Nota Bene – the place is perfectly named. It was the last thing added to the KPMB's federal court building at Queen and University, arriving like an after thought and not part of the architects'original plan. But it was designed by them, and like a small grace note on the ground floor, the restaurant is now the structure's least obvious feature, but the one that ultimately stitches this 15-storey tower to the neighbourhoods it straddles, namely Queen West and the young shoppers and boulevardiers, and University Avenue, with its office towers and opera and ballet audiences.
Nota Bene is divided into two sections, the bar and two long L-shaped avocado leather banquettes in front being about 76 centimetres lower than the main dining room in the back. The effect makes the bar look like a high-end counter diner, a sort of walnut-paneled, faux basalt, porcelain-floored Vesta Lunch for the Queen Street crowd. It's an inviting space, visible to the street through three dash-like windows, through which one of Nota Bene's three curvilinear elements, hand-blown Sophia pendants from Eugenio Pamio's OTY Light, can be seen.
The second element is a massive column in the middle of the formal dining room. Part of the tower’s structure, the pillar is an obstacle turned into a focal point, a centre from which the rest of the room radiates in a set of rectangular and circular tables that provide what architect Thomas Payne – who designed the interior along with David Jesson, Brad Hindson, Carolyn Lee and Frances Lago – describes as providing “enough variety in the seating that you feel every seat has cachet.” Fabric-lined ceiling panels absorb sound so that every table has its own aural dome, an effect Payne, who prides himself on his firm’s acoustic prowess, sees as especially important for a space as popular and diverse as Nota Bene has become since opening in July. The real news for the culinary world, however, is the ownership team. Yannick Bigourdan and chef David Lee of Splendido joined with local restaurateur legend Franco Prevedello (Biffi, Pronto, Centro).
The menu is Splendido with a money filter: with the exception of a couple of 60-day-aged steaks, the mains (Lake Huron pickerel or suckling pig with boudin noir tart) hover in the mid-$20s, with starters (Nova Scotia lobster salad) $5 to $10 cheaper on average. The ingredients are local, the dishes and techniques simple, with a minimum of sauce and spice. Cocktails are another story, with a $17 three-ounce “martini” made with more ingredients (including the occasional egg) than one of Lee’s main courses. The $15 Streetcar, a Toronto spin on the sidecar, with lemon-maple juice, is damn fine, though. – Bert Archer
Photos by Tom Arban
Featured in Designlines Spring 2009