More years ago than I can count, when Peter Newman, the great Canadian journalist, was editor of Maclean's magazine, he called me up and asked me to come see him. Of course I was honoured, and hopped to it. He proposed that since I was (in his mind) good at being a restaurant critic, I should become his magazine's TV critic. I told Mr. Newman that I never watched TV and it was thus a bad idea. He insisted that my skills were transferable, and all would be well.
As it turned out, he was wrong. I watched some TV and wrote three TV columns, all pathetically banal. We threw in the towel.
Transferable skills? Not necessarily.
It seems the same thing may be happening at the new Aria, spawn of the estimable Noce, which has been serving supernal Italian food since 1994. Aria is a pretty interesting restaurant, a magnificent urban space carved out of the back of the new Telus building on York Street at Bremner. From your table, you gaze out tall windows at Union Station and the Air Canada Centre. The ceiling is triple height. A huge sculpture made of undulating strips of wood grows like trees from the floor. Behind the bar is a wall pierced with wine-bottle-shaped cutouts, washed with red light. Giant globes of tiny white lights hang from the high ceiling. Even the water glasses are an aesthetic statement, each one different from the other, all hand-blown Murano glass with dots and ribbons and stripes of yellow, red and blue.
Ask the waiter what's different here from Noce. The reply is: "More contemporary." Why anyone would want to update the impeccable classic Italiana of Noce beats me. Does perfect pasta go out of style? If yes, then I am no friend of style.
And Aria has style to spare.
The food, while fancier than Noce's, has less heart. It seems more calculated than passionate, more up-market than down home. Like the warm panzanella salad built on fabulously tender octopus - the seafood's great, but the bread part is bland. Or the plump and moist quail which the menu calls deboned, but isn't quite. And is it "contemporary" to call cauliflower in overkill cream sauce risotto? Perhaps if it steals attention from slightly overcooked wild striped bass in bread crumbs.
As for cladding foods in things farinaceous, the kitchen ought to tread more lightly. Deep-fried rapini is a clever idea spoilt by heavy breading.
Yet there are moments at Aria when every element of the plate has operatic harmony. Among crudi, the raw foods, they garnish perfectly fresh raw branzino with orange slices and creamy emulsified saffron vinaigrette. We cannot find the promised licorice powder, but do not miss it. In the manner of Noce, they do fabulous funghi ravioli awash in truffle-oil-scented butter. Pasta is what these folks know best. Their daily risotto can be relied on to be texturally correct and strong flavoured. A recent risotto of rapini was a splendid deep green, zinged with strong sausage and three-year-old Reggiano. A tad less salt would have brought it to perfection. Their spaghetti alla vongole features sweet juicy clams in happily assertive chili-spiked sauce.
I am hard pressed to understand why anyone would want to update the treasures of the Italian kitchen. Is being more "contemporary" code for upscale, up-price, up-pretension? If yes, why do it? So you can charge $48 for a veal chop? It's pink 'n' perfect, although not as gigantic as one would have expected for just shy of 50 bucks, and its artichoke puree is a too-thick miscalculation. Artichoke flavour is too subtle to puree: The flavour goes AWOL.
But Aria's split personality is best personified by the grilled shrimp: Two gigantic shrimp - unpeeled - sit in fine tomato sauce atop a clever pile of butter-braised escarole. It's all good. But peeling one's shrimp? Dirty fingers? It's just not a good fit with the glamour. Nor is the restaurant's general lack of consistency. On one visit, the oniony house-made baked crackers are divine. Next visit they're too thick, and hence tough.
The same unreliability extends to sweet things. Banoffee tart is built on a wonderful fragile crust, but its filling of raw bananas, slightly dry chocolate crumble, gooey caramel sauce and coffee whipped cream doesn't hang together. The lemon trio is lemony fig newton in something like raw spring-roll wrapper with wonderful lemon cream sauce. And lemony crème caramel. And lemon sponge cake. No thrill from that trio.
And no thrill from Aria's service, which is borderline neglectful. Servers absent themselves from one's table for great swaths of time. Good luck if you should need something they didn't bring. So here's a novel idea: Why screw around with what you know how to do? Having built a glorious-looking room, why don't the Noce owners sing the same old (not tired!) tune and do Noce food there? Avoid skin-deep beauty; it is not delicious.