"Nota Bene has Splendido’s chef but doesn’t charge Splendido’s prices. No wonder it’s the hottest new restaurant in town By James Chatto
We first heard the rumour in the summer of 2006: Yannick Bigourdan and David Lee, owners of the super-deluxe Splendido, were opening another place and their partner was none other than legendary restaurateur Franco Prevedello, the man who reinvented Toronto fine dining in the 1980s with his high-energy restaurants Biffi, Pronto and Centro. Prevedello had left the industry a decade ago—what had brought him back? Would he manage the room, or would Bigourdan? Would Splendido suffer? The location was spectacular—on the street level of the 15-storey federal court building at Queen and University, close to the opera house. Walking past, I peered in at the space—7,000 square feet of bare grey concrete, some massive support columns—then they covered the windows with paper and the long wait began.
Two years later, on a hot morning in early July, I’m back for a second look. The place has a name now—Nota Bene—and though paper still masks the windows, the interior has been transformed. A bar stretches across the front of the restaurant, with seating for 35. Behind it and up five steps is the dining room: an elegant modern design with Brazilian cherrywood floors and chartreuse leather banquettes. Filling a quarter of the room are the 35 young men and women who will be the restaurant’s front-of-house team, chosen from more than 250 applicants.
Dapper in a striped shirt and silk tie, Bigourdan is pumped, making little jokes as he explains what they are about to experience this morning: learning the numbers of tables and seats, how to set up cutlery and plates, serving each other dishes from the kitchen where Lee and his brigade of 25 are already hard at work. “Yes, you can eat the food,” he says. “I expect you to ask a thousand questions! Today will be chaos—the only day that is allowed!”
At 38 (four years older than Bigourdan), Lee is a shadow of his former self after losing 55 pounds over the past year on a diet that included two pounds of leafy green vegetables a day. “I fell in love with rapini,” he explains, “so that will be a permanent dish on the menu. It took me three months to come up with the first draft, scribbling notes at one o’clock in the morning as the ideas came. When that was done, I began to design the kitchen around it.” There was only one contractor the team wanted: Chris Dineley, veteran of Bymark and One, the very best man for the job. Lee had some requests: Double the size of the dish pit. Give me another oven here. Put the new sous-vide machine downstairs. And an area devoted to charcuterie. In 24 hours, they had the kitchen mapped out. Finding an architect and designer went equally smoothly. The building’s own architects, Kuwabara, Payne, McKenna, Blumberg, the firm behind the Gardiner Museum and the new Royal Conservatory of Music, were eager to take on the job. Nota Bene was taking shape."
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