It's still a little bit chilly on the waterfront. As I walk to The Bicycle Thief, the water in the harbour is rough, knocking against the wharf like a fist. It's a perfect night for a pasta dinner.
The restaurant is filled with the smoky blues and plush grays you'd find on a rainy day in the Mediterranean. Tall windows overlook the harbour. Dark wine racks are on the walls, bottles darkly glistening. The restaurant is packed. The acoustics in the room are awful; a blend of soulful oldies plays a little too loudly.
My two friends and I are seated at a small four-top. The menus are unwieldy and impossible to rest on a table that already has precious little space. The addition of a bread bowl makes things awkward.
We are lucky enough to have the sommelier as our server and he fills us in on a Pecorino from Piedmont that has yet to be added to the menu. Intrigued by his enthusiasm, one friend and I order it. It's dry and fruity, absolutely fantastic.
The restaurant is billed as "North American cuisine, Italian heart," and the menu deftly weaves the two cultures. With the help of our kind server, we opt to order three courses each from the various sections.
I order the sardines ($12), cauliflower soup ($10) and pappardelle ($16) and, excited by what is a lovely wine list that holds a large focus on old-world selections, I ask for a flight of pairings ($5-$9 for three ounces), keeping my Pecorino for the sardines. My friends split the shrimp ($11); she gets the radicchio salad ($10) and rigatoni ($14) and he the Caesar ($10) and fish special ($24).
The sardines are plump and tenderly flaky, wonderfully grilled. The lemon is a wonderfully pert accompaniment to the fishiness. I feel like a cartoon cat when I'm finished, my plate a pile of fish skeletons. The shrimp are big and sweet, great with the garlicky cognac sauce. Charred cherry tomatoes give an additional pop of sweetness. The serving falls a little on the small side for splitting, but there are more courses coming.
The Caesar is crisp and mildly creamy, with more hints of anchovy than garlic, but it's nothing special. The soup is a bit one- dimensional aside from salty chunks of lardon. The radicchio salad is the standout, warm and peppery, salty and nutty with garlic-pancetta dressing and toasted pinenuts.
When the pasta arrives, we regret not ordering something that would be made in-house, like the ravioli. The pappardelle is good, the tender rabbit braised in red wine that has made for a delicate, sumptuous sauce. The cheesy, rich rigatoni has a nice hint of nutmeg and garlic against the rich ricotta and pecorino. The breaded halibut is our least favourite, blandly piled atop mixed greens---more pedestrian a dish than expected---but the fish is cooked beautifully and the herbed vinaigrette is quite nice.
We all prey on the dessert cart which wheels around the room, executing the cakey equivalent of a series of well-planned drive-by shootings to which everybody seems to fall victim. I get a raspberry layer cake with a creamy icing, Rachelle gets a mud pie and Matt gets a caramel cake. They are all wonderful.
Our server is exceptional, attentive in a busy room and thoughtful with his wine choices and regard. His wine pairings have been outstanding, making the meal more memorable than perhaps it would have been without them. In fact, we leave with a list of the wines we drank in-hand and head straight to Bishop's Cellar to buy some. It turns out it's also the perfect night to drink a lot of wine.