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Nota Bene ~ Better Take Notice - review + pics

BokChoi Aug 21, 2008 06:58 PM

As many of you have realized, I have some rather difficult-to-please dining companions. Thanks again to all of you for your suggestions over the past 2 weeks regarding "safe", good value restaurants. After much deliberation (and much arm-twisting on my part), I managed to get my companions to venture out and try a new resto. We finally settled on Nota Bene, after unfortunately ruling out each and every one of the other suggestions, for some reason or another (been there before, too pricey, menu not to their liking, etc. etc.) I will still likely introduce them to some of the other suggestions on that post later in the year, now that they have had a very pleasurable experience at Nota Bene. (baby steps people, baby steps...). Though I trumped up the restaurant to the best of my ability stating that CHer’s have only posted positive sentiments about the restaurant, the only reason we probably ended up going on this adventure in the first place was because of the favourable review that came out in The Star the weekend earlier. Thank goodness for easily swayed consumers of mass media...

First off, the food was superb. It was on the mark in almost every area. Presentation was whimsical, yet functional. Food was solid. Menu variety was varied enough to provide some excitement, without causing confusion to those less inclined to try more adventurous fare. Restaurant decor was pleasing and the service was first-class.

When we arrived, we were promptly seated and given our menus. Our affable waiter intelligently described the dinner specials of the evening and provided insight into some key ingredients as well as some of his preferences. On the menu that night was a delicious mozzarella di Bufala from Italy, that was served alongside fresh cherry tomatoes in Nota Bene’s take on the Insalata Caprese. Upon the strong suggestion from the waiter, one of my dining companions ventured to try it. It was, by far, the strongest single dish of the evening. The cheese was subtle, not stringy nor grainy in texture at all. It was sweet and smooth as silk. I had never tasted another Buffalo mozzarella quite like it – and I am a fan of it to begin with. Simply an amazingly composed dish.

(Early apologies on the photos. The lighting was quite dark in the restaurant.)
Mozzarella di Bufala: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28531775@N06/2769250441/in/photostream/

Other appetizers we sampled included the barramundi, the hot and sour soup with smoked chicken, and the crispy duck salad. Ranked second amongst the dishes was the crispy duck salad. The duck was expertly prepared – the skin was thin, light and crisp. The salad was not overpowered at all by the saltier duck and was nicely balanced by the citrus dressing. Very strong dish – I would highly recommend trying this one. An opinion many others have also voiced. The soup was nice, but forgettable IMO, though the smoked chicken was well done – not overcooked even though it was boiled in the broth. The barramundi ranked last, IMO, as it was overdone for my tastes. The dry rub was a nice change (tandoori spiced), but the fish was too small a chunk to allow for a gradient in doneness and was left on the heat too long.

Hot Sour Soup: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28531775@N06/2770098100/in/photostream/
Crispy Duck Salad: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28531775@N06/2770098046/in/photostream/
Barramundi: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28531775@N06/2770098158/

Next up, we shared the charcuterie platter. Amazingly diverse selection of cured meats. I especially found the Creemore maple bacon the most pleasant experience. Though there was a very apparent vein of fat that ran along the length of the bacon, the taste was extremely light and refreshing. I was quite shocked. The most pedestrian of the bunch was the Saucisson Sec from France. Nothing particularly note worthy of this item. Other items included Smoked Yorkshire Pig’s Cheek, Duck Prosciutto, whipped Berkshire Pork Fat, and Maple-cured bacon.

Charcuterie: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28531775@N06/2769250625/
Charcuterie 2: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28531775@N06/2769250585/in/photostream/

The mains were up next. Like most restaurants, the mains were not as strong as their starters. It was not, however, as big a let down as many of the other meals I have experienced. Our party ordered the highly touted ribs, pickerel and the daily special – halibut. By far, I enjoyed the pickerel the most. It was exceptionally moist and flavourful. It was a very light fish and was not too heavy – a complaint I normally have with many prepared fish dishes. Many restaurants tend to overpower light fishes with heavy sauces and creams. This one was served with a cauliflower puree beneath it, and a pesto to its side. The ribs were much to rich for my liking. However, I am not a “rib” person and do not generally appreciate such rich meats (though I enjoy a nice venison or game-meat from time to time). The halibuts were unfortunately the big let-downs of the evening. They were overdone IMO and could have been better – I think a nice olive oil poaching would have made the dish amazing. I had it once at a restaurant in NYC called Degustation – it was the best fish I had ever had in my entire life.

