The area around the Air Canada Centre continues to flourish as an entertainment destination – what was once parking lots and wasteland now morphed into glamorous restaurants like Aria and E11even and the prince of all sports bars, Real Sports, inside the building itself. Last night we went to Aria, the beautiful restaurant at the foot of the new Telus tower. The team behind the tower are among the many loyal long-time fans of Noce, the 18-year-old, rather quaint Italian restaurant on Queen West, which led to their invitation to Noce’s owners, Elena Morelli and Guido Saldini, to create the new restaurant in their building. It opened two months ago and it’s a beauty, designed by architect Stephen Pile.
The space is on the corner so two sides of the room are floor-to-ceiling windows. “They’re 36 feet high,” explained the dapper Saldini, “so we get a great deal of light in here. And just hanging the fine-mesh steel curtain that covers the southern wall of windows was an incredible undertaking.” A third wall is a vertical, glassed-in wine cellar that houses the large inventory of wines, all of them excellent, all but a few beyond my wallet. The bar is backlit with pinkish red lights against which horizontal bottles of Gaja wine seem to swim like a school of black fish. Filling the air in this handsome lightbox is an extraordinary sculpture by Dennis Lin of ribbons of walnut wood (noce being Italian for walnut (geddit?)) swooping and writhing above and around glittering Moooi spheres of metal filigree studded with tiny lights like the balls of a giant plane tree bewitched by a fairy godmother. It all stops just on the honest side of Vegas kitsch – the antithesis of bland, and all the more welcome for that in our too-beige town.
I should say at once that this is an expensive dinner. The owners had no wish to be seen as the neighbourhood cheapy. It’s also very good – the best meal I’ve had so far this year. Chef Eron Novalaski, who came here from Noce, does posh northern Italian very well with some very fine textures to be found. Details are particularly well attended to. Grissini in the bread basket are crisp and peppery instead of generic; the butter and the dark green olive oil are of the finest. Water glasses are hand-blown Murano glass highlighted in crimson and the water that goes in is house-filtered and carbonated. The sense of quality is established before the first dish has been tasted.
I like the arrangement of the menu. There’s an opening section for nibbles such as salted anchovies served with bread and house-made butter or a nice little affettati of house-cured charcuterie, all of it first class especially ribbons of nicely seasoned lardo and silky Piottosino prosciutto from Italy. Wild mushroom soup is a true velouté, smooth and thick as paint with a deep mushroom flavour and a finish of golden oil flecked with minced black truffle.
Then comes an area devoted to crudi. When we failed to order any of those dishes the kitchen turned one into an amuse bouche – gorgeous slivers of sweetly gummy raw Hokkaido scallop topped with crispy chickpeas and bathed in a rosemary vinaigrette.
The dish that earned my first “wow” rating of 2011 was Aria’s version of vitello tonato, one of my favourite things to eat in the world. The veal was impeccable – pan-seared tenderloin sliced very thinly; the sauce a purée of tuna, capers, anchovy (you can taste all three) bound with egg yolk. It’s the quality of the eggs that give the sauce its unexpectedly yellow colour. Tiny potato chips the size of dimes add subtle crunch while a garnish of miniature fronds and microgreens bring fleeting bittersweet chlorophyl flavours. Deftly done.
Specials abound, expertly related by the friendly, smart server. Fresh soft-shelled crab from B.C. is a much bigger creature than we are accustomed to in high-street sushi bars. Here, the juicy body and limbs are lightly and crisply battered then set over mashed avocado and quartered cherry tomatoes – not the most imaginative of accompaniments but pleasant enough.
The one disappointment of the evening was a pasta – chitarrine al pomodoro e basilico. Basil was no more than a distant backnote in the thick, ketchuppy tomato sauce while the chitarrine seemed heavy and stodgy. But a whole grilled branzino was flawless, the snow-white flesh moist, fluffy and flavourful beneath the crisped skin. It came with a side dish of boiled potatoes simply dressed with parsley. Nothing else was needed.
Roasted and deboned quail, a dish that requires nice timing if it isn’t going to dry out. Another box ticked – the slightly crisp skin was a tad too salty but the quail itself was juicy and sapid, its sometimes elusive flavour chirping loud and clear. The meat was set over creamy polenta enriched with bone marrow and thick chunks of wild mushroom moistened with a dark foie jus. I ordered a glass of 2008 Insoglio del Cinghiale from Tenuta Il Biserno to go with it. Yes, it’s a bit too big and dark and brooding for quail (it would have been better with the tomahawk steak, there being no wild boar on the menu) but it’s rare to find this Tuscan beauty offered by the glass and I couldn’t resist.
Steve Song is Aria’s pastry chef. I have followed his work for years, first falling for his enormous talents when he was creating amazing dessert using Lindt chocolate at Oro, a decade ago. There was chocolate on his two offerings last night – one a rich dark chocolate opera cake with gold leaf decorating the glossy icing and Bailey’s crème anglais lapping at its base; the other a “duomo” of hazelnut dacquoise, dusted with chocolate and sitting on finely sliced poached pear and a solid base of hazelnut meringue. Pure self-indulgence.
Any minute now, Aria will spill out into the open piazza with tables and umbrellas to add even more to the downtown summer scene. Funny that so much of the city’s glamour seems to be percolating down to this part of the city. Funny how many of the new restaurants of the last two years have an Italian schema! Hands up who remembers the ’80s.
Aria is inside the Telus building at 25 York Street, just south of the railway tracks and hard by the ACC. 416 363 2742.