Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Nota Bene: Downtown Dining at Queen & University

Franco Prevedello’s name is synonymous with success. Over the last two decades, he's had a string of successful restaurant ventures in Toronto, including Splendido, Pronto, Centro, Terra, Acqua and now more recently, Nota Bene — considered to be one of Canada's top-ranked restaurants, according to En Route Magazine and many esteemed culinary punditsThree years in, Franco Prevedello and partners Chef David Lee and Yannick Bigourdan have struck gold again: Nota Bene seats 170 and is always jammed with big spenders. The space, designed by KPMB, is a place to be and be seen. The night we're there, we're unfortunately seated beside a table of 10 posturing power brokers that are almost deafening with their noise.

Nota Bene Reception

"Nota Bene is the synthesis of entrepreneurial and design thinking to create a highly successful dining model where social, cultural, ceremonial and business needs converge", according to KPMB. But with all the design and planning that's taken place, they've overlooked one thing that you just can't manufacture — warmth.

Seven months and $3 million dollar later, you get to sit in a lovely room that exudes both power and grace. Walnut walls and Brazilian cherrywood floors give the space warmth, while the high ceilings and spacious seating exude an air of affluence. The 7,000-square-foot space is divided into a front bar and lounge section and a dining room. When combined, the rooms hold 110 seated and 200 for cocktail receptions. The restaurant is decorated with dark brown leather chairs and wood panelling, but splashes of colour show up in the chartreuse leather banquettes and a series of abstract urban paintings by Canadian artist Alex D'Arcy.

Artist Alex D'Arcy brings life to Nota Bene

'Cadmium Red Variations 2' by Alex D'Arcy

Prevedello has always relished the details involved in creating a restaurant. He points out the dark brown leather chairs from the Italian firm Cassina, which look much like the oxblood ones he put into Centro back in the ’80s. “I wanted oxblood again. KPMB wanted black. We compromised.” Lee and Bigourdan had balked at the price—$1,400 a chair—but Prevedello persuaded them to buy 135 of them. “They will last 20 years. A restaurant is only as good as its chairs. And these wine glasses. I found them in Verona. Nowhere else in Canada has them.”

The main Dining Room

The Bar at Nota Bene, where some singles choose to dine

Born in England, Chef David Lee is the third generation in a family line of chefs. He began his apprenticeship in the village of Hertfordshire where game meats and local produce were in abundance. From there at age 17 he made the move to London and the Hotel Intercontinental in Hyde Park where he worked under the tutelage of Executive Chef Peter Kromberg at Restaurant Le Soufflé, where he got his first taste of cooking Michelin starred food and was exposed to such masters as Raymond Blanc and Michel and Albert Roux. In 1992 he was recruited by Anton Mosimann to work at his eponymous restaurant, and at age 24 moved to Canada and was hired as the chef de cuisine by Marc Thuet, executive chef-owner at Centro. Five years later, David teamed up with Yannick Bigourdan to acquire Splendido, and in August 2008, David opened Nota Bene, with the idea of bringing the quality of food from Splendido, to those who might not want to pay Splendido prices. That is not to say that it's cheap, it's just that the value oriented prices are a little lighter on the wallet. 

Chef David Lee, co-owner of Nota Bene

Starters include a selection of 'NB Classics' and 'Raw' dishes such as Nova Scotia Lobster Salad, Yucatan Hot and Sour Soup and Salmon Sashimi. I ordered the delicious Tunisian Octopus with braised greens, cannellini beans and Iberico chorizo topped with a drizzle of olive oil and fresh basil, which was perfectly cooked, and prepared with a restrained hand, allowing the simple ingredients and flavours to shine through.

Tunisian Octopus with braised greens, cannellini beans, Iberico chorizo and basil

A tempting list of side dishes, designed for sharing, include Chef Lee's impossibly thin Shaved Onion Rings, which are quite possibly the best I've ever tried, and a mound of Pommes Frites finished with a generous grating of Pecorino cheese. Oddly enough, I spotted one table tucking into Nota Bene's Stilton Beef Brisket Burger, which at $22 with Pommes Frites, makes for an affordable high-end Burger night. However, that's where the frugality ends. 

Shaved Onion Rings with sea salt

Pommes Frites with shaved Pecorino

Entrées at Nota Bene include Roasted Sea Scallops with bacon cauliflower purée, fingerling potatoes and shaved black truffle, which sounded great but arrived overcooked in a rather tame sauce. The shavings of black truffle, with all its pomp and glory, was devoid of flavour and quite disappointing. The evening's dinner special, which fared slightly better, was a Ragu Bolognese served on Fettuccine topped with micro-greens. The winner of the evening was undoubtedly the NB Hogtown Classic Pulled Suckling Pig & Boudin Noir Tart with maple bacon, Tallegio cheese and truffle vinaigrette topped with pork crackling. The thick flaky pastry was just the right base for the rich maple-smoked bacon and intense blood sausage, all finished with a truffle vinaigrette. A fabulously presented and well flavoured dish, The Hogtown Classic is filling to say the least and extremely rich. But what the heck, "carne diem".

The Thursday Special — Ragu Bolognese with fettuccine, basil and micro greens

Roasted Sea Scallops with bacon cauliflower purée, fingerling potatoes and shaved black truffle

Nota Bene Hogtown Classic of Pulled Suckling Pig & Boudin Noir Tart with maple bacon, 
Tallegio cheese and truffle vinaigrette topped with crackling

The dessert offerings included a sinful selection of eight decadent desserts to tempt the weak, from Sticky Toffee Pudding served with pecan pralines and spotted dick ice cream, Double Chocolate Brownie with banana ice cream, cornflake crunch and Kahlua caramel, and an Apple Galette with vanilla ice cream and blueberry compote. A quiet word to our server earlier on, resulted in a thin wafer of chocolate being brought to our table, with the words 'Happy Birthday' piped on top and finished with a little birthday candle, for the birthday boy at our table. A nice touch. For those heading to the opera or ballet at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Nota Bene's Pre-Theatre menu makes a fine dining option, with two courses for $34 or three for $42. 

Apple Galette with Vanilla Ice Cream and Blueberry Compote

Cheese Plate with Chamblé, Sainte Maure and Rocchetta with a small bowl of honey

The only problem is that Nota Bene was designed from the start: the food is interesting, unfussy and well prepared, the service professional, the overall mood unpretentiously sophisticated. On the technical side, I’d say they've nailed it, although at the expense of any feeling of warmth or romance. But when you're courting account execs with large expense accounts, something's got to fall off the back end. The night we were there, service was friendly, polite, and efficient. But friendly? No. The partners have always prided themselves on attention to detail, but one detail you can't fabricate is 'heart'. 

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