Brad Sorenson’s No Va is ready to go. Almost.
No Va Kitchen & Bar
Hours: Dinner 6-11pm Tue-Sat; bar open until 12pm
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 02.25.13
AUGUST 2014 UPDATE: No Va is celebrating a year in business. Here's the story of how (some of) that started.
There used to be this joke about the Chevy Nova, how in Spanish-speaking countries, nobody would buy a car called “No Va,” as in “No Go.” In one of those “Coming Soon Forever” scenarios, that same cruel joke might have been played on No Va Kitchen & Bar, the Rainey Street restaurant whose chef once said it would open in 2012. No go.
“No Va” is also at the heart of an origin story fit for Marvel Comics, the story of Oscar Laurel hunting for restaurant real estate. Looking at 87 Rainey St. — a modernist house with a roof canted like an art-school mortar board on a street full of tumbledown bungalows — Laurel spoke out in the Spanish of his South Texas roots, “No va. It doesn’t go. This house doesn’t go on this block.” And in the contrarian spirit of the restaurateur, he decided to make a go of it anyway.
“Nova” also means star power, and that’s where Brad Sorenson comes in. Fresh off an appearance on “The Next Food Network Star” in 2010, he took a job in Austin at the Italian trattoria Asti. The next year, he landed a spot on “Chopped All Stars,” where he got chopped in the dessert round. “I actually think I hammered him on the desserts,” Sorenson said. “It was the overall meal.”
Sorenson’s name was getting out there, enough to catch the attention of Oscar Laurel, whom Sorenson met while working with Oscar’s son, Lorenzo, in the kitchen at Asti. Sorenson left Asti in 2011 to become No Va’s executive chef.
There hasn’t been much chatter about No Va since Sorenson told CultureMap in November 2011 that he’d open in April 2012. Signs of life have been few at 87 Rainey since then. But last month, I ran into Iliana de la Vega, who owns El Naranjo next door. She said things were happening at the No Va site, and that having another restaurant on Rainey would be good for everybody on the street.
“We underestimated the conversion process,” Sorenson said of the house, originally designed and built as a single-family residence. “I jumped the gun a bit. I put that on myself.” But the people behind Sorenson are believers. So much so that when they write or speak about No Va, they do it in capital letters: NO VA. Capital letters sound like shouting in print, so I'll just stick with No Va, because this is a story worth telling, even if we use our inside voices.
The transformation of the house has been thorough and complex. Wiring had to be redone. And bathrooms. Now come the logistics of outfitting a two-story kitchen, installing the design-intensive bar and interior and adding an exterior staircase to the balcony. The new target opening date is somewhere around early summer, he said, with fingers crossed for sooner.
I interviewed Sorenson over lunch at Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden just down Rainey Street from No Va. I picked the meeting place, although I feel like a frat guy when I say the name, even though it’s a solid bet for craft sausage and has 100 beers on tap. I said so in an e-mail, and Sorenson wrote back: “I think Ben (Siegel) there is a great guy and love the concept.” Fine. Take the high road.
Sorenson’s been here many times as No Va has taken shape. At lunch, Banger’s has this great deal: sausage on a house-baked bun, a side dish and a Texas pint for $8. The waitress came, and Sorenson was deferential and decisive. He ordered an Independence Stash IPA and a brat. I ordered a sausage and beer, but neither was eligible for the special, because I didn’t properly interpret the asterisks. So I backtracked, but they’d run out of my backup beer and I had to pick a third. It was comical, really, and I’m hoping Sorenson absorbed the lesson for No Va: Don’t make the customer learn your language just to order.
On the menu: Cheeseburger tartare
And what language will No Va speak? When I asked Sorenson what kind of food to expect at No Va, he started doing that dance chefs do when they don’t want to be pinned to a certain style or reduced to a convenient modifier like “modern American.” At first, he repeated the mantra I’ve heard so many times: “A comfortable neighborhood restaurant that’s elevated.” And: “I want to keep things affordable. I don’t want it to feel like it’s a destination restaurant.”
Then, a more specific answer: “I want it to be like you’re going over to your grandma’s house, except grandma went to culinary school.” He said he’s shooting for a price point where an appetizer, entree and dessert will be less than $40. At the high end, the entrees would run $20-$21, then appetizers at $7-$8 and desserts $6-$8. At the low end, a full dinner might fall around $25, he said. The plan is for No Va to be open from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesday-Saturday, with brunch on Sunday.
Highlights from a menu in the rough planning stages include:
► Wood-plank Texas redfish with hamhock polenta, a soft-cooked egg and shaved fennel.
► Caesar salad constructed inside a tube of crispy Parmesan tuile.
► Braised lamb shank, pulled from the bone, breaded and fried to order with shaved apple salad.
► Cheeseburger tartare built from minced sirloin and Parmesan, with brioche, ketchup, mustard and pickles, all made in-house.
► Farmer cheese in the style of Indian paneer, seared and served with chickpeas and grilled carrots.
► Braised pork ribs with mole and polenta, playing off Sorenson’s affection for the Mexican sauce, this one with nuts, seeds, chiles and dried fruit.
