Since 1991 Buonanotte has been feeding the fortunate foodies of MontrÃ©al rustic Italian cuisine in a hip lounge-like setting. So it seems fitting that after doing so successfully for more than two decades they'd finally be ready to venture into Canada's biggest and meanest metropolis.
Situated in the space once occupied by Ame (formerly known as Rain), Buonanotte has all the requisite glitz and glamour of an entertainment district hotspot normally associated with nightlife kingpin Charles Khabouth. Let's face it, we have lots to thank him for: the man is almost singlehandedly responsible for pushing the sexy style envelope when it comes to extreme restaurant makeovers in this city.
But with Buonanotte he only licensed the name so the glamorous MontrÃ©al traiteur could be cookie-cut in Toronto. And it's virtually a carbon copy: the focal point, a disco-era grid pattern copper ceiling that warms the luxe lounge space with an added twinkle. Beautiful servers in five-inch stilettos add a similar sparkle with the added bonus of flawless professionalism. Even the hostess makes you feel like someone excruciatingly important as she ushers you to your table. And therein lies the winning formula here: unpretentious classic Italian served in a seductive club-like setting. What's not to love? Uhmmmm...we'll get to that shortly.
Never for one minute do you feel you're not being attended to, making it an experience that is so enjoyable you might not notice or even mind that the execution of the food is not quite as polished as the staff. Beginning with bread and a beautiful bottle of grassy green olive oil the evening seems to be getting better by the moment. Then an order of beef tartare ($17) appears and the questioning begins. The shockingly generous portion is rounded and densely packed, much like a hockey puck. And the raw meat screams fresh as if they do it to order. But it does lack a certain tanginess and roundness from a recipe that should include finely diced cornichons, mustard, Worcestershire sauce and raw egg. As for its texture it is minced to an almost mushiness. Perhaps a heavier hand with the supposed lemon dressing might have imparted the zing that it so desperately lacks.
Thankfully a polenta con funghi selvaggi e salsiccia artiginale ($15) (side note: don't you just love the way Italians can make the most peasanty food sound fancy?) is without a doubt superb: its smooth, almost velvety texture a real revelation for a dish that's too often lumpy and grainy. Beautifully presented in a deep cast iron pot, it maintains its heat, which is more than I can say for every other dish that cool down way too quickly on the mammoth-sized plates. And why is there only a mere gobbet of that yummy ragu? Authentic cucina povera is never served in dainty portions. Ahem, like the melanzane alla parmiagiana ($11). Why is something as rustic as eggplant parmesan given such a precious presentation? My dear Nonna Vernona would give chef the back of her hand. Three teensy layers of beautifully fried eggplant are topped with an equally teensy Scrabble tile-size square of mozzarella with even less sauce. What should have been oozing with gooey goodness is just too formal and fussy. Not to mention the temp is on the cooler side of tepid. Scalding hot melted cheese and sauce crusted along the edges of a cast iron pot is exactly what this dish calls for.
Pizzas are AWOL as the ovens were not ready to fire up during the first few weeks of Buonanotte's soft opening. But there is plenty of homemade pasta to choose from. Like an agnolotti del plin con burro e salvia ($23), a traditional piedmontese pasta filled with beef, pork and rabbit, surprisingly processed to the point of being a pate. But a rich sage butter sauce saves this otherwise elegant looking plate.
An ossobuso gremolata ($31) is as classic old school Italian as it gets. Three pieces of veal are tasty if a bit on the tough side, which is odd for something that's slow braised. The saving grace is a textbook perfect saffron risotto. Even the ippoglosso al limone e capperi ($32) that should have been a fine flakey seared halibut is a trifle overcooked, coming off in large chunks when prodded with a fork. And as for being seared, why only on one side? The great thing about halibut, though, is no matter how hard you abuse it it almost never loses its flavour. And with sauteed kale, fennel and a lemon caper sauce, it's a dish that's still bright and lively, and picture perfect.
Unironic, straightforward tiramisu ($12) seems like the obvious choice to end the meal. It's light and airy as it should be but we can't detect even a trace of liquor. And the mille foglie ($12) that boasts an expertly made puff pastry and a thick vanilla curd only has a minor issue: the wine-poached pears are sliced so thin they disintegrate upon contact with air.
Buonanotte is clearly still working out the kinks in its kitchen. But the real conundrum here is why they didn't just replicate a menu that they know already works. You know the old adage if it ain't broke... Buonanotte MontrÃ©al figured out long ago that their Italian comfort food is a smashing success. So instead of replicating the Montreal formula for Toronto, executive chef Davide Ianacci is trying to put his own particular spin on things for us big city folk. Sorry, but something is getting lost in the translation. I would love to see some of Montreal's missing menu items like cavetelli with oxtail ragu, garganellis with ?nduja, speck and cherry tomatoes, not to mention a pan seared bavette. They also offer prix fixe menus and other meal deals throughout the week. Why not do the same here? Does someone not realize that if it's good enough for the sophisticated palates of fickle Francophones, it's probably going to be good enough for us hosers in Hogtown?