Nota Bene chef David Lee shows lots of personality.
NOTA BENE (180 Queen West, at Simcoe, 416-977-6400) Complete dinners for $85 per person (lunches $60), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $25. Open for lunch Monday to Friday noon to 2:30 pm, for dinner Monday to Saturday 5 to 11 pm. Closed Sunday, holidays. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
Say you've just caught Dirty Dancing at the Royal Alex, Avenue Q at the Elgin, or Cheech & Chong at Massey Hall and you've got the munchies. There's always Fran's, but where can you go for a bang-up after-the-show nosh at this hour?
Enter Nota Bene. Kitty-corner from the Four Seasons opera house at Queen and University, the month-old beanery and Splendido spinoff offers a late-night dinner seating at 11 pm pitched to the theatre crowd.
But first you have to find it.
For a restaurant with this high a profile, Nota Bene has next to zero street presence. It's hidden away behind an anonymous glass façade on the ground floor of a recently built insurance tower. With a condom store and a tattoo parlour directly across the street, perhaps this was done on purpose.
Behind its blank facade, find a New York-style saloon à la the Silver Rail and, up a few stairs, a 200-seat dining room designed by local architects KPMB. The room, decked out with low-slung olive-toned banquettes, is an exercise in beige, so bland and anonymously luxe, we could be in the basement of a Las Vegas hotel - a very expensive Las Vegas hotel, mind, one with a 33-ounce steak ($89) on the menu.
Nota Bene's personality is saved for the plate. We mull over starters like chilled courgette (zucchini to us hoi-polloi) and Yucatan hot 'n' sour soup tossed with goji berries, whatever they are (both $10), but opt for a spectacularly plated duck salad ($15) instead. Dressed with crisp strips of breast, sliced green papaya and a toss of cashews, its bed of citrusy daikon "noodles" comes further festooned with a topknot of deep-fried taro threads tangled with amaranth sprouts and purple nasturtium petals.
The Chinese zodiac got it right by calling 2008 the year of the pig. In the past 12 months, it seems like every cutting edge kitchen in town from Thuet to Cowbell has gone mad for charcuterie.
Nota Bene's no different, our second appetizer being a symphonic array of streaky maple-smoked bacon, peppery saucisson, Varzi-style salami, smoked cheeks and a swoon-inducing scoop of unadulterated and unapologetic pork fat that may as well be mainlined ($24 for two). Pickled baby beets, Calabrian olives, a few crisps and Kozlik's of St. Lawrence Market's triple-crunch grainy mustard complete the porcine platter.
We go even more hog-wild for suckling pig and boudin noir tart ($25), an outrageously over the top pairing of sweet baby meat , fatty bacon and blood sausage. More taco than tart, it's further layered with meaty shiitake 'shrooms, funky near-blue Tallegio cheese and a finishing splash of truffle oil.
By comparison, a perfectly flaky fillet of Lake Huron pickerel ($22) dusted with roasted paprika and coupled with buttery puréed cauliflower has the appeal of a sensible pair of shoes.
Me? I'll be back after the last curtain call for Nota Bene's superb Stilton and beef brisket cheeseburger sided with five-star frites, a veritable bargain in these rarefied parts at 19 bucks.