I’ve always been a big fan of Kelly Hightower. Loved his reinterpretation of Hattie’s after founding chef Lisa Kelly left. I thought his Kavala was a smart not-so-traditional play on Mediterranean cuisine, featuring the best chicken livers in Dallas. (God, I still miss those and, yes, you can miss chicken livers.) I was sad to see Kavala close. It had become a nice neighborhood restaurant for North Oak Cliff — not necessarily destination dining but that’s okay. There are plenty of those places to go around south of the Trinity these days. A few months back, Hightower announced that he was replacing Kavala with Nova, where small plates of global influenced fare and a lounge-like environment would transform this former Dairy Queen on Davis Street into a friendly, hip place to hang. Did Hightower succeed? Jump for my first impression.
Hightower is pretty smart. He gets that most of Dallas has never embraced the concept of small plates. Sad but true. On Nova’s menu, he neatly divides the fare into small plates (meant to be shared), entrees, and pizzas. It’s an appealing mix of approachable food and gourmet flourishes. Some dishes are popular holdovers from Kavala’s kitchen. A pizza starring spinach, feta, olives, and peppers was as sharp and tasty as ever, and I still contend that Hightower’s roasted garlic hummus is some of the best in town. It’s silky magic. The menu is supposed to change regularly but I hope some items become regulars. Chunks of salmon were glazed with sour yuzo miso and then blow torched into sticky sweet yet perfectly moist bites. New York strip was marinated in Vietnamese spices and served with chilled baby bok choy, chili peanuts, mint, and roasted tomato ginger sauce. It was a bracing entree: meaty enough to satisfy yet refreshing enough for a hot summer night. A fragrant bowl of P.E.I. mussels steamed in Sauvignon Blanc and oranges passed by our table. I’ll be ordering that next time. Jamaican beer can chicken rubbed in jerk spices and served on coconut rice was highly recommended and rightfully so. The crispy, fiery bird was spot on. The only misstep were the chicken parmesan sliders. They seemed pedestrian, more like something you’d find at Applebee’s rather than from a chef as thoughtful as Hightower. Nova has done a nice job of shucking its former Dairy Queen visage. It now has more of a lounge/gastropub vibe with plenty of Jetson like mid-century modern quirks. More so than Kavala, Hightower’s new Nova feels like a place you’d want to frequent often even if just for a beer and more of that amazing hummus. Sure, the place needs more beers on tap. And the air conditioning — though improved — can still be a bit spotty. But as far as neighborhood haunts go, Nova is off to a bright start.