By Lance Sparks

As soon as the dynamic husband/wife team of Tim Murff and Mon (Duangkamol) Sutthiwari opened Sabai restaurant (27 Oakway Center) in 2011, it was an almost-instant success. The space was charming—Tim calls it “mid-century modern”—comfortable, airy, and welcoming for couples or larger parties. Tim and Mon selected a menu that emphasized Thai and Pacific Rim cuisine. Guests found the food “excellent,” the service “impeccable,” the drinks “superb.” Four years later, in 2015, readers of the R-G voted Sabai Eugene’s “Best Restaurant.”

So expectations ran high when, earlier this year, the couple acquired the space formerly occupied by the defunct Ox & Fin, fronting the Oakway Courtyard, a short sprint from Sabai. In the renovated, revitalized space, the couple opened Novo Latin Table, serving the full-flavored foods of Latin and South America, thus continuing the theme of “Pacific Rim” cuisine while stressing a Spanish-influence.

Tim again took the role of designer, his forte. Tim, 63, was born in Long Beach. His father was an aerospace engineer, and his mother was a “western Martha Stewart,” multi-skilled and inventive. Tim graduated from Grants Pass High School, attended Rogue Community College, and then UO. He left without a degree but with a driving interest in the burgeoning field of video. Tim has always been interested in art and has enjoyed a long, successful career in design, production, and media—a career that took him traveling in over 40 countries, where he found that “food is always at the center of every place.” His experiences also made him uniquely sensitive to lines and light. He oversaw all the alterations of Novo’s new home––opening the space and modernizing all aspects while preserving a sense of comfort and a lack of pretension. In his words, “I kind of had an idea of what the space needed.” He succeeded in his goal of creating a “seamless experience for diners.”

Mon was born in the village of Maha Sarakham, Thailand, and grew up in a culture obsessed with food flavors and hospitality. She came to Eugene in 2001 to attend UO, studying linguistics. Hungry for the flavors of home, she found Chao Pra Ya; she not only savored the food, she took a job there to earn a little extra money. She later joined the staff at Ta Ra Rin, managing the front of the restaurant, hiring staff, and establishing a beverage program. She blossomed.

With her talents for hospitality, she added skills for processing the dining experience––for staff and guests––an expertise that shaped the success of Sabai and would soon to be applied at Novo.

Together, Tim and Mon set out to hire a super crew for Novo, starting with their young chef, Alejandro Cruz, 31, and their talented manager, Amy Hand, 39. Chef Alejandro, though a native of Oaxaca, Mexico, has resided in Eugene since 1972, and has been cooking for 10 years at such notable venues as Marché, Rabbit Bistro, El Vaquero, and many others. Cruz absorbed much about cooking from the late, two-time Bite of Eugene Iron Chef winner Gabe Gil; a year after Gil passed away, Chef Alejandro still considers Gil “an inspiration.”

Amy Hand also enjoyed years of working closely with Gil—Tim now calls her Novo’s “menu architect.” She grasps nearly all aspects of restaurateuring, knows wines and beverages, is a skilled bartender, and has carefully chosen a service staff who will commit to Novo’s philosophy.

Tim and Mon have always been committed to developing their staff, tapping into each person’s potential for growth, both professionally and personally. “I love working with creative people,” says Tim. Chef Alejandro and Amy “the menu architect” are clearly Tim’s sort of creative people, and Novo’s menu has already drawn heady praise from diners. They really like the small plates that encourage guests to sample many unusual or specially prepared combinations, like the grilled Anaheim peppers stuffed with Oaxaca cheese and sautéed in olive oil with a sprinkling of sea salt. These exciting flavors are enticing preparation for, say, the watermelon salad with jicama, fresh greens, and serrano dressing—a knockout dish. The tamales, tacos of various kinds, tostadas (they make all their tortillas in-house), and New York strip steak huarache—each is just excellent. Then there are the “Platos Fuertes,” the “strong plates,” which are full-scale dinners like the fire-grilled Argentine skirt steak with tomato and squash blossom chimichurri. Diners rave about the flavors and textures of the Peruvian red snapper—it’s not to be missed. Desserts are still emerging.

Usually, a new restaurant needs several months to sort itself out, to settle on a crew and a menu. Novo has sprung, Athena-like, fully mature, from the fertile minds of Tim, Mon, Alejandro, and Amy, a success now but with room to grow. Chef Alejandro says the menu will change seasonally to take advantage of whatever’s fresh in the markets, but “only a little” because “[People] love something new” and also “something familiar.” He adds, “I want to make a place where people can come and have some fun.” That’s perfectly consistent with the aims of Tim and Mon. Tim speaks for both, saying, “We love food. We love our community.” 

105 Oakway Center