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David Lee bids Nota Bene farewell with an all-new concept from his trailblazing plant-based eatery
Planta Queen (180 Queen West, at University, (647) 812-1221, plantarestaurants.com), once home to David Lee’s landmark restaurant Nota Bene, has been brought under the same banner as Planta and Planta Burger.
Lee launched the original Planta in Yorkville in late 2016, and the restaurant’s fresh, upmarket take on vegan eats became an instant hit with the Yorkville crowd, while helping to usher in a recent local boom in vegan dining options. The brand has since expanded to include a takeout burger joint as well as a satellite location in Miami.
Some would have been happy to just port a successful concept from one location to another — but, as Lee puts it, “that would have been too easy.” Instead, after Lee decided to wind things down at Nota Bene, he and the rest of the Chase Hospitality Group opted to roll out an entirely new pan-Asian concept that pays tribute to dishes Lee loved during his childhood in Mauritius.
“It’s two totally different concepts in terms of flavour profile,” Lee says.
In addition to giving Planta’s existing fans a reason to make the trip down to Queen West, the new menu was also developed to satisfy the team’s broader goal of showing off the range that Planta — and plant-based food as a whole — can offer.
“We can do this with pizza, pastas, Asian, sushi, Mexican. It’s limitless,” says Steven Salm, the CEO of the Chase Hospitality Group. “We saw an opportunity, with just two kilometres between Planta Yorkville and Planta Queen, to have large differences in cuisine, design, experience.”
Though a definite air of buzzy luxury remains, the space is a departure from both Nota Bene and the original Planta. Separated into a number of distinct spaces, the restaurant feels darker and cozier, with a mazelike front of house opening up to a sprawling back room decked out with round tables and Japanese maples.
“We wanted to offer a bit of compartmentalization,” Salm says. “The space before was very open and quite grand, but we wanted to introduce these little pockets of places where you can enjoy the experience. The whole experience with Planta is meant to be very inclusive, as opposed to entering some grand, open space.”
That extends to the menu, which, as with the previous Planta, leans more heavily on classically-vegetarian dishes than on morphing plant products into meat and dairy substitutes. Then again, this is the team that put a smoked-carrot “hot dog” on its menu — so the fact that the new menu features nigiri with “ahi” made from watermelon should come as little surprise.
Offering vegetarian diners options is top of mind for Lee, who says that when he arrived in Canada in 1994, vegans were too often stuck eating tomato penne at restaurants: “In today’s world, that’s not acceptable.”
But the original Planta has become popular with diners of all stripes, and Lee says he’s already seeing that happen on Queen. “There’s definitely a lot of carnivores, in essence, that come try this for the first time, and love it. Then they’re back the following day. It’s happening again here,” Lee says.
That ties into a broader goal for Salm and the rest of the Chase’s restaurants, who have been folding more vegetarian cuisine into their restaurants in tandem with Planta’s success. The company has set a target to make 25 per cent of the menu at all of their restaurants vegan — seen in action at the company’s other recent launch, the retro steakhouse-inspired Arthur’s, where normally butter-laden midcentury faves sit side by side with mushroom pate and pasta alla vodka with almond parm.
“If we built this for vegetarians, it’s completely defeating the purpose of what Planta is — Planta is an amazing restaurant, period,” Salm says.
“The only thing that’s different from conventional restaurants, even our own, is that we just leave animals off the plate. It lets people enjoy everything they would enjoy in a traditional restaurant and still feel good about themselves.”
Potato and cabbage dumplings ($14.75) are topped with a shaving of truffles.
Planta’s dosa ($16.50) features coconut chutney and cabbage slaw modeled after versions Lee ate when he was young. “We just added in a little bit of fat with the avocado to knock it up a notch.”
The Shanghai noodles with carrots, cabbage and shiitake mushrooms ($17.25) are built on a base of noodles made by Famiglia Baldassarre, whose owner Leandro Baldassarre got his start at age 16 in Lee’s former restaurant Splendido.
The vegan nigiri: “Ahi” watermelon, king oyster mushroom brushed with soya and truffle oil, and Japanese eggplant with pomegranate seeds and unagi sauce ($5.25 for two pieces).
The “Hawaiian pineapple” dessert ($11.25) features a passion fruit sorbet and a sprinkling of boba, plus lime leaf and squiggly pineapple gel “noodles.” “Growing up in Mauritius, we had plenty of pineapples — but the bubble tea is definitely a Canadian thing, I would say.”
The Full Moon cocktail (all cocktails $15.25), includes tequila, mezcal, cointreau, dragon fruit lemonade, dragon fruit balls and starfruit slices. The Herb Your Enthusiasm is their take on a margarita, made with house-infused chili tequila, pineapple and lime juices, Cointreau, and a pineapple garnish.
The Berry White features raspberry-infused soju, grapefruit and raspberry with a sprinkle of beet powder as a garnish.
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