Rib photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28531775@N06/2770098306/
Pickerel: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28531775@N06/2770098334/
Halibut: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28531775@N06/2769250683/

Next came desserts. All I can say is make sure you save room for these gems. Because the waiter was so bang-on with his earlier recommendation of the Insalata Caprese, we ventured to try the bread pudding. Though I am not typically a fan of this type of dessert, I would have to say this was one of the best desserts I have tried at a restaurant of this price point. The pudding was crisp on the edges and dense and rich on the inside. It was served alongside some Niagara poached peaches. Other desserts we sampled included the Strawberry & Champagne sorbet, and the yogurt panna cotta. The panna cotta was quite a strong entry and had a very robust yogurt essence. The tartness of the yogurt balanced nicely with the sweetness of the blueberries that were mounded alongside it.

Bread pudding: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28531775@N06/2770098350/
Strawberry & Champagne sorbet: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28531775@N06/2770098434/
Panna Cotta: http://www.flickr.com/photos/28531775...

Overall this was a great dining experience that will most certainly guarantee me future dining experiences with my now wonderfully appeased guests. I would definitely return and sample future menu items. As this seating allowed us to try almost every dish on the menu, I will wait until the menu has been updated for the changing seasons. I highly recommend this restaurant as a solid, “safe”, and excellently priced restaurant. David Lee even came out for a brief moment out of the kitchen to admire his new restaurant. I applaud him for introducing a superior restaurant that fills the void that Toronto has had in the area of fine-dining with excellent food at a medium price point. Toronto now has a gem of a restaurant that the masses can afford.

Dinner for 4, not included wine, <$300.

Thanks CHer's for the positive early reviews and the assistance on choosing a restaurant that fit all my criteria.

Cheers and Happy Eating!

  1. skylineR33 Aug 21, 2008 07:31 PM

    I do not get some of your post.

    You mean you have tried almost every dish on the menu and will wait until the menu is updated before returning ?! But I only see you mention 3 apps, 3 mains and 3 desserts. Probably the menu you had is different from mine, because the one I had at Nota Bene has like 10+ apps, 10 mains and 7desserts + David Lee's 60 days aged steak. Or am I missing something ?? Please advise.

    2 Replies
    1. re: skylineR33
      BokChoi Aug 21, 2008 07:36 PM

      hi skylineR33. I knew that I should have clarified that sentence. And I knew you would be all over that one - you always keep me on my toes. I would like to clarify that I have tried most of the permutations that interested me. Of course, everyone has preferences for certain types of preparations and main ingredients. So I have decided I have maximized the return on the menu thus far - but I know that he frequently updates his menu, so I will return once he has another incarnation of it. The caprese was new that day, as was the bread pudding - both were excellent dishes. If I see that he has updated his online menu, or if I see another posting by a CHer with a varied menu, I will be sure to return to sample it.

      Cheers
      btw, I tried 3-4 of the 10 dishes for almost every course (and 5 of the appetizers) - if we're keeping count.

      1. re: BokChoi
        skylineR33 Aug 21, 2008 07:40 PM

        I see, thanks for clearing up my confusion.

        btw, 3-4 out of 10+ dishes and 5 out of 10+ is far from "almost all" if the count is kept correctly.

    2. Rabbit Aug 21, 2008 07:34 PM

      Great reporting - thanks for the detailed feedback and photos. I can't wait to get to this spot!

      Glad to hear the meal was enjoyed by all. You're a good friend to have worked so hard to accommodate your guests.

      5 Replies
      1. re: Rabbit
        BokChoi Aug 21, 2008 07:42 PM

        Thanks Rabbit. I definitely wanted to share my love of food with them and hopefully get them hooked as well.
        Cheers

        1. re: BokChoi
          m
          millygirl Aug 22, 2008 03:14 AM

          Hi bokchoi, thanks for your detailed review and pics. It's definitely on my list.

          1. re: millygirl
            BokChoi Aug 22, 2008 07:37 AM

            Hope it helps you pick your dishes when you finally try it out, millygirl. Please note that Chef Lee updates his menu pretty frequently as I noted my menu was noticeably different from previous CHer's posts just weeks before. Cheers and Happy Eating!

            1. re: BokChoi
              OnDaGo Aug 22, 2008 09:48 AM

              I went the second Saturday they were open and again on this past Wednesday and the menus were basically identicle I think only one dish changed.

              1. re: Matt416
                BokChoi Aug 22, 2008 09:42 PM

                Hey Matt - I'd like to hear the ones you found to be keepers. Anything struck you as noteworthy? Did you get to try the caprese? Thought that one was one for the books. Excellent mozzarella. Does anyone know where I could secure some of that for home use?

