Restaurant Reviews

Nova: Pop a Wheelie Over This Bike-Friendly Oak Cliff Eatery.

As someone who gets everywhere on two wheels, I was intrigued when Nova, the latest addition to Oak Cliff's vibrant restaurant line-up, proclaimed itself a "bike-friendly gastropub."

There's an endless list of entities unfriendly to cyclists: elected officials who can't find money for bike lanes, planners who hook towns together with highways and drivers who like to prove their vehicular superiority by running riders off the road. In the grand drama of anti-bikedom, restaurants don't even rate a speaking part.

So just what was meant by the modifier? As soon I received Nova's press release, I began fantasizing about what might go on at an eatery designed to make bike riders feel welcome. Would there be bike-only valet service? An air pump in the parking lot? A helmet rack? A shower? Would the Breaking Away soundtrack be set on repeat?

Alas, no. I didn't see any real evidence of Nova's bike-friendliness until the last five minutes of my final visit, as the restaurant has opted to focus instead on its austere menu of smart pub grub. And as much as I like the notion of a bike-friendly restaurant distributing tire levers, diners who don't keep chain lube in their messenger bags will no doubt appreciate the correctness of Nova's emphasis.

Nova's serious about its food. Both times I ate there, I had staffers who didn't appear to be assigned to my table rush over to tell me about a kitchen experiment I just had to try—sometimes with the experiment already in hand. On one visit, a manager gave me a free glass of bittersweet, royal-purplish sangria, animatedly explaining chef Kelly Hightower had spent the last three days marinating it. (Back stories are popular at Nova: Whenever I pushed an unfinished plate away, a server would show up to tell me more about the dish, trying to goad me into gluttony with narrative.)

The food isn't flawless at Nova, but there's so much pride and care emanating from the kitchen that I suspect the few errant dishes I tried will soon be herded back in line. The missteps were slight, and seemed to be rooted not in ineptitude or apathy, but in Nova's endearing exuberance.

When the casually sophisticated dining room fills up, and the buzz grows louder, Nova's cooks and servers have trouble keeping their excitement in check. The tribal service system, in which the staff pools table-doting duties, disassembles when all the servers are busy. Sauces are forgotten, meat overcooked and presentation standards neglected. A Saturday night dinner that got off to a phenomenal start in a fairly empty dining room deteriorated with each table sat: The meal followed a steady downward trajectory that ended with a forlorn panna cotta buried under a mat of pellet-sized blueberries.

Nova's panicky ways are problematic only because the restaurant's already so popular. Nova doesn't insist that its guests stay for supper: Its website urges eaters to "drop by for an appetizer during an afternoon walk...or come by for a drink after enjoying dinner at any of the other great restaurants in the area." Diners are apparently heeding the command, crowding the restaurant's stylish bar.

Nova is done up in clean-lined Palm Springs style, complete with sea-foam green vinyl booths and pendant lights. A few carefully curated knickknacks—a globe-shaped metal bank, a Polaroid camera—are perched in the windowsills. If Howard Johnson opened a boutique hotel in the Mayan Riviera, it would probably look a lot like Nova.

But Nova's guests aren't slaves to interior decorating. The restaurant's real draw is its chef, who cooked at Hattie's and The Mansion before opening Kavala Mediterranean Grill in 2006. Hightower closed Kavala last year to re-create the space as Nova, and while the new restaurant's shed its predecessor's Mediterranean allegiances, Hightower wisely hung on to some of his customers' favorites.

I never dined at Kavala, so I have no idea whether the garlicky hummus Hightower's serving at Nova is made according to the same recipe that was a neighborhood magnet at the old place. I do know the thick hummus, served with wedges of puffy grilled pita, is a minor chickpea masterpiece. It's velvety and profound, not just a sop to vegetarians who can't eat the blowtorch salmon skewers.

When I told fans of the restaurant that I was Nova-bound, I was advised—repeatedly—to get the skewers. Unfortunately, I found the dish more shticky than successful. Perhaps the blowtorch that was passed over the fleshy hunks of salmon impaled on lollipop sticks didn't linger quite long enough, but chewing on the fish was uncomfortably reminiscent of biting one's own tongue. Still, nobody would complain about the accompanying yuzu sauce, a rollicking citrus spree.

Salmon reappeared in potato troughs, a play on the ubiquitous starter at pubs that don't bother with the gastro. Capped with horseradish crème fraiche and decidedly treyf tufts of bacon, the house-smoked salmon was as good as anything I've had on a local bagel. I only wish the kitchen had taken more care with the potatoes, which were under-salted and undercooked and didn't contribute much to what could have been a splendid dish.

In addition to Nova's short menu of five appetizers, five pizzas and five entrées, there are often specials, and I was lucky to be in the house the same night as a chicken liver starter. Liver's too often given the kid-gloves treatment in restaurants that traffic in demi-glaces and truffle oil, making Nova's rough and rustic handling of the first comfort offal a welcome revelation. The craggy lumps of fabulously flavorful liver were submerged in a chunky, piquant diablo sauce that probably would have been good on anything.

A different, but equally good, sauce was used on the Margherita pizza, which suffered only from inconsistent charring on its terrifically chewy crust. The sauce, cheese and toppings were meted out in sensible proportions, and the charming pie tasted simple and clean. It certainly didn't need the viscous balsamic glaze that the kitchen initially forgot to apply: The sauce's sweetness drowned out the pizza's otherwise nicely balanced flavors.

Nova makes a decent Angus burger, although its meatiness was overwhelmed by the thick tomatoes, ruffles of romaine, honey-mustard sauce, blue cheese and bacon. The fries are odd, too: They're eerily similar to McDonalds' iconic french fries.

I didn't much like an entrée of jerk chicken, which was dry and overcooked the night I tried it, and had a eucalyptus tang. A promising strip steak was also undone by overcooking, although the accompanying mess of leafy bok choy and cucumber was nice. Probably the best main plate I sampled was a blackened halibut on special: The fish was satisfyingly buttery and perfectly cooked.

My hunch is Nova's staff is always friendly, even to patrons who don't ride bikes, but the eagerly awaited bike friendliness finally surfaced when my server brought my bill: Nova takes 10 percent off cyclist's checks. Even better, when I went to unlock my bike, the manager scampered after me, asking "May I fill your water bottle with fresh, cold water?"

Still, the bike friendliness didn't compare to the cab friendliness that greeted my party on my first visit. I'm not sure we would have been welcomed any more enthusiastically if we'd arrived in a coach pulled by six white horses. Two staffers ran toward our taxi, introducing themselves to the driver and escorting us into the restaurant.

"We're trying to get more cabs here," one explained.

With the food and ambiance Nova offers, there's no good reason they shouldn't.

Nova 1417 W. Davis St., 214-484-7123, Open 5 p.m.-midnight. $$$
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Hanna Raskin
Contact: Hanna Raskin