Those in the know know of David Chang, chef/owner of the New York based Momofuku mini-empire. So when one of his former sous chefs sets up his own shop in Kansas City, he and his restaurant are going to immediately be on everyone’s radar.
And so it was with me. I love Momofuku Saam Bar, the Noodle Bar and,of course, the chewy and ridiculously good compost cookies made by Chang’s pastry chef Christina Tosi (which, by the way, my son and daughter-in-law provided as party favors at their wedding–those cookies have a cult-like following.)
When I heard that the aforementioned former sous chef, Ryan Brazeal was coming to town, I “liked” his new restaurant on Facebook and started paying attention to the inevitable buzz that surrounded the opening of Novel. Novel is how Brazeal defines his food. To him, New American and Nouvelle are outdated terms. He’s doing American his way.
Brazeal has taken over a quaint little home on the Westside that for years housed Lil’s restaurant. Overlooking 17th Street from on high, several steps must be climbed to get first to the charming terrace and then into the restaurant. The building is just west of the 17th and Summit intersection that has become a hotbed of funky and interesting restaurants.
It was fun to watch as he posted pictures of the renovation and greeted area chefs who stopped by to welcome him back to town. Brazeal is a graduate of the culinary program at the Johnson County Community College and, in his mind, this was an inevitable return.
The renovation is smashing in a very rustic, cozy way. Reclaimed wood lines the walls and floors, and the large kitchen in back is completely open and spacious. Diners walk by an intimate bar in order to get to their table, whether it’s on the first floor or upstairs. Also upstairs is a private dining room that is sure to be popular during the holidays.
We were there on a hot day in July when the A/C was working very hard to keep up with the steamy temperatures. Though normally we would have bolted after dinner because of it, the intimate atmosphere and our particular companions kept us in our seats long after the dishes had been cleared.
Everything that comes out of the kitchen is worth a picture. The colors are vibrant, and the flavors of each ingredient are distinctive and intense. Each dish is really a feast for all of the senses and makes the statement that this is fare that is going to be uniquely Brazeal’s.
Here’s what we enjoyed:
Tomato Salad with heirloom tomatoes, pickled strawberries, crisp cucumber, fresh herbs, yuzu-ginger vinaigrette was clearly made from just picked vegetables and fruit. With the Asian dressing and an unlikely combination of strawberry and tomato, Brazeal wastes no time in making it clear that he’s all about local and seasonal, cooking with only the freshest ingredients that he can get from the farmers with whom he is developing relationships.
Chilled Corn soup –it was a special the night we dined at Novel, and was easily the best corn soup I’ve ever had. Made from fresh ears of corn, it was incredibly sweet, with a hint of spice to offset the natural sugars.
Fluke Crudo with salted avocado, lime, and jicama was a delight. Each bite was a revelation and the flavors married beautifully.
The scallop entree was too intriguing to pass up. Seared and sitting atop bone marrow, mushroom, leek and chile oil, the scallops were sweet and cooked to perfection.
The Chicken Brick was also quite inventive. According to GM Richard Garcia, this is the process: Brazeal brines the meat and then it’s lightly pounded flat; both the light and dark meat are seasoned with porchetta seasoning (sage, thyme, rosemary, and fennel seed), the meat is then layered alternating light and dark meat, and topped with chicken skin forming what looks like a brick; the “brick” is then pressed, cut into portions and pan roasted to order; sauce for the dish is made from fennel, shallots, white wine, chicken bones, and finished to order with sherry vinegar and pickled mustard seeds. The four bricks are surrounded by a panzanella salad of sourdough, summer squash, upland cress, mustard seed. Its was moist, light, and bursting with flavor.
We also spied a huge rib pork chop with spicy pork belly ragu, rice spaetzle, and baby bok choy that the diner at the next table was attacking with relish.
One flourless torte with caramel and peanuts for our table of four was all we could handle, but we demolished it. That’s my kind of dessert.
The small menu is updated often to take advantage of what’s in season, and weekly specials are off menu.
The only off note was the bread service. Novel serves bread from its neighbor, Fervere
which, in my opinion, is the best bread shop in town. Once our order had been taken, we were offered our choice of two varieties of bread, with homemade butter. It’s hard to resist any bread Fervere makes, and we didn’t, scarfing it down as soon as the slice hit our plates. But then the server took our bread plates, without offering us more or anticipating that we’d want bread with at least our starter if not our meal. I get it; bread is an expensive add-on and many restaurants don’t even serve bread anymore, but to have it as its own course instead of with our meal seemed a bit odd to us. Perhaps the practice was due to our server’s inexperience or the restaurant being in its infancy, but if it’s the norm, I hope they’ll reconsider.
I planned to go back again before writing this post, but since the menu is so seasonal, I decided I’d wait to see what Brazeal creates as fall approaches. Whatever it is, I know it will be flawlessly executed.
In the meantime, I have gotten lots of questions about whether I’ve been and what I thought, so I wanted to give my first impressions.
No matter the season, I think Brazeal and Kansas City have a winner.