                Cheers

      2. f
        fussychow Aug 22, 2008 06:41 AM

        Went there a couple of weeks ago. I wasn't keen on the decor (the room felt very 90's), but the food was wonderful. Had a really decent bottle of wine, the duck salad (swoon!), the pickerel (delicate and very fresh), and my friend had the rapini salad and the hangar steak. The side of chips such a guilty pleasure, but oh so good. Next time I'm trying the suckling pig tart.

        1. always_eating Aug 23, 2008 08:42 AM

          Hey BokChoi, thanks for your review and sharing your pictures. I'm going to Nota Bene for dinner and have been perusing the menu but it is very hard to decide what to try. However your pictures have helped with my decision-making! I'm probably going to go with the Heirloom Cherry Tomato Salad and the Charcuterie (my fellow diner will not touch that, his loss, so it will be just me eating all that fatty/meaty goodness). I figure that will do me in (if I were to have a Main I would choose the Lake Huron Pickerel Filet), though I want to try the Niagara Bing Cherry Crumble or a Cheese Board.

          5 Replies
          1. re: always_eating
            BokChoi Aug 23, 2008 08:54 AM

            The cheese platter sounded very interesting. I may have to try that next time. Last time I went they featured a Tiger Blue, a Naramata Bench, Piave Vecchio (stand by favourite of mine) and an extra old Beemster (another classic). I have never tried the Ciel de Charlevoix, which I was excited to try, but the diners I went with were unfortunately not cheese fans, so I doubt I could have gorged myself on 5 different varieties on my own.

            Hope you enjoy your time there. Let me know how you end up liking it. I feel it's solid food at a great price point. Nice basic fare that cannot be beat in my eyes right now in T.O. Cannot wait to try and discover something new though.

            1. re: BokChoi
              always_eating Aug 30, 2008 11:25 AM

              My dinner at Nota Bene was very very good. I tried their Splendid cocktail which was a little too sweet for me but my friend had their Nota Bene martini and this was very refreshing with a nice tartness. For wine we just had a carafe of Chianti Classico. We both started with the Heirloom Cherry Tomato Salad and yes, it was awesome. The Burrata Pugliese and the fact that there were lots of tomatoes, made the dish. I went with the Charcuterie and revelled in my fat and meat heaven (mmmm, the pork cheeks, so delish) while my friend had the Seared "Rare" Yellowfin Tuna and really enjoyed it. We did go with a Cheese Platter to end and chose Le Ciel De Charlevoix, Chevre from Fifth Town Cheese in Prince Edward County (my favourite) and Naramata Bench. We wanted to have something to drink with them so they did a flight for us of Fino Sherry, Port and Madeira. So tasty and I definitely got my cheese fix! ;) I would go back again because there are still many things I would like to try from their menu. I enjoyed the atmosphere as well. Too bad David Lee didn't come out while we were there! :P

              1. re: always_eating
                BokChoi Aug 30, 2008 07:40 PM

                Glad to hear that you enjoyed your meal so much, always_eating. It sounds like you had an excellent experience as well! I have also since returned to Nota Bene and was again blown away at how elegant the food was. Amazing and truly the best experience I have had in Toronto - food- wise for as far as I can remember. I will post my updated photos soon.

                What main did you end up ordering? Did you stick with your original selection of Pickerel?

                Cheers!

                1. re: BokChoi
                  always_eating Aug 31, 2008 08:02 AM

                  I actually didn't have a Main, just the Heirloom Cherry Tomato Salad and the Charcuterie. It was actually quite filling and a good decision because it left just enough room for the Cheese Platter. That's why I want to go back again and try some other things! I'm interested to see what you ate on your return visit.

                  1. re: always_eating
                    BokChoi Sep 1, 2008 09:10 AM

                    Based on Matt416's and others' suggestions (and the fact that I very much enjoyed my last outing to Nota Bene and eventually realized that it is now my go-to place for a satisfying meal at that price range) I decided to return to Nota Bene and try their other dishes. I did not want to wait for the chef to lose interest before returning as people were right - there is so much more on the menu to sample!

                    Once again, I was blown away. This time, David Lee was not at the helm, but it was still an amazing experience. The bread pudding was done a bit differently this time, and I preferred the last preparation of it a bit better (more bread, less custard in their bead:custard ratio, thus having a bit more 'crustiness' to it), as well, the charcuterie seemed a touch smaller (but that could just be because I was shocked by the variety the first time, and it lost that 'surprise' appeal for me this time), but still excellent. But those were minor complaints in the grand scheme of things.

                    Charcuterie: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/2815217101/in/set-72157606822704633/
                    Bread & Butter Pudding: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/2815217431/in/set-72157606822704633/

                    For those that have not yet tried Nota Bene, you do not know what you are missing. Truly a great find in this city - even removing the standout prices of this place, it has some of the tastiest food you can find in Toronto. I truly hope that I can still call this my favourite restaurant in the many years to come.

