Farm to Fable: Noka delivers on sincerity, but is it worth the price?
Noka has seemingly everything going for it.
The Japanese farmhouse-style restaurant is the brainchild of Chef Amante Domingo, who also owns The Russell. The eatery’s name (which means “farmer” in Japanese) and concept pay homage to Domingo’s deceased father. The shelves on the west wall are even made from the wood of the 150-year-old barn which stood on his father’s farm. The elegant, understated decor is emphasized by communal tables that seat 20 people each.
The menu is composed of creative and photogenic small plates, several of which feature fresh seafood. The staff is so attentive that they’re almost intuitive, clearing empty dishes and refilling drinks as soon as there is a need.
That being said, Noka has some quirks.
Booking a reservation requires a $5 deposit per person in case of cancellation, which prompts me to ask, Do they know we’re in Kansas City? No-shows hurt a restaurant’s profits and can be especially detrimental for a business that’s just starting out. Regardless, I was taken aback and even a little put off by seeing this in the heart of the Midwest for the first time.
On the Tuesday evening when I visited, Noka was serene, sprinkled with only a few other diners. We sat at the corner of one of the communal tables and ordered our drinks: the Citrus and Umami mocktail ($11) with zero-proof gin, ginger hibiscus, lemon, and ginger beer, and a glass of the Breaking Bread ($13), recommended by our server and described as “carbonic Zinfandel/Caringnan/Alicante.” The Citrus and Umami is pleasantly crisp and fruity, while the red wine is acidic and earthy.
The Hamachi Sashimi ($21) is sprinkled with roe, topped with jalapeños and slices of red onion, and laid on a bed of popcorn. There’s a playful contrast between textures here, with the delicate, buttery fish and the crunchy, toasted popcorn. However, the seasoning does not permeate the fish.
The Octopus Tostada ($19), next to the Crispy Beef Tongue ($16), was the menu item that intrigued me the most. The chef himself presented the dish to us and explained that the restaurant had just rolled it out the week before. He said that they’re still tweaking it, but there’s no tweaking necessary. Succulent baby octopi, juicy tentacles, root vegetable puree on a tostada akin to melted cheese, and a smear of jalapeño vinaigrette—what’s not to like?
We closed out dinner with dessert: the Cream and Corn ($15), a bowl of High Hopes ricecream with sassafras, and a popcorn garnish. It tastes like vanilla ice cream. Very excellent, smooth, and creamy vanilla ice cream, but vanilla ice cream nonetheless. My middle-class roots balked at the price, then at the lack of pizzazz.
Noka has potential. More importantly, it has heart. There’s plenty of room for its team to grow into the restaurant’s promise, but it’ll take more than fresh ingredients and stylish decor to justify the prices.
Noka is located at 334 E 31st St., Kansas City, MO 64108.