The dining scene in Oak Park has improved steadily over the past several years, adding numerous outstanding options. They just took another giant leap forward with the addition of Novo located at 734 Lake Street.
Novo is a farm-to-table restaurant that melds Old World traditions with modern techniques, led by Executive Chef Corey Laub (formerly with Lincoln, Aida Bistro, Wine Market Bistro, 701, Firefly, and Buechert’s Saloon). The cuisine is paired with an eclectic and superb sommelier-selected wine list curated by Neb Mrvaljevic. Novo’s chic atmosphere incorporates exposed brick walls, copper-topped bar, reclaimed wood tables and original artwork.
Chef Laub’s technique involves using locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients whenever and wherever possible. Other ingredients are chosen for quality, of course, but also for being sustainably raised and harvested. As a result of this hyper-seasonal focus, the menu will change frequently, with a few popular items on a more permanent rotation.
I was recently invited to bring a guest for a sampling of the dinner menu. Chef Laub has a bold and experimental flair with food. No matter how strong his choices, however, everything remains perfectly balanced. Whatever bold flavors or unusual combinations he chooses, he manages to always create a delightful dance of flavors and textures that changes with every bite, particularly when paired with the superior wine list. Balance is the key.
We had the pleasure of sampling the following during our visit:
- Roasted Beet Salad (pickled beets, candied almonds, burrata cheese, radish, vincotto, vinaigrette) – Seemingly simple, yet surprisingly complex. The burrata was a wonderful accompaniment to the tart beets, and the hint of bitterness from the radish was a nice surprise.
- Seared Scallops (smoked golden raisin puree, wilted greens, roasted sunchokes & turnips, bone marrow butter, chamomile truffle gastrique) – When scallops are cooked to perfection there is nothing I like better. These were superb. The medley of flavors, too, was delightful. Sweetness from the raisins but with a smoky finish, bitterness from the turnips, rich umami from the bone marrow, and a wonderful savory/sweet combo from the sunchokes.
- Braised Beef Shortribs (celeriac potato mash, sweet and sour carrots, jus, toasted shallots, pickled mustard seed, roasted leeks) – Another seemingly simple dish, but wonderfully dense in flavor. The addition of celeriac was a standout, and the sweet/sour carrots added a lovely zing.
- Crispy Pork Belly (grilled crostini, green tomato kimchee, honey chili glaze) – For this particular preparation, Chef Laub added two small fried oysters which created an even more complex and fascinating play of flavors. The kimchee was just hot enough to give a zing without overpowering the other ingredients.
- Fall Squash Risotto (bell pepper coulis, hot peppers, parsley powder, crispy rice paper) – Once again, the interplay of heat with sweetness with savory was absolutely delightful in this one. I am not normally a fan of risotto, but this was truly outstanding.
We also sampled three items “off the menu” that are in process of being added:
- Trout Belly Tartare – On a prior visit I had the Beef Tartare which is one of the best I have tried in recent memory. If this special trout version is available, however, I highly suggest ordering it. The trick that elevates this dish above others was the addition of crispy fried wonton skins dusted with cinnamon and sugar. It may sound odd, but the result was amazing.
- Almond Salad – Surprisingly, with all the superb courses we tried, this was one of our favorites! It seems so simple – romaine lettuce with various types of almonds including a smear of almond paste on the bowl. Somehow the flavor combinations made this a very special dish. Here’s another to request if it’s not on the actual printed menu.
- Carrot and Bone Marrow Ravioli – Need I say more? The pasta was perfectly al dente and the flavors – wow.
The excellent wine list, curated by Neb Mrvaljevic, offers a perfect counterpoint to the complex yet balanced cuisine. Mrvaljevic has focused primarily on Old World wines with a few carefully selected New World varietals to round out the menu. The intriguing selections include a number of wines from Macedonia, Slovenia, Serbia, Northern Italy, and (of course) France. What most excited me were the orange wines as well as the wines from the Jura region of France. It’s rare to find either on a menu, particularly by the glass.
On Sunday nights guests may enjoy a prix fixe “family dinner” consisting of three sharable entrees with one side dish. Portions are scaled to serve the entire group. The menu is familiar enough to appeal to children, but elevated enough to please the adults as well. The regular menu is available on Sunday nights as well.
On both Saturdays and Sundays, Novo has superb brunch options. The brunch menu includes buttermilk pancakes with quince jam, short rib hash and eggs, prosciutto benedict, smoked trout BLT, Novo burger, farmhouse mac and cheese, brunch beverages and bubbles.
Novo is located at 734 Lake Street in Oak Park. They are open Tuesday-Thursday, 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. They will re-open on Mondays after the winter. For more information, call 708-628-3454, or visit the Novo website.