When Kara van Emmerik begins to think about a dish that might end up on the menu at Novio’s, the new downtown Bangor restaurant where she’s head chef, it’s the visuals that come first.
“I think in colors, and shapes. I see the visuals of it first. I think about the green of the lettuce, the red of the beets, and how I want it to have height. Then I think about the flavor,” said van Emmerik, a Hancock County native. “It’s kind of like architecture.”
Van Emmerik, 23, is a bit of a culinary whiz kid in the Maine dining scene. She’s a 2014 graduate of the Eastern Maine Community College culinary program (where she still teaches five days a week), she was the sous chef at Sargentville Mexican restaurant El El Frijoles, and for two summers in 2015 and 2016 she was head chef at Dudley’s Refresher, an elevated take on a traditional seafood shack in Castine. In 2015, she was named Maine chef of the year by national food blog Eater, and she’s been featured in both Food & Wine and Cooking Light magazines.
Bob Cutler, owner of Novio’s, knew that when he opened his dream downtown Bangor bistro, he wanted van Emmerik to be at the helm in the kitchen — her reputation preceded her. He also recruited sous chef Dustin Cyr, formerly of The Fiddlehead Restaurant and Evenrood’s, both in Bangor.
“I got in touch with [Kara], and asked her to go get coffee,” said Cutler. “It took a lot of texts back and forth to convince her. But I’m persistent.”
Cutler, known to Bangor area diners as the proprietor of The Family Dog in Orono and the Grammie’s Grilled Cheese and Stray Dog food trucks, began to earnestly plan his downtown restaurant in mid-2016, after previous attempts to find a location didn’t pan out. A chance conversation with Massimo Ranni, who owned Massimo’s Pizza Bar at 130 Hammond St., revealed that Ranni wanted to put his business up for sale. Cutler decided to take over the location, and in early October, the deal was sealed. The pizza bar closed on Oct. 17; Novio’s opened on Nov. 25.
“I’ve always wanted to do this. Always,” said Cutler. “I know it’s the complete opposite of what we do at The Family Dog. It’s the opposite of hot dogs and grilled cheese. Some people are like, ‘Really? You?’ But this is my dream.”
Novio’s is what Cutler calls an “inspired bistro” — meaning that the menu, comprised of an array of small plate appetizers and entrees, soups and desserts, is entirely inspired by van Emmerik’s culinary vision, which spans the gamut from a few Thai and Japanese cuisine-inspired dishes, to classic Italian pastas and creamy polenta.
Her vision is informed by many things; the visual element, first and foremost. Van Emmerik’s architectural approach to plating is the thing that gives her the most joy in the kitchen.
“I love plating. Plating is my favorite thing to do,” she said. “I’m really proud of our soups in particular, because they’re all broken down. We put the elements of the soup in the bowl, and then your server pours the broth in at the table. It’s just a really nice visual presentation.”
Then there’s the fact that van Emmerik, who grew up in Sedgwick, has a natural affinity for seafood — she grew up in a fishing community, and later cooked at two restaurants that both place emphasis on using local seafood. Six out of the 18 dishes currently on the Novio’s menu feature seafood, from a corn-battered oyster trio and a smoked seafood plate, to the seared cod in a dashi broth, to the visually-stunning pan-seared local scallops in a chili-sesame glaze, set atop ruby red pureed beets and topped with bright green frisee lettuce.
“I grew up around seafood. I’ve cooked with it all my life,” she said. “But I also grew up in a place where local food and local farms are really important, so that’s really important to me too.”
Uniquely to van Emmerik, however, is the fact that many of the dishes that appear at Novio’s are inspired by her own family stories. The nutty, luxurious pesto that appears on both her burrata mozzarella salad and on one of the three pasta dishes is her mother’s recipe. The butternut squash risotto is her own comfort food recipe.
Though van Emmerik has been given a lot of creative freedom in the kitchen, Cutler’s aesthetic is all over Novio’s as well — starting with the name, a tribute to Cutler’s mentor, Edward Novio, the former baseball coach at the University of Maine, where for several years Cutler was an assistant baseball coach.
“He taught me so much about what it means to be a man, to be a good person, and I always strive to live up to his example,” said Cutler. “It really means a lot to me.”
The interior of Novio’s isn’t very different from how it looked as Massimo’s Pizza Bar, though Cutler and his girlfriend, Annie, added a few of their own touches. The restaurant is technically street-level, but has a kind of subterranean speakeasy feel, with brick, wood and granite accents and soft, romantic lighting. The long, expansive bar is staffed by bar manager Matt Denbow, who crafts cocktails and pours from the eatery’s small, affordable wine list. It’s also an intimate space, with seating for just 39, and intentionally low key — Cutler has no plans to put Novio’s on Facebook, opting for simply using their website for reservations, and keeping a colorful Instagram feed updated with food photos.
“It’s practically a full time job to keep your social media updated. Why waste all that energy?” said Cutler. “Word of mouth is our best friend.”
Novio’s this month added a Sunday brunch menu, served from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., featuring dishes like eggs benedict, shrimp and grits, and French toast with bourbon creme anglaise and cranberries. Cutler and van Emmerik also plan to offer more beer and wine dinners and special prix fixe dinners for holidays like Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day.
Novio’s is open for dinner from 4 to 9 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays, as well as for Sunday brunch. Reservations are strongly suggested, and can be made online at noviosbistro.com, or by calling 945-5660.