Fusion cuisine has been popular—and divisive—for some time now. There’s no room for a purist’s mentality when dishes like Mexican sushi or barbecue egg rolls appear on the menu. The genre is an infinite experiment that is occasionally bound to go wrong but can also go very well.
Noka’s chic interior alone gives the spot an exciting pulse, but the food has struggled to catch up with its fine-tuned ambiance since opening six months ago. A recent menu change, however, proves Domingo has the chops to successfully execute his vision for the modern fusion restaurant.
Chef Domingo has a successful track record with his well-regarded breakfast and lunch spot The Russell. He also co-opened the classic French bistro Tailleur alongside chef Heather White. Both serve elevated classics, but with Noka, Domingo takes a risk with an idiosyncratic approach.
Prepare for a “we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment as soon as you open Noka’s cumbersome black doors and step into its sleek, contemporary yet earthy dining room. Past the host stand is a staggering display of massive rough-hewn Japanese clay pots. After taking in the vessel-lined wall, a survey of the space reveals various earth-toned details, such as walls lined with unfinished wood, concrete tables, brown leather chairs and place settings finished with smooth stone weights. Many of the dining room’s details are deeply personal for Domingo, such as the wood plank menus and the metal at the base of the tables. Domingo salvaged the materials from his parents’ St. Joe farm after his father’s passing, and the restaurant, in many ways, is a tribute to him.
Communal-style seating takes place around three massive rectangular concrete tables. There’s a high chance you’ll be seated next to or across from another party of diners. I was seated directly across from another couple on my first visit, but between the novelty of a communal dining experience and the large centerpieces—Japanese woven baskets of various sizes—it didn’t feel intrusive. In fact, the seating gently coerces customers slightly out of their comfort zones—a must for Domingo’s contemporary and rustic menu. If you’d rather forgo sitting next to a stranger, there are two chef counters and a full-service bar.
You’ll need a sophisticated drink to fully bask in Noka’s modern dining room, and bar manager Audra Frost’s drink menu doesn’t disappoint. The carefully selected wine list, with the likes of a Rezabal Txakoli, a notable dry white from Spain, and Breaking Bread Vineyard’s earthy Zinfandel blend, is impressive. Cocktails with names like “Whiskey #1,” which is a viscous take on the classic old fashioned and has notes of saffron and plum, are continually being altered and refined. The number refers to the drink’s latest incarnation. The cocktails are pleasant and interesting concoctions composed with ingredients like Japanese bermutto, ginger beer, saffron and sesame. Hip to the mocktail trend, Noka offers five. The nonalcoholic Umami and Zest was memorable, introducing itself with a whiff of sesame and a bright and juicy first sip. I almost forgot that I prefer my cocktails stiff.
On my first couple visits to Noka, the food lacked the same calculated precision the drinks offered. Sauces were overpowering, soy was abused throughout the menu and, despite the intriguing ingredients of beef tongue, octopus, furikake and miso, their delivery missed the mark. Some dishes were overly complex, others painfully straightforward. It desperately needed cohesion.
“It got really confusing in the beginning,” Domingo says.
Feeling the pressure to open in a timely manner, Domingo originally partnered with another local chef to get his restaurant up and running. Since parting ways recently, Domingo is back to spearheading his kitchen. His first move? A near complete overhaul of the menu.
And what a fantastic new menu it is. What was once a chaotic list of shareables is now a menu of well-rounded starters and entrees that deliver successful complexity, all while maintaining Noka’s brand of hip intrigue. “Midwestern at heart, back to the original concept I wanted to do—kind of like rustic Japanese cuisine,” Domingo says.
From the previous menu remain two starters: hamachi sashimi and poke rice cakes, which give customers a peek into Domingo’s previous ten years as a sushi chef at the Plaza’s Kona Grill and The Classic Cup. He has a knack for balancing the rich fish with spicy jalapenos or sharp onions. The popcorn crumble and roe, among other ingredients, are strangely harmonious with the hamachi—and just fun. The rice cakes were fried to varying degrees each time but delivered a pleasant crunch nonetheless and paired nicely with the buttery chunks of salmon and tuna.
Tartare was originally served with chunks of Chinese black truffle over bone marrow and was excessively rich. Now, it’s served as DIY lettuce wraps. The texture is dynamite with the addition of garlic mushrooms, togarashi-spiced cashews and crunchy noodles, but it’s the mint leaves hidden in the lettuce wedge that take the dish to the next level. Bursts of the clean earthy leaves round out and refresh the rich bits of tenderloin.
Part of Noka’s newfound magic lies in the interactive quality of its dishes. It doesn’t feel pretentious, however. The skewers of chicken, or yakitori, have a smokey char from being marinated in a whiskey-soy glaze and cooked over the kitchen’s open fire. Like the lettuce wraps, you’re invited to be hands-on with your food. Enjoy the paradox of ferally gnawing at the tender chunks of meat in Noka’s ritzy dining room.
You’ll have to dig through crispy lotus leaves to unveil the half chicken sitting on a bed of forbidden black rice. Jackpot if you find an aromatic fig buried underneath. Paired with the salty, tangy hoisin and chili crunch mixture, the layers of excitement to this thoughtfully prepared dish are endless.
Every protein is cooked to near perfection, especially the succulent duck resting in a sweet and savory plum sauce paired with al dente Szechuan honey carrots.
The Asian mac and cheese is clever. The golden-orange sauce isn’t made with yellow cheddar but rather sharp white cheddar that’s been gently spiced with the Korean staple gochujang. The childhood classic continues its makeover with flowery campanelle noodles and bits of sweet snow crab.
The orange curd creme brulee for dessert is a simple and effective crowd-pleaser. A cloud of cotton candy is lit aflame tableside and melted down to create the creme’s glassy sugar coating. The brownie and rice ice cream, spiced with a bit of togarashi, feels random in comparison and is certainly underwhelming for its $14 price tag, but it may be a reprieve for those who want to give their adventurous palate a break.
Noka is pricey. But with the food now matching its interior—modern, cool and different—the price feels justifiable. On a Saturday night, it was the place to be, and service ran like a well-oiled machine even in its peak hours.
With the new menu, Domingo successfully delivers Asian fusion without spelling it out for the customer. Instead, he drops hints of his inspiration from the East with kimchi sourdough here and sake-glazed bok choy there.
Bravo to Chef Domingo and the Noka team for turning things around. If Domingo can continue trusting his vision, he should have no problem keeping up Noka’s exciting momentum as KC’s trendiest dining experience.