Aren’t you weary of no? No indoor dining; no service without a face mask; no sitting at a sushi bar let alone sipping whiskey in a dark bar while chatting up the bartender. Aside from whining, is there any respite?
Nova Kitchen & Bar is a sure cure for pandemic blues. I renamed it the House of Yes after my first visit to the yearling pan-Asian venue hiding in the shadow of the Hyatt Regency in the Disney resort zone. Despite its glossy appearance, the handsome spot has been open since July 2019. That means it’s too old to make our next Best New Restaurants roster, but if I could invent a retroactive list, it certainly makes the cut.
O.C. was deep into the outdoor-only phase on my summer visits. All dinners were served in the roomy, dedicated patio open to afternoon breezes and the setting sun. My only contact with the 11,000-square-foot interior was a brief stop in the lobby for a temperature check before being whisked onward to a roomy 35-seat covered patio. Umbrella tables on the adjacent grassy lawn accommodate overflow diners.
Alas, the dazzling surroundings were still off-limits, which is a shame because the Las Vegas-glam rooms are based on the five elements of Taoism: earth, water, wood, fire, and metal. There’s also a secret whiskey room that holds 18. Nova’s bold, sweeping concept is meticulously executed by a top-tier team that includes executive chef Abel Vargas, sushi chef Kenji Haruki, and general manager Drew Dizon.
Arriving just as midweek Social Hour ended, we dumb-lucked our way into Wine Wednesday’s 50 percent discount on bottles. A fast look at the menu reveals so many distinct flavors, a chilled bottle of Oregon rosé gets the nod. Starters include the likes of chicken ginseng soup, and fresh wontons slick with feisty chile oil lead the menu, overlapping a list of seasonal small plates often starring vegetables. Do not leave without sampling the corn tempura—just-fried fresh corn off the cob fashioned into fritters, with chipotle aioli on the side. It sounds mundane as I write this: It is not, trust me. Share plates include on-point noodle dishes and bright, fluffy fried rices, one studded with scallops and lobster. Entrees are main-event proteins, say miso cod or wagyu beef medallions abundant with fresh shimeji and shiitake mushrooms.
In addition to the imaginative menu that takes culinary cues from Japan, Korea, and China, there’s another menu devoted to showy sashimi plates, familiar sushi, and deluxe specialty rolls. I stuck to the main menu with one notable exception. Toro tartare is a signature splurge worth having, even if you’re only scanning the sushi menu. You won’t find better than this uptown stack of ruby red toro with caviar, crème fraîche, in a pool of soy dashi crowned with gold leaf.
Another visit yielded what my guest characterized as the “perfect menu.” We started with edamame sizzled in garlic lemon butter. Next, bouncy dan dan noodles set off by spicy minced pork, followed by an elaborate cold chicken cabbage salad I still crave today. Then on to possibly perfect tempura shrimp before one grand coriander-braised short rib with sprightly fixings for assembling lettuce wraps, if that appeals. Oh, and dessert. A textbook molten chocolate cake, and the even better strawberry takeover trio of panna cotta, mousse, and sorbet. It’s dangerously easy to over-order here, but dishes are so fresh and vivid you’ll be happy to see them again for lunch.
Cocktails get lots of attention. They’re inventive and flashy. Most important, they’re balanced and strong. Often, there’s a secret drink available with clues posted on Instagram. Service is gracious and Covid-conscious. The polished crew is anticipatory and unflappable; I encountered zero missteps.
High-glamour sleeper Nova Kitchen & Bar is a terrific antidote for an overdose of no. It scores high on every point that matters despite facing awfully stiff headwinds. Don’t wait for the next permission slip when there’s plenty of yes being served here right now.
Starters and sides, $5 to $19
Mains $17 to $56 Cocktails $15
5 BEST DISHES
Chicken cabbage salad
Hibiscus Zest cocktail
Social Hour discounts Monday through Friday from 4 to 6 p.m.