UPDATE: CLOSED, RIP
The staying power of restaurants at this address has been problematic. By my count 1542 Bank Street has had five culinary incarnations over the last decade – from Moroccan (Kasbah) to Indian (Siraj), Ethiopian (Gojo) to Lebanese (Fairouz Chalet). And, as of six months ago, it’s been taken over by the Italians.
The latest tenant is Napo, short for Napoli, and it’s a cosy little keeper. Its prospects for survival at this fickle address depend to a great extent on those gastronomes willing to make the trek to Bank Street south, to a little brick house bordered by fast traffic and industry. A place like Napo, because of its location, must struggle to be noticed. More than it should have to.
It calls itself a “Farm to Table” restaurant, one that tries to follow the principles of Slow Food (a movement that has its roots in Italy with branches throughout the world, and is largely responsible for leading a back-to-the-land and back-to-the-table revival.)
At Napo, it starts with superior raw materials and ends as solidly good Italian food, devoid of any attention-seeking chic. The philosophy seems to be that there is only so much one can or should do to spruce up a lamb shank – a heap of spinach, garlic and olives does the job just fine. It’s a hard philosophy to argue with.
The dinner menu is a manageable length – seven starters, four pasta dishes (also available as appetizers – very decent) and seven main dishes. The lunch menu is also to the point – three soups, panini sandwiches, a few pasta dishes. The ratio of hearty to lighter fare is just right; and the prices show commendable restraint. Only one appetizer is more than $10, and most main dishes fall below the $25 mark.
And the first taste is free. The amuse is a delicate oval of salmon terrine. House made bread arrives with two samples of Italian olive oil, one light and fruity, the other darker and more attention seeking.
Among the starters – admirable mussels, juicy grilled shrimp with a boozy cloak of Limoncello glaze, a homey straciatella soup, a lovely puree of asparagus and potato with a lily pad of fromage frais – the best of the bunch turns out to be salads. You might think a simple grilled bread salad (panzanella) a dud order. Not at all. Great bread, good olive oil, organic arugula, char-grilled squid, long, sliced caper berries and blobs of black olive tapenade pack a punch of flavours and elevate this peasant dish to something quite special. Just as good is the grilled radicchio brushed with local honey and balsamic vinegar, paired with Quebec goat cheese and fried prosciutto.
Though we recognize the broth is well made in the fish soup, an uncomfortable saltiness mars its delivery. The fish however – Arctic char, mussels and clams in their shells, shrimp and scallops – are in very good condition. A breast of Mariposa Farms duck is anise rubbed, roasted to medium-rare, sliced thin and set in a Campari and blood orange marmalade sauce. Beef tenderloin is delicious – infused with truffle oil, under the heady influence of silky foie gras, and bathed in a cognac sauce. The meat is soft and rich in the lamb shank. For the vegetarian, a slew of perfectly grilled vegetables on creamy polenta layered with bocconcini cheese.
It’s important to leave room for dessert. The iconic must-have Italian dessert, tiramisu, is here reduced to its separate components and presented on long, white plate. A coffee cup of espresso and mascarpone cream, a pile of sugar dusted ladyfingers that taste home-baked, and three pools of rich custard – vanilla, coffee and chocolate are presented together in a grand performance. Lemon tart brulÃ©e with crÃ¨me anglaise is the encore. Two wedges of chocolate hazelnut pate get polished off despite their unbearable richness, and a luscious ricotta cheesecake is laced with orange rind, and served with a pomegranate sauce that squarely hits the puckering notes.
This is food that requires wine, and Napo’s list (exclusively Italian and Canadian) includes many bottles that won’t bust the bank. Neither, for that matter, will the food bill.
Napo is off to a grand start. May it stay put.