On the Table: Racicot's Notion seduces in the second round
A determination to present elegant cuisine with fine service pays off
April 18, 2013 4:39 AM
Loup de Mar with escabeche vegetables, herbs and flowers, at Notion.
Peekytoe Crab with avocado, yuzu, tapioca and aloe.
By Melissa McCart Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh's restaurant landscape caters to the casual diner in several forms: Good neighborhood spots that court everyman and the gourmand; drinking dens that curb hunger with stylish small plates or bar food; and mom-and-pop institutions that serve honest entrees to please a crowd.
David Racicot's Notion strives to be none of those.
Instead, in his new spot in East Liberty's restaurant row, he presents fine dining as either a $65, four-course prix-fixe menu or an $85, six-course tasting menu.
Notion offers excellent service, which is among the city's finest, and a compelling tasting menu.
Tasting menu $85 per person; prix fixe $65 per person. If you have special dietary needs, inform the restaurant when you make reservations.
Wheelchair accessible, credit cards, BYOB.
Opening a fine dining restaurant is no easy task, particularly when a lone chef takes it upon himself to do so. Despite receiving modest financial backing, Mr. Racicot's determination is unbridled, even in the wake of awkward transitions.
The second coming of this restaurant is "an extension of the old Notion," he said, citing the first-round Oakmont debut in 2011, when he earned accolades from the Post-Gazette for complex, sophisticated food.
A year after opening, he announced intentions to move the restaurant to East Liberty and converted the space into 314 Pasta and Prime, a more casual Italian restaurant. This closed in December because of landlord disputes and Mr. Racicot's focus on reopening Notion.
Lending to Mr. Racicot's cred is his tenure as chef de cuisine at Lautrec, the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort's destination restaurant in Fayette County. Under his watch, it earned five diamonds from AAA in 2007 and five stars from Mobil Travel Guide in 2009. That same year, he was a semi-finalist for the James Beard "Rising Star Chef."
Notion was reborn six weeks ago as a 28-seat, white tablecloth place that hopes to get its liquor license in the next few months. With light walls and upholstered banquettes, this dining room isn't opulent. Yet flawless service and elegant cuisine make this an important restaurant for Pittsburgh -- it's one of the most compelling dining experiences in the city right now.
Thankfully, self-importance is not Mr. Racicot's shtick. A fastidious technician, he hand-wrings over the composition of his plates. "I tend to overthink my food," he said. He decided to push a tasting menu because it allows him to offer smaller portions and elevated ingredients at a fair price point. (Items are available a la carte upon request.)
The prix-fixe and tasting menu commence with the first amuse bouche, such as a passion fruit or rhubarb soda, "a bitter or citric flavor to make your mouth anticipate," he said. The effervescent palate cleanser leads into the second amuse, such as a custard with sweet fennel and trout roe.
A repeat performance from the original Notion is beef tartare, a disk dressed with bulgogi dressing, kiwi, basil seed, peanuts, scallions and soy. Designed to be eaten as a lettuce wrap, it is more playful than the alternate manchego custard with herb risotto and thin-sliced shrimp. Both dishes are quite lovely, but not the showstoppers of the savory courses to come.
Spring greets the palate with the second course, as sweet oysters alternate with compressed cucumbers that spiral like fiddleheads. Bright green sorrel contrasts with a wash of horseradish cream.
Peekytoe crab plays the star on another dish, as sliced avocado fans a plate, aloe foam adds texture, yuzu sharpens with citrus and tapioca softens the presentation.
"I knew I wanted the dish to be loosely bound, gelatinous," Mr. Racicot said about his conception of the dish. "I wanted it to release flavor quickly."
The modernist technique that Mr. Racicot favors, with its spheres, powders and foams, can seem cold and architectural, but he avoids that through careful assembly.
Even a traditionally masculine dish, filet mignon, is feminized by pinks and ivory. Pearl onions flank red onion marmalade. Miniature rose pedals garnish silky truffle cream. Even at the point in the tasting when a diner may be full, this is an enthralling course.
And yet Mr. Racicot emphasizes service over food.
"Seventy-five percent of a restaurant is service," he said. "If the service is great and the food is mediocre, the service can make up for it. The same is not true the other way around."
A colleague of Mr. Racicot since his days at Lautrec, general manager Jennifer Jin tends to these details. "She is to the front of the house what I am to the cuisine," he said. She has taught servers how to do their job gracefully.
Service here is like magic, as staff tends to details without patrons' notice. In between courses, silver is replaced, glasses are swapped and wine is poured. A server introduces a dish like a poem.
Especially good is Ian Sage, the head server who tends to points of service like an athlete, with a balance of poise and quirk to remind a diner she hasn't left Pittsburgh.
Dessert is satiating but not stellar. Nutella cake is a fix for the chocolate lover, garnished with batons of banana and orange. More pleasing is the alternate choice, delicate orbs of yogurt, dappled with maple, calamansi lemons and freeze-dried fruits.
The resonant dessert of the night is a glass of PX, the prized sherry with notes of raisins and molasses. It requires diners to linger, to savor each sip.
The pour also serves as a reminder that the diner will be treated as a PX, restaurant code for "Personne Extraordinaire."