David Hammond

Novo is a small and comfortable-looking restaurant on Lake near Oak Park Avenue. Open a little over a year, this place has long attracted us. Intimate looking, somewhat dark and relaxed, it’s inviting. We finally had a chance to drop in.

After ordering, our server brought over an amuse bouche: a beautifully well-dressed oyster. This was just one Hollywood oyster from Maryland, dressed with cider mignonette, smoked trout roe and a diced Gold Rush apple with chives. We liked this palate-perking first bite, but when I posted a picture on Facebook, many of my food friends responded with resounding negativity:

  • “Hmph”
  • “Nope”
  • “This picture upsets me. The texture of the cubes (daikon?) looks crunchy. Aside from masking the subtle flavors of a good oyster, textually it looks all wrong.”
  • “I’ll sauce a cooked or grilled oyster, but lemon is the most I’d put on raw.”

Clearly, I had struck a verve with purists who forbid anything getting between them and their oysters. I get where they’re coming from: I used to be that way.

Most of the oysters I’ve ever eaten have been raw. I like raw oysters. I understand, though, that an accomplished chef will feel the need to do more than just shuck the thing and serve it on ice. And why not try to make it better? Much as I enjoy unadorned oysters, Novo’s presentation worked very well: the roe resonated with the marine flavors of the oyster, the cider was softer, less sharp and aggressive than vinegar (usually used in mignonette, which also includes shallots and black peppers) and the cider echoed the apples and offered just a little sweetness that’s rare but worked well with the briny oyster. This little first bite was alluring, and it did its job by beckoning us to eat more.

Though the dressed oyster was probably the most thought-provoking item we had at Novo, we also enjoyed many of the other dishes.

Halibut was once pretty much the least expensive fish you could buy (growing up, we ate it all the time). Now, after decades of heavy fishing, Atlantic halibut is considered endangered or threatened (and thus more costly); Pacific halibut is another story, and halibut in Alaska is harvested under some of the world’s strictest regulations for sustainability. The Alaskan halibut at Novo is flaky and fresh tasting, served on semolina-corn gnocchi, soft little pillows that absorb flavors of the fish and accompanying almond broth, mounded with fried kale, a complementary if somewhat unpredictable collection of flavors and textures.

As much as we liked the halibut, we enjoyed the duck confit even more. Served in a fig mole with hominy relish (an unexpectedly Hispanic take), the duck meat was tender and sweet, and the skin crackly crisp. It was so good I could have ordered another for dessert. I dislike snobbery, but I admit: I’m kind of a snob about duck confit, which involves cooking the duck (usually a leg or wing) in duck fat for several hours to enrich the already rich meat. I’ve been to restaurants where they clearly have not put the meat through the required long-term bath in hot fat; at Novo, they did a beautiful job of preparing the quacker. With a glass of red wine to balance the lushness, magnificent.

Many old time Oak Parkers (including some members of my family) are not happy with the multi-story apartment/condo structures going up along Lake Street and elsewhere. Those buildings, though they will provide tax revenue, definitely change the character of the village. One very acceptable benefit of such construction is that the more people who come to live here, the more people will be eating out, patronizing places like Novo and all the other smaller, non-chain restaurants in the area. And it’s still a rough market. When I congratulated Novo owner Neb Mrvaljevic on being in business for a full year and getting through the “danger zone” when most restaurants fail, he smiled and said, “It’s now two years that you have to get through.” We think he’s going to make it and regret that it took us so long to drop in.

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David Hammond

David Hammond, a corporate communications consultant and food journalist living in Oak Park, Illinois, is a founder and moderator of LTHForum.com, the 8,500 member Chicago-based culinary chat site. David...