Monday, May 7, 2012

LA Italian + Bar: The New Little Anthony's

The original Little Anthony's, founded by Bob Antoniou, was a downtown landmark for over 17 years. Following a three month renovation, the restaurant has just reopened under the new LA's monogram with a brand new kitchen, a fresh new menu and updated modern decor. Now run by Andreas Antoniou, owner of Estiatorio VOLOS, the corner of Richmond and York has experienced a much anticipated and badly needed rejuvenation. Conveniently located across from the Canadian Opera Centre, Bob Antoniou had the dining monopoly on this key intersection for years with Mediterra and Little Anthony's, and when he closed Mediterra two years ago, he handed the keys to his son Andreas, who undertook a major redesign of both the space and the concept. Using the same team that revitalized VOLOS, Antoniou hired interior designer Marc Kyriacou to rehaul the new space.

The new LA Italian + Bar 

Blessed with a prime corner location and impressive bank of 15-foot tall windows, the restaurant has been reborn — gone is the tired upholstery and dated wall murals — however, in its place, Kyriacou had introduced an underwhelming palette of oranges and steel blues accented by warm grey undertones. A handsome new 50-foot long beveled granite bar has been installed along one side of the restaurant, and in the dining room, walls of beveled mirrors reflect soft gold light from clusters of tented sconces. Gone are the aging staff in crisp tuxedos, replaced by a roster of young ladies in casual black jeans and comfortable shoes. 

Unfortunately, gone also is any air of sophistication, like the elegant linens and orchids that used to accent Little Anthony's table settings, or the soft accent lighting, natural woods, and odd splash of greenery. In Kyriacou's zealous efforts to contemporize the space, he's minimized the design so much, that he's wrung out all vestiges of warmth and character. Would a piece of modern art or two go amiss? Admittedly, Little Anthony's was in need of a facelift, but the new interior, with it's hard surfaces and bright colours feels more like a high end cafeteria than a fine Italian dining experience. And yet, Kyriacou did such an exquisite job on VOLOS across the street — alas, 'the Devil is in the details'.

Little Anthony's before the rebranding and renovations

Thank goodness the food is a bit better, and the service friendly and attentive. Joining Antoniou is Executive Chef Aaron Foster from DEC at the Ritz-Carlton, with an updated menu that reflects his new approach with a series of tasting options from Antipasti, Via Mare, Carnivora, Contorni and Primi. Along with the redesigned menu are more upscale prices as well, although a thoughtfully designed Pre-Theatre menu offers opera patrons a three course meal for less than $35. 

The new menu at LA

A small wooden bowl of fresh focaccia and imposssibly green olive oil with herbs arrived with our glasses of wine, as we reviewed the menus. With tickets to see Puccini's Gianni Shicchi at the COC on this particular evening, we decided to take advantage of LA's Theatre menu, and started with the Classic Caesar Salad with buttery croutons, smoked bacon and restrained peppercorn lemon dressing, and the daily soup creation, a light and creamy Jerusalem Artichoke Soup with a drizzle of olive oil and minced chives. Simple and tasty, both dishes were nicely presented and quite delicious.

Lovely fresh focaccia with flavoured herb olive oil

The kitchen daily soup creation  -  a creamy Jerusalem Artichoke soup

Classic Caesar Salad with buttery croutons, smoked bacon lardons 
and a light peppercorn and lemon dressing

For the 'Second Act' we selected the Roasted Atlantic Salmon with peperonata and mussels, and Devil's Chicken, a lightly spiced chicken with fingerling potatoes and carrots in a pan sauce garnished with a flourish of spring pea purée. For the 'Curtain Call' we ordered two dolci — a dense and moist Almond Butter Cake with a ginger creme anglaise and warm pear compote, and scoop of Nutella Gelato. Both were excellent.

Roasted Atlantic Salmon with peperonata and mussels

Devil's Chicken with fingerling potatoes and carrots in a pan sauce 
garnished with a flourish of spring pea purée

Almond Butter Cake with a ginger creme anglaise and warm pear compote

Nutella Gelato with pieces of chocolate

Many of the patrons dining at LA this night were like us, devoted opera fans in search of a good meal close to the COC, and with reasonable prices. LA has gone through two months of soft openings in an effort to tweak the menu and iron out the wrinkles, however it's not the kitchen that needs finessing. It's those elusive qualities that define the success of any restaurant and make it a memorable experience, create customer loyalty, and result in a restaurant's clientele returning over and over again. Only time will tell if the new LA has what it takes to go the distance.