Nick and Leslie Goellner spent years working at top restaurants with an end goal in mind: an operation of their own.
Now that experience has come together at Hospital Hill’s new Antler Room restaurant.
Nick had earned a degree from the University of Kansas in political science in 2007 and was a congressional aide in Topeka before deciding he wanted to take a different career path. His sister, Natasha Goellner of Natasha’s Mulberry & Mott and the Cirque du Sucré food truck, recommended culinary school to enter a structured yet creative career.
He graduated from the French Culinary Institute in New York City in 2008, followed up by an “externship” on The World cruise ship, a private residential yacht, which took him throughout the Mediterranean for four months. Then he headed to New York, where he worked both the lunch and dinner shifts, six days a week, for French chef Alain Allegretti. A year later he joined a culinary school friend at the Robert Morris Inn on Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.
When the season ended he took a position as sous chef for Kansas City’s Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange, where he met his future wife, Leslie Newsam.
She had known from her days working at Room 39 that she would have a career in the restaurant industry.
“Room 39 solidified what I wanted to do. I really enjoyed making people happy with food and beverage,” she said.
Her restaurant mentors later encouraged her to work in New York to further her skills. After a stint as a server at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s first restaurant, JoJo, she became a server, bartender and private event server at Danny Meyer’s The Modern. Four years later she was back in Kansas City to help open The Rieger and then served as general manager, overseeing the front-end operations.
After marrying in 2014, the couple — who said they are always full of wanderlust — left for San Francisco.
Leslie worked at Locanda in San Francisco, strategically selecting a family-owned operation where the wife was over the front of the house and the husband over the kitchen.
“We knew we didn’t have enough experience to open our own restaurant and do it right,” she said. “We were gaining different knowledge and different experiences to make the dream happen.”
In San Francisco, Nick joined Boulevard, a Michelin single-star restaurant, moving from lunch to dinner service to management. But he also applied for an internship at the famed Noma in Copenhagen, renowned as one of the world’s best restaurants. After a six-month application process he was accepted to the four-month program in April 2015.
While Nick was studying in Copenhagen, Leslie worked on their business plan. They also did pop-up restaurants in Kansas City before signing a lease in March at 2506 Holmes Road for The Antler Room. The couple, who are from the Kansas City area, tapped into family expertise to help cut costs.
Leslie’s father built the tables, host stand, the breadboards and the sliding barn door for the private dining room upstairs. Nick’s father, a contractor, did the plumbing, electrical and concrete bar top, and he occasionally washes dishes just so he can hang out in the kitchen. Leslie’s stepfather, a lawyer, helped negotiate the lease, while her mother made the bathroom curtains.
The Antler Room has a bar with open kitchen on the south side and a dining room seating 32 people on the north with garage doors that open up in nicer weather. The private dining room upstairs seats up to 36 people.
The small plate Mediterranean menu focuses on local ingredients — including house-made pasta and Icelandic lamb from Plattsburg’s Happy Tracks Farm. And it offers some unusual dishes: turkey wheat cavatelli with house pancetta, taleggio and mustard greens; rabbit loin with walnut tarragon sauce and root vegetables; and lamb leg with charred romaine, flat bread, fingerling potatoes, fermented honey and pickled shallot.
Its Aylesbury duck, from Vesecky Family Farms in Baldwin City, Kan., has been so popular it won’t be back on the menu until Dec. 13, when the farm has more in stock.
The Antler Room also serves five or six specialty cocktails using ingredients from the kitchen, including a vodka with pear butter. The pear butter also can be found on the breadboard with sprouted grain bread from Ibis Bakery in Lenexa, house-made cottage cheese and seared chicken liver.
Natasha makes three desserts. This month that included a lime Bavarian with lemon cake lime curd and meringue. But new selections will debut the week of Nov. 28.
“I think restaurants make desserts as more of an afterthought where her desserts are really a showstopper at the end of the meal,” Leslie said. “The restaurant is a labor of love from our entire family.”