Make plans to go to NuVo. You owe it to yourself to try this surprising new restaurant in the most unlikely of locations: Dream Street in Florence.
Seriously, Dream Street is hardly Monastery Street in Mount Adams or the main drag in Montgomery, but by the quality of the food at NuVo you wouldn't know that. Still, on Dream Street it's not likely that the concierge of the Motel 6 is going to suggest that his guests visit this chic little bistro.
On the night we stopped in, a lovely and very pregnant hostess seated us at a corner table on a cushioned bench. The lights were low and the windows were treated with rice paper shades because, seriously, you're not paying for the view outside. Everything happens in the kitchen, where the chef and his crew feature a seasonal menu based on fresh food from local Kentucky farms like Neltner's in Camp Springs, Shady Grove in Corinth and Thistlehair in Union, as well as Findlay Market vendors.
We met our server, who brought us a basket of delicious crostini with fresh tomato relish as an amuse bouche. We asked for a wine suggestion, and when we hesitated over a $30 Reisling, Michael Peterson, the co-owner -- who handles front-of-the-house duty while his partner cooks -- brought out a Tommasi Pinot Grigot ($24) from the sale-priced wine menu. Great choice!
Choosing from the list of "beginnings" wasn't easy -- they all sounded good. I was tempted by the rabbit confit with pickled garlic scapes and silver lava salt ($8) and by the fresh tomato salad with horseradish and raspberries ($8).
Instead, we settled on lamb "ribeyes" ($9) and calamari ($8). Slices of fresh summer plums and sweet fig molasses played off the assertive, earthy dry-aged lamb quite well, and we really loved the tender saut calamari with crisp garlic chips, lime butter and traces of black squid ink.
First-daters, make a note: Ink does turn your tongue black. That could be a bad thing, or not -- it's your date, so you decide.
Service at NuVo isn't rushed and portions are reasonable, so it's ideal for trying lots of new things. In fact, we were told the chef will prepare a tasting menu with eight courses for $80, but since it's swimsuit season we opted to share just a few choices in moderation. The local spinach salad ($7) was excellent, accented with crumbles of real bacon and bleu cheese and some absolutely delicious pink slivers of pickled onion, dressed lightly with elderberry vinaigrette.
One of the most delightful surprises of the meal, though, was the "flight" of cold soups ($5) -- three small cups: corn and cashew, melon and cucumber oil and carrot and coconut. I know that a lot of people hesitate at cold soups, but these were light, sophisticated and truly amazing.
The carrot was the most familiar, in a Thai vein, but it was so clean and bright! The corn and cashew was sweet and nutty, and the melon had tiny cubes of firm melon in a clear, refreshing, almost minty broth. Sensational. If I can't convince you, I blame myself.
The entrlist features something for everyone: three fish selections, roast chicken, lamb, beef and veggies -- all creative presentations with spectacular ingredients, reasonably priced from $15 to $24. We stayed with our Asian-fusion theme and were very happy with the results. First, a Korean flavored beef short rib ($21), braised and served with spicy kim-chee style warm Napa cabbage. Again, these aren't huge portions -- just one rib, but it was very meaty and incredibly flavorful. Then pickled spice-rubbed hake ($21), saut until it was crispy on the outside and flaky inside, served atop cucumber "noodles" with a sweet and sour berry relish and cilantro mustard. Hake is a flakier, sweeter cousin of cod, that's not common around these parts but should be.
The dessert we most wanted to try had already sold out for the evening by the time we dawdled through our meal, watching other diners come and go and enjoying the sense of potential that sparks NuVo.
You can't help but admire two young friends who clearly have big dreams and are starting -- very practically -- in humble surroundings. They're focused on the most important things: quality of ingredients, expert preparation, friendly staff, affordable quality wines and damn good French press coffee ($3). The chic paint treatments and fun pillows are textbook lessons in stretching decorating dollars, and they really make the space work.
So we missed the caramelized baby banana with rosehip ice cream, marinated raspberries and white chocolate and balsamic ganache ($6), much to my chagrin! But we finished off our delightful evening with two yummy tidbits. The chocolate torchon ($7) is pure chocolate -- bite-sized but intense, accented with smoked sea salt and caramel. Lovely and delicious, two hibiscus-poached apricots ($6) were layered with cream cheese mousse, hibiscus gelee and blackberry "caviar" with a crisp cashew florentine.
Again, a witty presentation of real quality ingredients resulting in a stellar meal at a promising new place.
NUVO Critic's Pick
Go: 7915 Dream St., Florence
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Many
Accessibility: Fully accessible