips of pie crust; a bowl of deep-fried cauliflower took a multi-textured turn with capers, pickled walnuts and golden raisins.

Dessert, to me, often seems like unnecessary excess — well, except for another nice glass of wine — but my tastes of Brazeal’s simple panna cotta (with a sauce of pineapple and sarsparilla) and a light and fresh peach cake convinced me otherwise.

You know you’re reading a great novel, whether cats are slung around in it or not, when you tell yourself you don’t want it to end. Restaurants can be like that, too, and at Novel I got that feeling — a sense of time passing slowly — more than once.

Novel 815 W. 17th St. 816-221-0785 NovelKC.com and on Facebook Star ratings

Food

: ★★★½ Inventive, multi-dimensional dishes made with first-rate ingredients and exceptional technique.

Service

: ★★★ Polished, friendly and well-informed.

Atmosphere

: ★★★ Casual, cozy and variable experiences inside and out.

Hours

: 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, open till 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

Entree average

: $$$

Vegetarian options

: Ricotta gnocchi, tomato salad, cauliflower.

Handicapped accessible

: Accessible entrance at the rear — drive down the alley from Madison Avenue around the corner. Steep narrow stairways present a challenge. Accessible dining on first floor.

Parking

: Street.

Kids

: No separate menu.

Noise level

: Small rooms contain the chatter, but not to excess.

Reservations

: Suggested by phone or website, but walk-ins usually can be accommodated.

Star code

: ★ Fair, ★★ Good, ★★★ Excellent, ★★★★ Extraordinary

Price code

: $ Average entree under $10; $$ under $20; $$$ under $30; $$$$ over $30.

Code of ethics

: Starred reviews are written after a minimum of two visits to a restaurant. When required, reservations are made in a name other than the reviewer’s. The Star pays for review meals.

Recommended

Fluke crudo:

$12

Chilled corn soup:

$10

Crispy egg:

$10

Grilled Arctic char:

$21

Duroc pork chop:

$20

Seared diver scallop:

$23

Ricotta gnocchi:

$19

Peach cake:

$8

What to drink

Bar manager Vic Rodriguez is a craft-cocktail inventor whose recent elegant creations include the Marvin Berry (below), a smoky and fresh combination of mezcal, lemon verbena and white vermouth, punctuated by a deep-red wild cherry in the bottom of the glass, and the SouthWest Boulevardier, a Manhattanlike variation on a classic, mixing rye, basil, Campari and Punt e Mes (a dark vermouth).

The full bar stocks mostly Boulevard Beer products ($4-$7), though you can grab an Old Style for $2.

The wine list offers bottles you hardly ever see elsewhere; I was impressed with a light Italian red, Scaia Corvina ($8 a glass, $28 the bottle) and a crisp but fruity white from northern Italy, the Abbazia di Novacella Kerner ($39 a bottle).

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