Chef Ryan Brazeal's five-week-old Novel is the most distinctive restaurant to open in the metro in a long time, and perhaps the most ambitious, too. But it doesn't offer a perfect dining experience. Not yet.
For one thing, the space itself — last known to eaters as the unconventional bistro called Lill's on 17th — is impossibly petite. Novel's size alone yields a few maddening eccentricities, some of which feel carried over from Lill's. The spatial limitations of the main room still require that the tables be practically on top of one another.
If you don't mind triangulating your table's conversation with that going on at the one next to yours, this isn't a problem. (And if, in fact, you enjoy the occasional earful of overheard loose chatter, it's even a boon.) But the quartet of characters behind my party one night not only couldn't modulate conversational volume to the room's intimacy but also seemed to unconsciously quote complete passages from a Gordon Merrick book.
It was too much for my senses on that visit (Merrick is too dull — give me Jacqueline Susann), but it's also part of what has made Novel such an unexpected reward. The food is fascinating, and, often, so is the human soundtrack.
Besides, Brazeal couldn't have done much more to this unusual 19th-century building than he already has. Yes, his kitchen is now twice as big as what serviced Lill's, but the structure, now paneled with salvaged wood, was never designed to be a restaurant, let alone a busy one. When it was Lill's, the place felt like an exclusive clubhouse for the chatty owner, Trelle Osteen. She held court. The shy Brazeal, on the other hand, might be the least chatty restaurateur in the city. Novel's ambience is altogether professional.
On both of my visits to Novel, I was seated in the second-floor dining room, which is also cozy. The views from the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows are charming, but the space makes for a tight squeeze on a bustling Saturday night. (It would make a fine office for a novelist.)
The polished servers, overseen by manager Richard Garcia, formerly of Pachamama's, in Lawrence, can intelligently explain every facet of every dish on the menu. Things can get awkwardly formal, though. I'm recalling the bread service, an involved production in which a waiter presents a platter of Fervere to the table and uses tongs to proffer each slice. It's too much drama in too little square footage.
The theatrics are unnecessary. The food here is complex enough by itself, making full use of a palette of unexpected ingredients. The chilled corn soup is a good example, a very un-Midwestern assortment of seaweed, clams and jalapeño that's memorably satisfying. A salad of four different kinds of green beans gets a labor-intensive preparation (charred, blanched and pickled) before being jumbled together with tissue-thin slices of pink veal cheek. On top: a sprinkle of chile-lime vinaigrette, made with bonito flakes, and a crispy dusting of fried horseradish. This is not your church-supper version of green-bean salad (and, at Novel's prices, you shouldn't expect it to be).
The local "foodie" contingent has already descended upon Novel to give its imprimatur to Brazeal's gallery of picturesque plates. "The eggs used in the Crispy Egg starter come from Peacock Farms," one of them told me in such a reverent tone that I wondered for a moment whether she meant actual peacock eggs.
That crispy egg is another of Novel's innovations: cooked in a water immersion, poached, breaded in flour and egg and cornmeal — and then fried. It's served with slivers of tripe and marble-sized bacon hush puppies. Speaking of a peacock display.
I asked my waitress about the breaded pig-head ravioli. "It's the braised meat from the cheeks and jowls," she explained. "You won't be biting into pig brains or anything." This was a comfort, but I needn't have worried. Brazeal's is the most elegant variation of fried ravioli you'll ever taste, its golden squares nestled among ribbons of Missouri peaches and cabbage.
Brazeal worked in several high-profile New York restaurants (including two years as sous chef in chef David Chang's award-winning Momofuku restaurant) before moving back to Kansas City to open his own place. "I was looking for a space in the Crossroads and an even smaller space than this one," he told me. "I was thinking of a 40-seat restaurant where I could cook by myself. But this place is 105 seats, and I'm more of the conductor of my kitchen staff."
Brazeal's concentration shows. He has just six entrée choices on the current menu, all of them beautiful. I'm partial to the Duroc pork chop, a moist cut slathered in a hearty ragu of pork belly that has been simmered in Thai chiles, Sichuan peppercorns and garlic. But high marks also go to a flaky hunk of golden, sautéed char, which arrives blanketed in smoked crème fraîche and dotted with pearly, translucent trout roe.
Sauce is big here. Brazeal's simple grilled flank steak is a dainty portion of meat, adorned with a creamy béarnaise. The only meatless meal pours a rich, butter-heavy tomato sauce over airy pillows of house-made gnocchi — the best potato dumplings in the city right now. Even with that decadent sauce, the dish is still supple and soothing.
The four dessert choices are a little precious. A firm circle of milky panna cotta sparkles under a pretty blanket of jellied sarsaparilla, but the swirl of apricot purée that surrounds the delicacy tastes to me a bit like Gerber's baby food. Much better is the delicate square of flourless chocolate torte that comes drizzled with bourbon-flavored caramel and peanuts. It's perfection.
Brazeal designed the wine list himself, and the poetic descriptions (a French Muscadet is, the menu reports, "reminiscent of salty sea air") are well-suited to a restaurant with literary pretensions. A Spanish-influenced cocktail list has been assembled by peripatetic bartender Vic Rodriguez (lately of the Jacobson), revealing his penchant for cherry.
The bar (something Lill's didn't really have) is comfortable enough for dining and offers a terrific view of Brazeal and his cooks at work. An exhibition kitchen isn't really a novelty anymore; here, though, it's more of an engine room, and its positive energy vibrates through the building.
Brazeal is a laid-back guy, but his restaurant isn't. You wouldn't think of coming here alone to eat at the bar with a good book. And why would you? Dinner at Novel tells a tale — or several — without turning a page.