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Restaurant review: Nota Bene shines with simple food, well prepared

The beauty of simplicity never goes out of style. That’s true the world over, and certainly in the culinary world. Give me a white stoneware plate, a linen napkin folded without fuss, rustic homemade bread with a quality olive oil, and I’m good.

Minimalism appears to be a guiding principle behind Nota Bene Restaurant & Bar, the award-winning Italian restaurant in Shockoe Bottom. Nothing there is fancy for the sake of impressing. That includes the interior, which is charmingly understated with lots of exposed brick, low lighting and a wood-fired oven.

And it most certainly includes the food, which chef Randall Doetzer freestyles with care, depending on the seasonal ingredients and staples that happen to be on hand in his kitchen. “We’re pretty loose around here,” he said of his approach to combining unexpected ingredients in his version of Italian cuisine. “Our food isn’t in-your-face Italian, but it has elements of it,” he said. “We do more with less.” On a recent night, less seemed to be more for a capacity crowd of mostly young groups and couples.

The wood-fired oven roared and the noise level soared with happy conversation and good energy all around. We started with braised fennel (£8), which was wonderfully licorice-flavored, complemented by crunchy breadcrumbs and a pleasantly charred flavor from the oven’s flames. The sugar toads (£15), a species of small pufferfish, were soft and sweet.

Just as delicious was the accompanying bagna cauda — a Northern Italian sauce — with the flavors of olive oil, anchovy, lemon and garlic. The Fig and Pig Pizza (£13), made in what Doetzer called a “nontraditional Neapolitan style,” was crunchy on the outside, and soft and bubbly on the inside. The flavor explosion incorporated sweet (fig), sharp (gorgonzola cheese) and salty (prosciutto).

The wild mushroom pappardelle (£17) paired velvety housemade pasta with the earthiness of mushrooms and the nuttiness of Grana Padano cheese. Charlottesville-sourced honey was the star of the local cheese and honey (£9) plate. The sweetness of the honey perfectly complemented the zing of fresh strawberries and goat’s cheese sprinkled with sea salt.

The almond cake (£6), with chocolate and almond flavors, was also lovely. On a second night, we started with the fennel salad (£8), filled with crunchy, raw fennel that was flavored with lemon, olive oil and pecorino Romano cheese. Soft and mild Burrata cheese was the perfect complement to a salad of spicy arugula (£12).

It also had the saltiness of a quality prosciutto and the tartness of fresh summer strawberries. That evening’s entr?e, the torchio pasta with white pork Bolognese (£16), was possibly the best dish of the two nights. The hefty meat mixture spilled into the impossibly tender torch-shaped pasta.

Little by little, a dollop of ricotta on top melted into the dish to add a wonderful creaminess. For dessert, we had homemade biscotti (£6) served with a light whipped ricotta livened with orange zest. There’s a lot to love in Nota Bene, particularly the food and atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the service didn’t quite live up to the menu and ambience on either visit. On both nights, with a different server on each, we’d barely started eating our appetizers when entr?es were brought to the table. (What happened to the art of timing courses?) There was no acknowledgement from either server that the entr?es came way too early — which meant, of course, that we had to down the appetizers quickly before our entr?es got cold — only a determination by both that we all work together to arrange way too many dishes on a tiny table as if we were working a culinary jigsaw puzzle. A second small quibble is that the place is loud.

But that’s not easy to control, especially in older spaces. (Honestly, it kind of works with the place’s general vibe.) Nota Bene, which opened in late 2015 in the former Aziza’s on Main space, has already grabbed two of the city’s top culinary awards. It won Best New Restaurant at the 2017 Richmond magazine Elby awards (for restaurants opened between Nov.

1, 2015, and Oct.

31, 2016). Style Weekly magazine went a step further, naming it the 2017 Richmond Restaurant of the Year. I can’t disagree.

Nota Bene is one of the city’s best restaurant hotspots, offering honest food executed with great skill and imagination.

Make sure to experience it for yourself sometime soon.

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