Wikipedia describes Italian Cuisine as follows: Italian cuisine is characterized by its simplicity, with many dishes having only four to eight ingredients. Italian cooks rely chiefly on the quality of the ingredients rather than on elaborate preparation.
Nora Gray, largely specializing in the cuisine of Southern Italy, has been on my bucket list for a long time. I was finally able to scratch it off last weekend. I’m so glad I did, just sorry it took so long!
Let me start my review by stating unequivocally that chef and co-owner Emma Cardarelli hits it out of the park. There is not a lick of pretension anywhere in sight at Nora Gray. Located on a rather ignominious stretch of St Jacques just below the Bell Centre the ambiance at Nora Gray is both classy, welcoming and decidedly warm from the moment you walk through its door.
The focus here is on the food and their extensive and fairly priced wine list featuring mainly French and Italian varieties. As for the food there is not a painted plate in sight, no delicately placed drizzles or obtrusive abstract splashes of sauces. Cardarelli’s food is straightforward, superbly prepared and simply but appetizingly presented. If one had to put a tag on it I would proffer the tag of “elevated comfort food”.
Unbridled passion is apparent on every plate.
Service at Nora Gray never takes a back seat to the food, it is smooth, friendly, accommodating and very knowledgeable when it comes to both the food and the wine.
Before tucking into the food, one word of advice…cocktails here are a must. This is a mixologist, co-owner Ryan Gray, who knows his stuff!
The menu at Nora Gray has been assembled with a great deal of thought and offers an intriguing panoply of mainly Southern Italian inspired dishes featuring a large selection of Antipasti, Pasta and an array of main dishes or Secondi offering choices of meats, game, fish and seafood.
Before starting our meal we were offered a plate of crusty ciabatta bread and a ramekin of made in-house marinated peppers and a dipping plate of fruity olive oil…piquant and palate pleasing.
For antipasti we shared (sharing here is encouraged) Crostini alla Sardine e Salsa Verde ($16) and Insalata Rosso con Gamberetti ($18)
The sardine, perfectly grilled, was presented atop a crispy slice of bread fried in olive oil and topped with a rustic salad dressed with a wonderfully fresh and robust salsa verde. The salad of succulent sautéed baby shrimp was tossed with slightly bitter shards of endive and radicchio and sweet supremes of blood orange. Simply dressed it was a mix of sparkling fresh flavors and textures!
Between our Antipasti and our Secondi we shared a small portion of Linguini alla Vongole e ‘Nduja. This was unquestionably one of the best pasta dishes I have tasted in quite some time. Once again simplicity reigned supreme. Perfectly cooked al dente linguini pasta included tender bread crumb coated baby clams in a simple white wine sauce enhanced with the ‘Unami’ addition of ‘nduja, a wonderful melting and spreadable pork salami from Calabria in Southern Italy. This dish alone is reason enough for a return visit.
For main courses (Secondi) we chose Gamba di Coniglio Craoccante Pesto al Pistacchio, Purea di Rabiole ($32) and Polpo alla Griglia Melanzana Affumicato et Pepperoni ($34)
The crispy rabbit leg, stuffed with pistachio pesto, was perfectly cooked. Rabbit, being very low in fat, is a bit tricky to cook, but this one was rendered perfectly resulting in shards of wonderful salted crispy skin and tender and juicy meat encasing a robust pistachio pesto. It sat atop a luxurious puree of slightly sweet white turnip and garnished with lightly pickled sautéed shards of fennel and simply drizzled with its pan juices. A lively dance of flavors and textures…. Perfection on a plate!
The grilled octopus was given a superb, intense rustic and robust Mediterranean preparation, simply grilled and served with a ratatouille like medley of vegetables it included morsels of smoked eggplant, roasted red peppers and shards of sweet caramelized onions. A slight quibble, my octopus was just a bit on the ‘toothsome’ side and could have benefitted from a slightly longer bathe in its braising broth.
We accompanied our meal with a light Italian red wine: Vino Rosso ’15 Concelli Vini Rabasco ($57)
We completed our meal sharing two of the three desserts offered: Zeppole e Gelato al Mascarpone ($8) and Budiona di Cioccolato Amarene ($8). The zeppole or donut, a typical dessert from Southern Italy, was delicious and the rich and creamy scoop of mascarpone ice cream elevated this ‘simple’ dessert to sinful heights. The warm, spongy and wonderfully gooey chocolate cake drizzled with a thick and rich chocolate sauce was over the top. Its sweetness was nicely countered with the addition of a sour cherry garnish. Both were perfect matches to complete a memorable meal.
Nora Gray should have never lingered on my bucket list for as long as it did. Cardarelli’s inventive cuisine is comfort food raised to exciting and definitely delicious and memorable heights. Presented beautifully on mismatched antique plates the focus is always on her food all prepared with a passionate respect for the ingredients.
I have to add a very brief sidebar here, one that I don’t think Cardarelli would hold against me. I couldn’t help but compare my experience at Nora Gray to one I experienced a little while ago at their neighbor just down the street where a one David McMillan holds court.
Nora Gray and Joe Beef two of the best our city has to offer!
Our meal, including two cocktails wine and taxes, came to $221.00
1391 St Jacques Quest
Tel: 514 419-6672
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 5:30pm – 11:30pm
Some images courtesy of www.canadas100best.com and www.avenues.ca