— INDEPENDENT RESTAURATEURS OF THE YEAR —
With a shared philosophy and passion, a trio of seasoned professionals comes together to create Toronto’s best new restaurant
There are industry pundits who say Yannick Bigourdan and chef David Lee are visionaries. How else would you explain their wise decision to team up with Franco Prevedello, godfather of Toronto restaurateurs, and open Nota Bene, a casual eatery in the heart of the city, then sell Splendido, their fine-dining restaurant to former employees, just months before the economic meltdown hit?
Talk to the men behind the winning concept and they’ll quickly tell you it had nothing to do with reading tea leaves and everything to do with timing.
“We always said if something ever came up we would do it with Franco,” says the charming and effusive, 35-year-old Bigourdan, who’s established himself as one of the finest front-of-the-house masters in Toronto.
After looking at about 20 locations, the trio fell in love with a new space on Queen St. W. instantly. “It exists on its own,” enthuses Prevedello. “It has its own entrance, identity and structure.” Prevedello knows good bones when he sees them. He’s owned a long list of landmark restaurants in Toronto including Biffi, Pronto and Centro. He also has a nose for real estate. He owns more than eight buildings in the city, including Splendido, where he met Bigourdan (Lee had cooked for him years ago at Centro).
Since selling Centro almost a decade ago, the legendary restaurateur has been involved in retail concepts such as Replay Jeans, a wine and spirits agency called Prevedello and Mathews, and serving as a visionary with Diamante Development Corp, which builds high-rise condos. But hospitality is in his blood, so it was a given he would one day return to his roots. “It’s about timing and good people,” says the 63-year-old native of Treviso, Italy. “Nota Bene was fresh and it came along at the right time.”
Luckily, Bigourdan and Lee were also looking for a challenge. Since purchasing Splendido in September 2001, their posh restaurant had consistently been rated one of the premier dining establishments in town. But they wanted to extend their reach and teaming up with Prevedello was a no-brainer. Originally, Bigourdan and Lee hoped to operate both restaurants, although once the reality of juggling the two eateries hit, the duo decided to sell Splendido and focus exclusively on Nota Bene.
“We wanted to bring back the simplicity of dining — to have an appetizer, entrée and dessert instead of the trend to tapas and tasting menus,” explains the French-born Bigourdan. “There was so much explanation required and, all of a sudden, dining was getting too complicated. We had a vision to keep our menu simple. We barely explain anything to our guests; everything is there. It’s a refreshing concept.”
As one of Toronto’s top toques, Lee longed to streamline his mode of cooking and create balance in his life. “The cooking at Splendido was very intense,” he admits. “There were a lot of steps to making dishes. We had seven courses and we had to maintain an à la carte menu as well. We wanted to go back to the basics.” Lee is thrilled with the end result — Nota Bene’s menu combines Asian and Latin flavours with a contemporary Canadian sensibility, and the occasional nod to Italy.
Customer favourites include apps like crisp duck salad ($15), steak tartare ($17) and tuna tartare ($15). For mains, the suckling pig and Boudin tart with maple-smoked bacon, mushrooms and truffle vinaigrette ($25) is a hot-seller. There’s also fresh local catch like Lake Huron pickerel with spinach, cauliflower purée and sundried tomato and basil pesto ($23) and a selection of Lee’s private stock of 60-day dry-aged beef.
With a brigade of 35, Lee is an intense and committed chef who commands respect in the kitchen. The 39-year-old native of England has worked with culinary heavyweights such as Anton Mosimann. He loves creating menus that are always evolving and, whenever possible, always local. “We have great relationship with farmers and they’re happy to give us first pick of their products,” he says. And like both of his partners, he understands the importance of staff training. “If you don’t give them your time to train them properly, you don’t get results.”
Call it business acumen, prescience or good timing, but the 185-seat restaurant struck a chord with Toronto diners immediately. Since opening in July 2008 at a cost of $3 million, the stunning, modern 8,000-square-foot space, designed by Thomas Payne of KPMB, is full every night. It’s garnered much critical acclaim, as well. Both Toronto Life and enRoute magazine named Nota Bene Best New Restaurant in 2008. At lunch it typically does one turn but when evening falls the eatery pulsates with action. “The opera and the ballet start early,” explains Bigourdan, so that’s a full seating on its own. At 7 p.m., it’s the business and pleasure crowd that comes in, and by 9 p.m., it’s all about those who want pleasure and fun.”
Bigourdan points to several factors for Nota Bene’s success. “We want to be the best we can be, but there must be honesty toward the guest. We serve a lot of people in a night, and not everything is perfect, but if something goes wrong, we’ll do everything we can to fix it.”
The tremendous value it offers guests doesn’t hurt, either. “People are fed up with going out and paying $45 for a main course,” says Bigourdan. “Here you can have a beautiful steak for $24 and your wife maybe has an appetizer, fish and dessert, you share a good bottle of wine, and you leave spending about $120. We offer service and good quality food. That’s a big part of the success.”
According to James Chatto, who has covered the local restaurant scene for Toronto Life for more than 20 years, “Nota Bene was designed to be complete from the outset; the food interesting, unfussy and delicious, the service impeccable, the overall mood unpretentiously sophisticated.”
“Everything is important,” Prevedello stresses. “It’s [about] fashion. It’s the price point, the ambiance and a little bit of theatre. And, of course, the location.” With extensive street frontage on the ground level of a new 15-storey federal court building on Queen St. just west of University, Nota Bene sits in the heart of the city. “It’s the centre of Toronto but it’s not too downtown,” muses Bigourdan. “We’re close to the Opera House, the AGO and Roy Thomson Hall.”
From the sleek and sophisticated minimalist look, punctuated by dramatic Canadian artwork chosen by Prevedello’s wife Barbara, to the impeccable service inculcated in wait staff, no detail is overlooked. “Who else spends $1,500 on a chair?” asks Prevedello. “It will be here 20 years from now and you won’t have to reupholster it. We build for continuity. It’s simple, like the food, but it’s a great product.”
As a former Four Seasons employee, the dapper Bigourdan is a disciple of strong systems and service excellence. Like his partners, he’s a perfectionist. “My philosophy has always been to do your best at training the trainer so you’ll have a successful team.” He points to an extensive training manual, and admits to having four levels of servers — from the busboy and food runner to the server and captain. “Everybody has a role to play. It allows me to put the best people in front of our guests.”
With Prevedello on board, those guests can expect the characteristic touches he’s famous for. His affinity for good vintages is evident in his extensive wine list. He’s proud to say Nota Bene’s top wines don’t carry as high a markup as other restaurants in the city. He also supports Canadian producers. Always on the prowl for new products, when Prevedello was in Verona last year he stumbled on the perfect wine glass, ideal for both red and white wines. “Nobody else in Canada has it,” he boasts, picking up the glass to illustrate his point. And, of course, signature olive oils are imported from Sicily, Tuscany and Puglia.
You would expect a restaurant called Nota Bene to focus on details — whether it’s the food, service or its standing in the community. The restaurant is actively involved in supporting worthwhile causes such as the Bloorview Kids Rehab Children’s Centre. In fact, Bigourdan initiated the “Recipe for Possibility” calendar two years ago, which has raised more than $700,000 for the hospital. The trio also supports Second Harvest, with Prevedello integral in its creation more than 20 years ago.
Clearly, this threesome is savouring every sweet morsel of success. “It’s great,” enthuses Bigourdan, “but sharing it is what really matters. We all take care of what we have to take care of. That’s why our partnership works. We all know where we belong.”
Photography by Margaret Mulligan