A homecoming for chef and owners Nick and Leslie Goellner
Nick Goellner can’t tell you what kind of restaurant The Antler Room is. The modest space at 2506 Holmes Rd. that Goellner and his wife, Leslie, opened with a small staff consisting of sous chefs Andrew Heimberger and Nick Chiaro, defies an easy description. It’s really a restaurant built on collaboration that invites diners to share the interests and palates of the people in the kitchen.
The Antler Room opened in October to much fanfare. Both Leslie and Nick have a long-standing history in Kansas City restaurants, with tenure at Room 39 for Leslie and The Rieger Hotel Grill and Exchange for both. But instead of staying in the Midwest, the couple expanded their horizons and explored cities like San Francisco, New York and finally Copenhagen, where Nick interned at Noma, sometimes touted as one of the world’s best restaurants.
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But Kansas City isn’t Copenhagen and The Antler Room isn’t Noma. Although the plating at The Antler Room shares some of the beauty that Noma is known for, it lacks the flamboyance that Noma can’t escape. Goellner and his team paint with vivid strokes, using ingredients like pigments on a canvas of white porcelain.
To try to pin down a particular type of cuisine in which The Antler Room specializes, one might find themselves at just as much of a loss as its owners. Nick Goellner’s best description of his menu is “fluid.” Its opening menu features a variety of geographical flavor profiles from Moroccan to Italian to Japanese. The one unifying factor in the menu is its expert execution.
Tapas-style dining is the focus. The menu lists a variety of small plates ranging from a riff on Moroccan briouat filled with rabbit, Berbere spice and eggplant to a sweet and savory pan-fried sunchoke plate to larger selections, such as rabbit loin, New Zealand lamb loin and Aylesbury duck.
While each plate is petite (servers recommend ordering three to four plates per person to have a satisfying meal), they are so appealingly composed that each bite is savored, not mindlessly noshed. The tiny pockets of tender rabbit and eggplant in the briouat are accompanied with a caper chemoula and wrapped in pastry so light and flaky it practically floats off the plate. The bright notes of the chemoula paired with the crisp pastry and rich rabbit melded to a savory wonder. If they sold these by the gross, tamale-style, there would be a line around the block for them.
Eggplant figured large in the next dish as well. Fairytale eggplant resembles a smaller version of a Japanese eggplant and lacks any trace of bitterness. These were sliced lengthwise and pan-fried, topped a petite mound of black lentils. Alone, this would have been serviceable. With a smear of smoked sour cream beneath the lentils and capped with candied persimmons, it was a satisfying, graceful fusion of flavors. If all vegetables were given such thought and care, a vegetarian lifestyle might be feasible.
Moving on to the pasta offerings—and you should—takes you to a whole new level of respect for the kitchen. These are not your classic Italian pastas. Take the maitake farfalle. The maitake, a Japanese mushroom, is incorporated into the noodle in powdered form. The resulting pasta is silky smooth and tender to the bite. Some traditional flavors remain—cherry tomatoes, broccoli rabe and belavitano cheese—but rabbit pepperoni balls spice it up a bit.
My favorite of the “pasta” offerings was a collaboration between Goellner and sous chef Andrew Heimberger. Instead of rice, the risotto is made with farro. The grain, normally an afterthought or filler in soups or stews, retained its nuttiness and just a hint of chew. Instead of leaning into the Italian herb palate here, the duo went East with koji, mushrooms, sumac and bonito. The result was a bowl of hearty umami flavors that blended perfectly with the rich, robust texture of the farro.
When it comes to meat, The Antler Room doesn’t stick to the status quo. There isn’t a bit of beef or chicken on the menu—not even pork. Instead, rabbit, lamb, duck and octopus are served. Staying terrestrial, the rabbit and the lamb were ordered. Both loin cuts were tender and flavorful but with vastly different preparations.
The rabbit arrived in a small, wok-style pan, sliced and ready for the walnut tarragon sauce. Roasted root vegetables were an earthy base for the rabbit, while the creamy walnut tarragon sauce was infused with a subtly early-autumn flavor—not too heavy but certainly leaving behind summer’s lighter fare.
The lamb was a similarly seasonal dish. Cooked rare, as any lamb should be, the loin chop came to the table on a bed of charred romaine, smoky and green. A bit of roasted sweet potato, a touch of horseradish and a breath of zucchini cream were finished with a few choice pistachio kernels.
As whole duck breasts were observed being whisked out to surrounding tables, it’s obvious the Aylesbury duck is to share. The menu states that it serves two to four people and to allow 30 minutes for preparation. With fermented honey, scallion sprouts and lavender salt in the description and served with flatbread, it’s a dish intriguing enough for another visit.
But on this night, the only thing left was dessert. Nick’s sister, Natasha Goellner, knows her way around sugar as the former owner of Natasha’s Mulberry and Mott and current owner of the Cirque de Sucre food truck. Natasha is consulting on the restaurant’s three-item dessert menu, coming in a few times a week to brainstorm, set the menu and prep, although the main kitchen staff executes the desserts during service.
The desserts are as imaginative as the rest of the menu, and like the rest of the menu, they veer just slightly away from molecular gastronomy and deconstructed everything to simply composed plates of intriguing flavors. On this particular evening, a cannelle with marigold ice cream, pine nuts, honey and marigold meringue caught my eye. The cannelle combined the textures of the soft vanilla and rum flavored center with a thick, caramelized crust. The firm pastry was delightfully offset by the ice cream. While the marigold ice cream might not take off on its own, the mildly floral flavor nicely offset the rich pastry.
For a more familiar set of flavors, try the lemon thyme custard with brown-butter cake and sunchoke ice cream and honey. Sunchoke ice cream will never be a Blue Bunny flavor but its subtle sweetness worked here. The thyme was a prominent note in the dish, and the brown-butter cake would honestly have made nearly anything better.
Food is clearly the focus at The Antler Room but three house cocktails are available each featuring a different spirit. My preference was the bourbon mixed with persimmon syrup, cardamom and lemon. There’s a well-curated wine list designed to accompany the food.
Sitting in the sleek but rustic dining room, it’s easy to see how so many of the gourmet elite could be excited about this place. It’s a playground for those that yearn for the unexpected on each plate. While there is certainly a high level of sophistication in the menu and the execution, the room and attitude is anything but stuffy. Instead, the feeling that comes through is excitement and enthusiasm.
Tucked into a neighborhood and already welcomed by a community of chefs, The Antler Room may not know how to describe themselves but their guests know what they are: satisfied.