New Buck on the Block
The Antler Room wants to impress you, and we're betting it will.
The Antler Room has been Kansas City’s most hotly anticipated restaurant opening of 2016. There’s been considerable buzz behind chef Nick Goellner’s name. He’s the native Kansas City son done good: After several years working in New York and the San Francisco area, he had the opportunity to take his talents overseas. In Copenhagen, Denmark, he entered an intensive three-month stage at Noma, the world-renowned, two Michelin-starred restaurant run by chef René Redzepi.
And if Goellner’s reputation wasn’t enough to excite Kansas City diners, the regular pop-up dinners he and his wife and front-of-house manager, Leslie, have put on under The Antler Room brand since returning to Kansas City last summer have certainly done the job.
At last, the Goellners have a physical space to call home. In early October, the Antler Room opened at 2506 Holmes Road (formerly Chips & Dips Mediterranean Café) in the Longfellow neighborhood. It’s a simple, sophisticated space: Sumptuous midcentury-inspired barstools are aligned against the smooth, cement-colored bar; the original stone floor has been left, more or less, as the Goellners found it; bright, clean cedar wood paneling warms the walls. The kitchen is open in the bar area, adjacent to the dining room; the prep kitchen, along with a private dining space seating up to 40 people, is located on the second floor. From the outside looking in, it’s rather impossible to determine what kind of cuisine the Antler Room intends to serve.
A glance at the menu is likely to render more questions than answers. Goellner eschews traditional categories; there are no “appetizers” or “entrees” clearly delineated, though the 13 menu items are listed — more or less — in an ascending order. There are “fried Castelvetrano olives, Taleggio, dried marjoram” for $5; there is “farro, koji, mushrooms, sumac, bonito” for $10; there is “Aylesbury duck, fermented honey, flatbread, scallion sprouts, lavender salt” for $42 (the most expensive item on the list; the line below explains that it serves two to four people and will take 30 to 40 minutes).
When my group ventures in on a comfortably busy weeknight, our server informs us that the menu is designed to be shared — “tapas-style.” The dining experience at The Antler Room, he says, is meant to be fluid, and if it’s OK with us, our dishes will arrive as they’re ready from the kitchen.
That was perfectly OK with us.
Our dishes arrived in quick succession: the olives were the first to arrive, nearly a dozen of them piled atop a silver-colored linen folded into a slate-colored ceramic bowl. Castelvetrano is a Spanish olive, easily recognizable for its round — not oval — and bright-green exterior, but the complexion of Goellner’s olives were marred by a coating of marjoram-thickened bread crumbs. These had been stuffed with Taleggio — a creamy, pungent Italian cow’s milk cheese — and flash-fried. Each mouthful was a brief firework of brine-y olive and gooey, hot cheese.
“Like a fancy version of fried cheese curds,” one of my companions suggested. Though I felt Goellner might dislike the comparison, I had to agree that his olives were, in fact, the fanciest bar food equivalent I could remember.
The crudo ($14) was presented on a gray plate no larger than a side dish. Quarter-inch-thick slices of pearl-white, sashimi-grade cobia were layered with shaved carrots, fermented in a saltwater brine (“It’s a natural way of pickling,” Goellner would later tell me); water-soaked almonds (“Soaking them changes the texture a bit,” Goellner says); and dressed with a bun vermicelli dressing made from fish sauce, vinegar and lime juice. There were three perfect bites on this dish — enough for each person at the table — and my forkful took me worlds away from Kansas City. One beautifully crunchy, hearty, spicy mouthful, and I was on a boardwalk in Okinawa.
In their natural form, sunchokes look a bit like undersized, malformed potatoes, knobby and warty. The makeover Goellner gives them ($12) — pan-fried in duck fat and prettily arranged with caramelized onion aioli, paper-thin pieces of Missouri ham from Burger’s Smokehouse and sliced apple — renders them unrecognizable. The sunchokes themselves — which Goellner painstakingly poached in milk with bay leaves, peppercorn and thyme — were sublimely tender.
Speaking of painstaking: Goellner’s pastas. Each of them house-made, each of them strikingly different — these were the dishes we knew, even without seeing them, we would like.
The cavatelli ($11) — hand-rolled pasta shells that look like tiny ribbed baguettes — is made with Turkey Red wheat flour from an artisanal farm in Marion, Kansas. These toothsome, al dente dumplings are mixed with cubed pork belly and sit atop a mustard green and tarragon sauce with melted Taleggio. Fans of chewy pasta will hark to this dish; it is one of the heartier plates on the menu.
But with the cavatelli’s many strong flavors — pancetta, funky cheese, a pasta with character — threatening to overwhelm the palate, we found redemption in the farfalle ($11). This cheerful bowtie noodle was perfectly cooked, but the cream-colored pasta was merely a canvas for the other striking elements of this dish. Cherry tomatoes are dehydrated and skinned for a massive, concentrated tomato flavor; rabbit pepperoni chunks are mixed with chili- and garlic-spiced broccoli raab and hidden underneath fresh shavings of BellaVitano cheese. The red powder dancing around the rest of the dish looks like paprika, but no: dehydrated tomato skins have been crushed into a fine film. Forks crisscrossed on this plate to make sure it was sent back to the kitchen empty.
