In the lexicon of food snobbery, "foodie" has displaced the older, stodgier "gourmand," but the two aren't really the same. If a gourmand dresses for dinner in a silk tie and cufflinks, a foodie shops for that dinner at the farmers' market in jeans and an upcycled T-shirt. Foodies obsess over ingredients and origins, while gourmands focus more on preparations and presentation.
Notion is a restaurant that rewards both kinds of food enthusiasts, but perhaps gourmands most of all. A single dish at Notion might contain upward of eight ingredients, five of which you've never heard of, all artfully swirled, stacked and scattered on a perfectly shaped plate with nothing, not even the tiniest snippet of mint leaf, left to chance.
Such baroque presentations can delight the eye, and even the palate, without quite satisfying hunger, but at Notion, they're not all for show. What was intriguing about chef Dave Racicot's creations was not so much how many obscure ingredients he could insinuate into any one dish (well, that too), but how his creations were actually grounded in traditional, even classic dishes -- from Korean bulgogi to American steak and potatoes. By starting with elementally delicious recipes, Racicot's riffs and frills never strayed too far into culinary fantasia.
Furthermore, Racicot knows how to keep things simple. The menu is the opposite of the ingredient lists: brief and to the point, which, with dishes as complex as these, was how it should be. From four starters, four entrees and two desserts, diners can put together a three-course meal; alternatively, a table can go in together to order a seven-course chef's tasting menu, assembled mostly from items from the regular menu. We forwent the tasting menu for the a la carte approach, but still managed to try almost everything on offer.
For a starter, we chose the 5'10" egg (that's minutes and seconds, not feet and inches). It was soft boiled to perfection: The white was firm, although still quite tender, while the yolk was completely liquid without being raw. When we cut it open, the yolk spilled out, enveloping a small handful of peppery arugula and roasted shiitake mushrooms. It was reminiscent of a classic French frisee salad, in which spicy greens are offset by rich egg, and croutons. (Here, toasted cubes of buttery brioche offer crunchy contrast.) Notion's innovation, aside from perfect cooking methods, was in little scallops of roasted shiitake, an inspired addition that provided umami flavor notes along with a texture similar to, but distinct from, the egg white.
At the other end of the simplicity spectrum was beef tartare, a bewildering platter of components ranging from tiny wedges of kiwi to little mounds of soy beads. That's no typo: Through some sort of kitchen wizardry, soy sauce was transformed into shiny, firm little balls that resembled the ikura roe you might find in your sushi, though without the distinctive pop between the teeth. Other ingredients included rehydrated basil seeds, fermented black-garlic paste and scallions both pickled and burnt. To consume this mélange, we put as many of the dish's components as we could manage on a little round of iceberg lettuce, which looked for all the world like a seashell, and ate it like a wrap. Amazingly, the cumulative effect was an uncanny approximation of Korean barbecue, but with tender minced beef in place of charred short rib.
An appetizer of crab, wrapped in thin sheets of cantaloupe and served with pea blossoms, shaved pea pods, pea anglaise, saffron aioli and acid orange puree, was also beautiful to behold, but the peas did not have enough salt and savor to counterbalance the sweetness of the crab and fruit.
Ribeye split the difference between over-elaborateness and simplicity. The flavors -- beef, horseradish, potatoes and onion -- could hardly be more classic, and the presentation appeared traditional as well, with steak at the center, surrounded by tiny new potatoes, all on a puddle of sauce. But the steak was … pink. Not raw, mind you, and not merely pink in the middle, but pink throughout. This was the product of sous vide, the technique in which food is vacuum-sealed in plastic, then cooked in carefully tempered water to bring it to a precise level of doneness. In this case, it resulted in a steak that was rosy-rare from top to bottom. It was an intriguing way to taste the beef without the char, allowing it to interact with its accompaniments in a new way. These -- short-cut haricots verts, pureed taro root, pickled pearl onions -- added their parts, but the confit potatoes were simply extraordinary, perfectly creamy within, while their delicate skins tasted more of spring greens than of the earth.
Grouper in an herbed cream sauce was also, by Notion's standards, fairly restrained and traditional. The firm, meaty fish was accompanied by French "breakfast" radishes. (Do the French really eat radishes for breakfast? If they do, then surely these tiny, tender specimens fit the bill.) This dish's most remarkable accomplishment was its distillation of a mustard-cream sauce into little cylinders of "Dijon custard." When broken gently apart with a fork, this infused each bite of fish with the tangy pungency of mustard tempered by rich cream.
Notion's gift is the opposite of reducing a dish to its bare fundamentals. Chef Racicot actually embellishes each one to its utmost complexity, teasing apart its component flavors and amplifying each one. We've left ourselves no more room to describe the desserts, but suffice it to say that when chef Racicot gets a notion, you'll want to come to the table.
314 Allegheny River Blvd., Oakmont. 412-828-7777
Tue.-Fri. 6-10 p.m.; Sat. 5-10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $12-16; entrees $26-33
Liquor: Full bar