Still a Novel concept
New Novel Café owners keep the name but break the mold
By Erica Wayne 08/21/2013
When it opened in 2009, Novel Café near Pasadena City College (across from the 99¢ Store) wasn’t exactly unique, being one of seven dotted around Los Angeles. They all shared common elements, prominent among them a bevy of canisters containing organic coffees and teas, shelves filled with varied reading materials ranging from cookbooks and nonfiction to novels (hence the name), and lots of places to park oneself, enjoy a beverage and savor the written word.
Alas, the Novel series has ended. Of the seven, only three are still run by the same entity. Others, like ours in Pasadena, have kept the name but morphed into more unique (dare we say novel) entities. Our local Novel has now divested itself of its canisters (although still serving 14 organic loose leaf teas and organic coffee), its bookshelves and all of its books.
But other than that, the place is relatively unchanged, albeit a lot less cluttered. One new feature is a huge theatrically curtained passage opening to an adjacent (now adjoining) store which deals in cell-phone accessories. (Very symbolic; printed books giving way to electronics!) And there’s now a featured happy hour as well as weekend entertainment.
The revamped menu has tweaked the old Novel bill of fare, culling some and adding several new dishes. Most items are relatively familiar, but the quality of both preparation and ingredients is way above average. A bountiful breakfast selection, along with salads, pastas, wraps, quesadillas, sandwiches, burgers and an assortment of other goodies is served all day. Prices are reasonable, about $8 to $15 per item.
Build-your-own omelets ($10) include three choices (meat, cheese and veggie) along with toast and potatoes or fruit. Goat, feta and bleu are offered as well as Swiss, cheddar and jack. Amazingly, there’s no extra charge for lox (which I’ve found pairs nicely with goat cheese and spinach). Organic multigrain pancakes with berry compote, a duo of eggs and two strips of bacon or sausage also cost $10. And Novel serves quinoa/oatmeal with seasonal fruit, walnuts and crispy croissant topping ($9).
Novel’s new smoked salmon sandwich ($13) is dressed with honey-mustard sour cream, applewood smoked bacon and pickled red onion. The turkey melt ($11) includes turkey breast, turkey ham, turkey bacon, Swiss and apricot Dijon. Burgers, like omelets, are mostly build-your-own ($11) from a base of beef, turkey or veggie patty. Add cheese, three toppings and a sauce. On my last visit, I created a work of art: turkey burger on wheat bun with feta cheese, baby spinach, sautéed onion, roasted red peppers and sriracha (Thai chili) aioli. The piping hot fries were gratis, as with all sandwiches.
We’ve tried Novel’s soft tacos ($2 apiece for chicken or carnitas in duos or quartets, $2.50 for shrimp or fish). Smallish, they make up in flavor what they lack in size. Each is jazzed up with a dice of orange and sriracha or chipotle aioli. Asian-style hot wings ($8), with a tangy sriracha sesame honey glaze, garnished with toasted sesame seeds and scallions, are another excellent starter.
The only appetizer I’ve found disappointing is the ahi tuna poke ($10), a Hawaiian hash of raw fish, cabbage, scallion and wakame (seaweed) with spicy sauce. Novel’s version came drenched in an overly salty sesame rice wine vinaigrette. The menu mentioned crispy wontons and roasted peanuts, but the nuts were missing. When I asked, our server consulted with the kitchen and brought out a ramekin of salty dry-roasted cocktail peanuts — not a good fix.
Another unusual but perhaps problematic dish is the new beet arugula salad ($11). The beets are pickled, but you’ll be disappointed if you’re a traditionalist. Gold and red globes are sliced wafer-thin and marinated in rice vinegar, similar to the prep for sushi ginger. I loved them, but my lunch mate did not. The colorful beet rounds flanked arugula dressed with sharp citrus-mustard vinaigrette and topped with herb-crusted goat cheese balls (yum), orange segments, toasted pistachios and shaved fennel.
Oddly, everything on Novel’s “Dinner Entrees” menu section is available for lunch. Among the new dishes, Moroccan chicken with couscous/quinoa pilaf, dried fruit, nuts, olives, cherry tomatoes, broccolini and balsamic glaze ($15); Jamaican jerk hanger steak with “casamiento” (rice and beans), coconut flakes, green beans, sofrito (a Caribbean salsa) and habanero sauce ($18); and shrimp and grits with “holy trinity” (onions, bell pepper and celery), andouille sausage and bacon ($19), all sound mighty good.
Even without the books, our Novel Café’s location makes it a perfect magnet for college students. And in the daylight hours, the west wall tables are often full of them with their smartphones, laptops and tablets. Some seem to have hardly enough room for more than a latte or chai. Others manage to consume three-inch-high sandwiches and mountains of crispy fries while they’re online.
Come late afternoon and evening, Novel is geared more to adults, starting with its happy hour discounts on beer, wine and some menu items. And if the Novel menu isn’t quite as innovative as restaurants like Equator, it’s still plenty good enough to satisfy a wide-ranging clientele. Affordable and accessible, Novel Café is open daily from 9 a.m. till 10 p.m. (except Monday, when they close at 4).