                    This time, I tried the amazing Boudin Noir tart, as everyone has suggested. Forget the seasons - this dish is for all seasons and is AMAZING. I could eat this everyday (and probably die of a coronary), but it is just THAT good. Granted, you have to enjoy the earthy flavour of the dish, which reminded me a good deal of truffle aroma. Amazing. Paired with the mushrooms, it was a hearty dish that was full of punch. The 'tart' was a thin phyllo crisp beneath the mushroom, suckling pig, and boudin noir topping. The suckling pig was sweet and succulent. It was perfectly executed, and was so sickeningly tender. It was topped with crisp bacon that added an excellent texture contrast. And for such a punchy dish, it sure did have a delicate presentation. Truly one of my favourite dishes at the moment.

                    Boudin Noir: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/2816067692/

                    Before I go on to my other favourite dishes of the evening, I just wanted to mention the scallops. They were excellently done, but IMO, they were just scallops for me. Nothing too special. But they were very sweet, and juicy. Fresh produce, and excellent bed of lentils underneath them with a flavourful broth.

                    Scallops: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/2815217173/ (poor photo though, apologies

                    )

                    My next favourite dishes were the crab cakes (the special of the day) and the ocean trout. Let's start with the trout. Wafer-thin slices of trout sashimi with presented on a sprinkling of olive oil and soya sauce, topped with shiso leaves, coriander and thai basil. The shiso leaves really stole the show here and were an excellent addition to the dish - it provided the contrasting punch the dish required of such a fish. Well executed. Only complaint was that there was not enough to go around!

                    Ocean Trout: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/2816067532/

                    Now onto the greatest crab cake I have ever known. If there was any binder used in this crab cake, I could not tell because it was just that minimal. At the forefront of this dish was none other than the Maryland crab. Truly a feat of wonderment. I really hope they recycle this dish and have it in the future as well, because it was only on the specials menu. The meat was so succulent and sweet. It was as if you were eating by the ocean and were eating straight from the crab shell. Only someone was so kind to collect all the lump crab meat with put them on the plate for you, and lightly sear its exterior (fine bread crumb mixture breaded the cake, which was ever so lightly pan-seared - no oily residue). At first when it arrived, I thought that it was the smallest main dish I had ever seen (minus the experience I had at Thuet that is), but upon tasting the dish, I would never desire the chef to 'stretch' the ingredients by adding filler and binder to it to create an average calibre crab cake that was twice as large. I could go on and on about this crab cake, but all this talk of food is making me hungry and it's almost lunch time.

                    Crab Cake: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/2815217217/

                    Next up were the desserts. As previously mentioned, I went back to my favourite dessert of my last meal and had the bread pudding. It changed a bit (more custard, less bread - which was more like a thin 'toast' crust on top of custard) and I preferred the last variation a bit better. But to each their own. Then we also tried the chcolate tort (dark, rich and creamy chocolate) with a so-so raspberry sorbet accompaniment, and the cherry crumble. The raspberry sorbet lacked the texture I usually associate with raspberries, and the taste was not strong enough of the berry. A bit of a disappointment next to the strongly flavoured tart. The Bing Cherry crumble was another strong dish - excellent crusty topping. Cherries were a bit tart as expected and thus the dish was not overly sweet. Would be my second favourite dessert after the Bread Pudding, but just ahead of the subtler panna cotta.

                    Cherry Crumble: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-snowpea/2815217375/
                    Chocolate Tart: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bokchoi-...

                    I can only hope that David Lee and his team continue to produce such excellent fare at such an affordable price. They are truly a force to be reckoned with in the Toronto food scene right now. I can finally feel confident in recommending a restaurant to my friends and coworkers and not worry that they will have a disappointing experience.

                    Cheers and Happy Eating!

          2. red dragon Sep 1, 2008 07:17 AM

            Glad you had a wonderful eating experience! On Sunday, we headed to our favorite Indian place (Little India). On our way back to the car, what did we spot across the street? Nota Bene! What a coincidence huh?

            2 Replies
            1. re: red dragon
              BokChoi Sep 1, 2008 08:29 AM

              Saw Little India as well the two times I went to Nota Bene so far and remembered it as your recommendation! Must remember to make my way in there soon. I will ask for recommendations beforehand on the other thread posting you made.
              Cheers!

              1. re: BokChoi
                red dragon Sep 1, 2008 12:53 PM

                Would suggest the lunch buffet (they don't have dinner) which is 7 days a week :)

            2. BokChoi Sep 19, 2008 01:55 PM

              Here is a link to my second post - just to keep them together. Cheers!

              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/553895

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