Welcome back, old friend.
After three years in San Luis Obispo, Novo Restaurant and Lounge isn’t quite old enough to be an institution. But try telling that to the downtown diners who mourned its quirky décor and blend of Brazilian, Asian and Mediterranean flavors when the eatery closed for earthquake retrofitting at the end of 2005.
Now, more than 10 months later, the Higuera Street restaurant is back in business and, by all accounts, better than ever.
"I felt like it was sort of new again," said owner Robin Covey, adding that he took advantage of the retrofit to make some changes.
Diners will notice a few differences immediately — the main dining area now seats 30 people instead of 60 and there’s a sleek black-and-white bar in place of the deli case.
The walls, once thick with art, look barer. Covey said he’s still working on decorating and eventually plans to replace the brightly colored paper sculptures now pinned under two white-framed windows.
As for the menu, Covey said he’s incorporated some items from Chow Novo, the now-closed Asian-influenced restaurant that he opened next to the Palm Theatre during the retrofit. Two of the more popular additions are the potato samosas and lettuce wraps.
"I like to try to make the menu fun and accessible," Covey said. "You can go out to eat with your friends and munch on these things and go watch a movie."
Was the change worth it?
Walking through Novo’s doors on a recent weeknight, my boyfriend Chris and I couldn’t help noticing the restaurant’s newly modern vibe. The main dining area complements Novo’s familiar warm brick wall with rich red-brown wood floors and the copper and silver foil-covered tables familiar to diners.
Downstairs is a more private area usually reserved for parties. According to Covey, that’s where most of Chow Novo’s Asian décor ended up.
Rather than sit inside, however, we chose a table on Novo’s bamboo-walled patio under an outdoor heater. The restaurant’s former quirkiness came out stronger here — like the red-shaded lamp resting on an elaborately carved wood table.
After Chris picked an Australian shiraz from Novo’s large wine list, we settled down to dinner.
Fusion on the menu
I started with a tapas-style small plate of potato samosas ($8) — curried mash potatoes wrapped in spinach wontons and fried. Light and delectable, each little bite carried enough flavor to make the dish more than satisfying.
Chris tried one of the new additions to the menu, pan-seared quail served on a bed of mixed greens with green and red grapes. Drizzled over the Morrocan-style salad ($13) was a spicy-sweet dressing so intriguing we had to ask our server what was in it. (It’s a blend of cinnamon, cumin, turmeric and cardamom.)
Chris found the roasted bird tender and juicy. For the next dish, he settled on one of Novo’s South American favorites, Brazilian satay ($11). The grilled skewers of beef, pork and sausage came with a small serving of sweet salsa that paired nicely with the meat’s smokiness.
Chris noted that the beef and sausage appeared to be more cooked than the pinkish pork, but he didn’t mind. Still, he felt the thinness of some sausage slices made them tougher to chew and one piece was too gristly to eat.
In contrast, what made us both swoon was my butternut squash curry with cashews ($14), a wonderfully buttery Sri Lankan entree with sweet, mild chunks of squash and a dash of spice.
Chris, after taking his first bite, rolled his eyes with pleasure.
I couldn’t stop scooping up the creamy curry long enough to comment. A bowl of jasmine rice and fried chapati, an Indian tortilla-like flatbread, arrived on the side.
Although the dish definitely won my approval, I might have liked the cashews better had they been roasted and sprinkled on top instead of cooked with the curry itself.
Our friend Matt and his wife, dining nearby, said the broccoli small plate ($8), steamed in a garlic-oyster chili sauce, topped their list of favorites.
They also liked the seared scallops served with blood orange butter sauce ($13), although Matt’s wife found the dish rich enough that her hubby got to finish it off.
Chris and I ended our meal with a small circle of lemon cheesecake on a soft gingersnap crust ($7.50). All desserts are now made in-house rather than at The French Corner Bakery in Cambria, also owned by Covey.
Surprisingly light for what’s often a heavy dessert, the smooth cheesecake’s lemony tang was emphasized by shreds of candied peel. A ring of fresh berry sauce made a sweet addition.
A new era
Novo may still be in transition, but the restaurant seems to have settled on a new era of taste and charm.
Almost everything on the menu sounded tempting, especially the new quail and Asian dishes. We had to restrain ourselves from ordering the roast duck breast, which first won us over at Chow Novo, with its nutty Chinese black rice and a rich red curry sauce. And unlike the small, slightly cramped Chow Novo, the renovated Novo has an atmosphere befitting of its wide-ranging menu.
Novo Restaurant & Bakery
726 Higuera St., San Luis Obispo
The scene: Newly re-opened restaurant is charming, if a bit bare
The cuisine: An eclectic blend of Asian, Brazilian and Mediterranean flavors with tapas and full meals
Plan to spend: $7 to $14 for dinner, $7 to $32 for dinner
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to
10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.