► A center cut of sirloin called a baseball steak, marinated in beets for big color, sweetness and earthiness, with a fried potato croquette with an egg yolk center.
Fun and games with knives and flames
Blame bratwurst for Brad Sorenson’s life in the kitchen. “When I was in high school (in Concord, Mich.), I wasn’t on the football team,” he said. “But I had an awesome minivan that we would sell bratwurst out of the back of during tailgating for the football games.” His first restaurant job was an internship program at a place called Daryl’s Downtown in Jackson, Mich. “At the time, I thought it was probably a three-star restaurant. My exposure was extremely limited at that point, but it was a good place,” Sorenson said.
“I had this real curiosity about kitchens and food, kind of inspired by Anthony Bourdain and ‘Kitchen Confidential,’ as cliché as that sounds now, because that’s become kind of the poster book for cooks of my generation.”
Sorenson did everything at Daryl’s: dishwashing, cleaning bathrooms, pantry, prep, sautée cook. It was busy. A crucible of 250 covers a night, a scorching pace for a high school kid behind a stove. “I’ve always liked playing sports. I’m not very athletically gifted, but I really enjoy competition, team competition,” he said. Being in the kitchen is “the most fun team sport I ever played. There’s elements of danger: You’ve got knives, you’ve got fire. There’s stress. You’ve got people moving together. And when it works, it’s beautiful.”
From there, he attended the mack-daddy of the Culinary Institute of America campuses in Hyde Park, N.Y., and went on to work for “Top Chef” winner Mike Voltaggio at the Ritz Carlton in Naples, Fla. “I was so intimidated and motivated by that man,” Sorenson said. “If I ever get a chance to be around him, I hope I have the nerve to express how much he meant to my career.”
Sorenson’s first turn as executive chef came when he was 22, at Black Creek Bistro in Columbus, Ohio. “I resisted table visits,” he said. “The food should be what leaves the kitchen, not the chef.” Since his move to Austin and his national face time, that position has evolved. “I’ll make dining room walks at least once an hour. I plan to make myself available.”
‘Jewelry over the bar’
The restaurant’s cold New School exterior might not go with Rainey Street’s dive-bar aesthetic, but it’s designer Joel Mozersky’s job to make it feel comfortable on the inside. Mozersky has lent his style to Uchi, La Condesa and the Rat-Pack hideaway the Belmont. More recently, his One Eleven Design firm has done vintage refits for Freedmen’s and Midnight Cowboy, and he’ll be working on the craft cocktail bar Somersault at the Domain and Paul Qui’s flagship restaurant Qui on East Sixth.
“There are elements that warm up a space,” he said. “A lot of that is upholstery. A lot of that is wood. You can get a lot of warmth out of a space, regardless of what the exterior really looks like.”
Right now, the interior is a cathedral of glass and cinderblock, but Mozersky will spread seating for about 100 among its two levels, including a bar, lounge, shaded side patio, balcony and main upstairs dining space.
He described the color scheme as caramel and wood tones against Mexican vanilla white, with upholstered banquettes that will be “extra stuffed and cushy,” even by his button-plush standards. Downstairs, the floors will be concrete. Upstairs will be a floor Mozersky described as “like if you sliced a tree down to about a four-inch block longways, and then you sliced it like bread, and then you put all those little slices on the floor.” Above an L-shaped lounge area will hang an eight-armed lighting fixture from a Brooklyn company called Workstead, which does “ industrial chandeliers.”
The bar that will keep the operation hydrated will be made from mesquite with a rippling wood facade by Barry Jelinski of Howl Interiors in Austin. Above it will hang a light fixture designed with Nathan Warner that incorporates a 16-foot-long series of brass prisms “like a piece of jewelry over the bar,” Mozersky said. The bar program will be handled by general manager J.C. Rodriguez, a Miami native who grew up in Spain, with beer, cocktails, housemade mixers and what Sorenson said will be the best wine list on Rainey Street, with glasses around $6-$12.
As seen on TV
Chicken-fried lamb, a Brooklyn chandelier, a moment in the limelight of Austin’s restaurant renaissance. It’s a long way for a kid who cooked in a Michigan prison town not unlike our Huntsville. We joked that Sorenson’s first cooking job was in the penitentiary. “I had to find a way to survive,” he said, deadpan. “I’m a skinny, pretty guy; I don’t have a lot of options.”
That was a joke, but it’s a serious thing for a 28-year-old chef who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as “that guy who was on the Food Network three years ago.” The show’s bio photo haunts him like a viral video. In it, he’s wearing a clingy baby-blue shirt, chin in hand like a Glamour Shot. “I don’t want to be known for being on TV,” he said. But we both know it’s part of what will make this No Va ... go.
(TOP: Brad Sorenson worked behind the scenes at Asti, but he’s known for his time in front of the camera for “The Next Food Network Star” and “Chopped All Stars.” The bacon T-shirt was a gift from his mom. FIRST INSET: The building at 87 Rainey St. was built as a single-family residence. After the remodel by designer Joel Mozersky, the restaurant will seat about 100 and feature a split-level kitchen. SECOND INSET: The opening of No Va has been pushed back by things like having to add another staircase to the balcony where Sorenson’s standing. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)