I had no idea how massive Nova Kitchen & Bar in Garden Grove was until I swung open a front door so enormous it could hold back King Kong. Strolling into the largest of five dining areas, I saw a glass-encased wine room and bars illuminated with color-changing LEDs. In a private section with booths, a shimmering chandelier that looked designed specifically for the room dangled above me. Surely a high-priced architectural firm was involved, as well as an AV expert, who was responsible for the two-story-tall video screen that played nothing but a customized loop of abstract images more appropriate for a rave.
Nova was the kind of Steve Wynn sky’s-the-limit project that wouldn’t surprise anyone if it were on Las Vegas Boulevard. But in Garden Grove, it was at a level uncharacteristic of Orange County outside of what’s Disney-owned. I suspected it would take a multinational company with a strong balance sheet to bankroll a restaurant of this magnitude and scope. To confirm my suspicions, I asked the waitress, one of five staff members who served me that night.
“Is this place owned by the hotel next door?”
“Yes, it is,” she replied. “We’re part of the Hyatt Regency Orange County.”
I later learned the hotel itself was bought by a Chinese conglomerate called Shanghai Construction Group, the firm responsible for Shanghai Tower, the tallest skyscraper in China. It paid $137 million for the Hyatt in 2015 and invested another $10 million to renovate this space.
At last, it all started to make sense. It also explained why no one who worked there looked worried that despite the space and money spent, the restaurant was practically empty.
We were seated alone on a patio that had the capacity to host an entire wedding party. Later, a pair of out-of-town businessmen took the table across from us. They were, no doubt, also told by the hostess that from out here, they could see the Disneyland fireworks at 9:30.
The businessmen took a few minutes with the menu. Nova’s list of dishes is not divided into the usual categories of appetizers, salads and entrées. Instead, it’s organized according to the five elements of Taoism: water, wood, fire, earth and metal.
All the sushi and sashimi were crammed onto the page for “Water.” The section for “Wood” contained fried rice and noodles. The proteins were categorized under “Fire,” and “Earth” had all the salads. “Metal,” however, seemed to be the repository for things that didn’t quite fit anywhere else. The roasted Brussels sprouts were there, but so was “5 Element Dumpling,” which were basically xiao long baos.
Since each of the five dumplings was colored differently from the next and perched on its own oversized Chinese soup spoon, the waitress knew what one of the businessmen was about to ask before he opened his mouth. “They’re different colors but they’re all the same,” she assured him.
Despite the gimmick, the dumplings hit all the familiar notes. It was as though a Chinese chef prepared it for a Chinese palate. The same can be said of an obscure dessert soup of mochi and fermented rice that only someone who grew up eating it in a Chinese household could appreciate. But even the basic dishes everyone knows were done the Chinese way. Not a drop of soy sauce stained the seafood fried rice. Instead, it’s wok-tossed with crisp green beans in lieu of peas and with enough oil to keep the grains lubricated but not greasy. If you could ignore that shrimp accounted for the only seafood present and it cost $14, it’s a great dish.
As Nova is technically a “fusion” restaurant, there were Japanese dishes mixed with the Chinese. Yet even these also tasted as though they were made by a chef who’d been preparing them for years. The eight folded slices of yellowtail sashimi surrounding a puddle of homemade onion ponzu and edible flowers were elegant enough for a high-end omakase. And when I tasted the salmon-skin salad, it was as vibrant as any I’ve had. Not only did I find generous amounts of freshly roasted salmon skin among the fancy greens, but there were also lots of properly made Japanese carrot pickles.
When Disneyland’s fireworks finally lit up the distant sky at a quarter to ten, I could barely see them, let alone hear them. We were miles away from the Magic Kingdom. But I still heard a crackling sound when I bit into the crispy onigiri rice disk that was part of a dish of braised pork belly and soy sauce egg. The pork was decadent, the egg yolk was jammy, and for once, the Taoist element it was classified under fit perfectly. It was made possible with “Fire” in the same way the restaurant was made possible with the sixth, most important element of all: money.
Nova Kitchen & Bar, 12361 Chapman Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 696-0888; novaoc.com. Open Sun.-Thurs., 4-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 4 p.m.-midnight. Small plates, sushi and entrées, $6-$32. Full bar.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.