The farro is a cozy serving. Pearled farro is fermented with koji and flavored with sumac, and shaved bonito flakes dance playfully — but the real magic comes from the enormous and flowery chanterelle mushrooms tucked into the risotto. This is a bowl of warm nature hugs, and next time, I won’t be sharing.
A Spanish octopus tentacle ($16) is oven-roasted, then braised in fennel and orange until it takes on flavors quite unlike anything you’d find in an ocean. It’s sliced into thirds and served with a gremolata-aioli mixture, golden cubes of fried yucca and aged mint flowers. There’s a refreshing Mediterranean-meets-Caribbean element in this dish; not for the first time, it seemed that Goellner’s influences were hard to pinpoint.
Of course, this menu is not just Goellner’s influences. He relies heavily on his sous chefs, Nick Chiaro and Andrew Heimburger. The crudo is entirely Heimburger’s, but Goellner insists that collaboration takes a front seat in menu development.
“We tried to collaborate a lot because we had all worked in kitchens where one guy is the only creative force, and that can be lame,” Goellner says. “Eventually, the food becomes narrow and stale.”
There’s nothing stale about The Antler Room’s Aylesbury duck. If there is one common theme at The Antler Room, it is the impeccable attention to detail afforded each dish, from point of conception to point of execution — and the duck is designed to be a showstopper.
When the server presents the full roasted cage of duck to the table for it to be admired, our company obligingly oohs and aahs. It’s whisked away after that brief moment — which I suspect will inspire a great many awed Instagrams at other tables — and taken back to the kitchen to be carved. The next time we see our duck, it has been sliced and plated next to house-made naan rounds, a little pile of fleur de sel-topped scallion sprouts and a ramekin of fermented honey.
“Build-your-own duck tacos,” our server explained.
I would have been happy for the duck on its own: Goellner’s prep on them includes a lengthy curing process, where the whole duck is rubbed with shio goji and hanged for three days. It’s seasoned just right, the interior a pleasant maroon color. The naan and the honey are just the cherries on top of this dish.
The duck comes from a local farm in Lawrence and is subject to availability — but its irregular spot on the menu doesn’t phase Goellner. The dishes at The Antler Room are not expected to have a long life — and the dessert menu changes even more frequently.
Dessert at The Antler Room is compliments of Natasha Goellner, Nick’s sister and the lauded pastry chef behind Natasha’s Mulberry & Mott. There are three options when we visit, all $8 each. The chocolate panna cotta with popcorn ice cream was generous and sculptural, an easy crowd-pleaser; the cannelle was a perfect representation of the centuries-old French recipe; the lemon-thyme custard with brown butter cake and sunchoke ice cream was pale and appeared soupy, but it was the underdog winner of the round. All these disappeared off the menu before The Antler Room was even a month old, but it’s safe to say that desserts should not be skipped here.
Indeed, there is very little at The Antler Room that does not seem worth trying — even if that means several trips back. It’s worth coming with a group — the more dishes you get to try, the more flavors you get to absorb.
“When we went out to eat, we’d get a salad and an appetizer, or two appetizers — we were making meals out of small plates,” Leslie says. “We would never jump to the entree side, because we didn’t want that much food. You almost get palate fatigue. You start trying to share your dish with people, because subconsciously, you want to try something else.”
What The Antler Room strives to do, Leslie says, is to give you three things for the price of two — it makes for a better conversation.
“By all means, you can come in here and only eat the dish you order,” Nick says, “but that’s not the way we designed the menu. We designed these dishes to be shared. We plate things that way on purpose.”
Sharing may be caring, but you’ll have to pry The Antler Room cocktails out of my cold, dead hands. This is Leslie’s domain. Emphasis here is on the wine list, which is accomplished, with lots of interesting options and detours — but for any interested parties looking to warm up or wind down with a cocktail, Leslie’s drinks will not disappoint. The cocktail list features three simple, rotating drinks — each $10, and each nameless (“I hate coming up with drink names — they just end up cheesy,” Leslie says).
The Antler Room capitalizes on the recent popularity of shim cocktails. Missouri plum vodka is shaken with plum syrup and lemon, topped with cava; it’s glittery and fairy-light. Bourbon is mixed with a persimmon syrup, Cardamaro and citrus for a similarly dainty sipper. It’s only the tequila cocktail — featuring a fennel syrup and grapefruit — that has a stiff backbone to it, and I am grateful that I can make it last.
“Each week, I get an ingredient from the kitchen that they’re not using, and I make a syrup with it,” Leslie says. “I don’t like the super-high-alcohol-content drinks with food, and I want to keep the price point down. But all the bartenders here have been bar managers at other places, so they can execute crazy stuff, they can do whatever.”
The bottom line, Leslie says, is that she didn’t want guests coming in to feel overwhelmed by their options or that the prices were too steep. I have to agree with her thinking: There will be some tough choices when it comes to selecting dinner.
The Antler Room’s status as Kansas City’s most-hyped restaurant seems wholly justified. For locals, one choice that should not be difficult: Where to go for dinner.
The Antler Room is at 2506 Holmes St., Kansas City, Mo. For more information, call (816) 605-1967 or visit theantlerroomkc.com.