A restaurant critic, a publicist and a cook walk into a bar. … The story I'm about to tell you is by no means a joke. But it does involve a funny coincidence.
I was at Notturno last week with a friend. We sat at the bar and tried to make small talk with the bartender, a guy named H. (I don't know what H stands for, but apparently even his mother calls him that.)
This tiny Italian restaurant launched about a year and a half ago as Notturno Paninoteca. This summer, the menu was revamped and the space lightly renovated with a new partner, William Robitailleitaille, at the helm. After reopening in late August, it's been quietly buzzing under the radar. Until last week, that is, when a press release that unfortunately coincided with a social-shopping coupon deal suddenly brought in hordes of new customers.
The night we went, Notturno was extremely busy and many people were turned away at the door. We were lucky enough to slip in just as two seats at the bar became available. But the chef – who offers an impressive array of à-la-minute dishes for a single-man counter operation – was backed up. H said it would be about 25 minutes before we could order any food.
No problem. The elegantly rustic black-and-white room, with its chalkboard-menu walls and reclaimed-wood bar, was a lovely place to sit back and unwind with a couple of fine craft cocktails.
I've heard of H. The British expat, who previously worked at the Revel Room and Jules Bistro, was voted Vancouver Magazine's 2013 Bartender of the Year. But this was the first time I had the pleasure of tasting his drinks, which are here fortified with plenty of Italian infusions, bitters and vermouths.
Notturno's signature Gli Felice is, as advertised, "a taste of Tuscany in a glass." Named after Mr. Robitaille's Tuscan-born grandfather, the smooth cocktail is a perfectly balanced mix of grappa (infused with lemon peel and coffee beans), vermouth and red-wine syrup (reduced with a subtle lick of white-truffle oil). It's a complex stimulant for the palate.
An all-Italian wine list, curated by consulting sommelier Christopher Royal (who mans the bar at Nook), includes all sorts of intriguing oddities. Try the Chiaretto San Silvestro rosé from Piedmont for a dry aperitif, or the earthy, full-bodied rosso Neprica Tormaresca from Puglia to pair with meats and cheeses. Both are value-priced at $9 a glass or $36 by the bottle.
As I mentioned, the restaurant was busy. So I understand why H, who seemed a bit stressed out, was initially impatient with our barrage of questions. He actually rolled his eyes at me when the chef pulled a large red block out of a vacuum-packed bag and I asked if it was tuna. "No," he sighed. "That's compressed watermelon." Well, excuse me. (As the chef later explained by phone, a lot of people make the same mistake so I guess H was tired of hearing the same old question.)
We gave the guy a break and started chatting with two exceptionally friendly female servers, who kept stopping by in a way that made me think they must be accustomed to smoothing feathers ruffled by Mr. Cranky Pants.
We were able to eat much sooner than expected. As regular readers will know, I'm a huge anchovy fan. So the white Italian anchovies were a must-try. Served with thick slices of beautifully bubbled, crusty Calabrese bread and lusciously marinated in robust olive oil and parsley (to offset the tang of vinegar in which they're packaged), this dish was simply fantastic.
Succulent Venetian ling cod, which is poached and whipped with olive oil while warm, comes with salty pops of smoked steelhead roe and bottarga. Divine.
Mr. Robitaille doesn't have a commissary. Everything is cooked behind the bar with two induction tops, a double panini grill, a vacuum packer and a thermal circulator. Although many ingredients are prepared in advance, he does an astonishing amount of cooking to order.
His charcuterie boards rise above the ordinary, thanks in part to a custom fridge that keeps his black-pig moscato and saucisson sec (all locally sourced from Oyama and D-Original) at a constant temperature. The meats are sliced wondrously whisper-thin so the fat melts in the mouth, and generously portioned on $17 boards with five slices of five samples.
In striking contrast, Mr. Robitaille's beef carpaccio is sliced thicker than most. The chef hand-pounds the raw tenderloin and serves it fresh (rather than searing and freezing it, as most restaurants do) with salsa verde, quail egg and sherry shallots. This traditional take gives the steak a mouth-satisfying chewiness.
About halfway through the evening, a young gentleman walked in and sat next to us at the bar. He and H obviously knew each other and launched into a spirited discussion about the bartender's vast selection of Dutch jenever gin.
"Did you read that brutal review in The Globe and Mail last week!" H said to his friend, who happened to be a cook at a nearby establishment. "She totally destroyed the restaurant."
I was just standing up to go to the bathroom when H launched into his tirade against me. Not knowing whether he had recognized me or not, I was somewhat afraid to return to my seat.
"Don't worry," my girlfriend assured me by text. "They have no idea who you are."
While I was gone, H ripped into me for being overly tough and unfair. But the cook came to my defence and said that although sometimes tough, my reviews were often quite accurate.
But the thing is, the cook continued, nobody knows when she's been in to review because she always wears wigs and disguises. Oh, really?
So, the first (tangential) point to this story is that even though I don't believe in anonymity – and have never worn wigs or donned a disguise – some people still don't recognize me.
More importantly, if I were a mean-spirited person (as some people in the Twitterverse have accused me of being in the wake of that "brutal" review), I probably wouldn't bother telling you how much I enjoyed my evening with the curmudgeonly, supremely talented H. Although initially prickly, he warmed up immensely after the crowd died down. And by the end of the night, after we discovered a shared affinity for political satire, he sent me home with scribbled notes for all his favourite YouTube videos.
I'm not bitter. I just tell it like it is. Thus, I happily say to you that of all the tiny tapas-style wine bars in Gastown, Notturno hits higher than most.