By Gretchen McKay

Two months in, Notion is buzzing

Categories : Food

This is the third in an occasional series about the birth of Notion.

Dave Racicot settles in at Notion, his restaurant in Oakmont Larry Robers/Post-Gazette

Dave Racicot knew it wouldn’t be all rainbows and butterflies when he opened the doors to Notion, his 38-seat restaurant in Oakmont, a little more than two months ago. And not just because as executive chef and owner, the buck starts and stops with him.

Cooking for 50 or more diners a day is challenging enough when it’s prepped, prepared and delivered by a staff you almost can count on one hand. But when the menu is as labor intensive as Mr. Racicot’s? There’s a reason he’s guzzling French press coffee out of a plastic Chinese takeout container at 2 in the afternoon. Once he gets up from the table, he’s not going to sit down again for at least another 12 hours.

Each of the chef’s dozen dishes must be intricately plated with the steady hand and creative eye of an artist, and the garnishes — all integral to the dish, not just eye candy — often have as many components as the main parts of the dish. Here, for instance, is what goes into a cauliflower dish he dreamed up last week: roasted cauliflower, of course as well as cauliflower puree, brown butter pebbles, honey Dijon custard, pickled mustard seeds, one-hour egg, red grapes, vanilla aioli, lobster glace, lobster tail, dill and roasted panko bread crumbs.

As photographer Jason Snyder’s images demonstrate on Notion’s website, the food is as playful as it is beautiful and inventive. Many find it so darn creative, in fact, that dinner at Notion is much more than a meal.

“It’s what I intended on doing with food,” says Chef Racicot during an afternoon break on Feb. 11, a little more than a month into his life as a restaurateur. In a few hours, the ruby-red dining room will spring to life with wine glasses clinking and people talking and Smashing Pumpkins jamming on the sound system. What he didn’t expect was for Notion to so quickly become a destination restaurant.

The goal when he set out a year ago, after working for several years at Nemacolin Woodland Resort’s flagship restaurant Lautrec, was to create a place where people could get the incredible modern food and top-notch service that earned him several James Beard nominations, but in a non-fussy environment.

“We wanted it to be much less of an experience. But people,” he says, with the slightest hint of a sigh, “are sitting here all night. It’s become an event.”

Not that it’s a terrible thing that people want to linger. It’s just that the restaurant is small enough that if he’s going to make money —- and no, he’s not yet drawing a salary — tables must turn over more than once a night. “Being in Oakmont,” he says, “there’s not a lot of traffic to begin with.”

Week nights have been particularly slow, sometimes with only a handful of diners. Mr. Racicot optimistically chalks it up to the weather, and the lull that typically follows the holidays. There also isn’t as great a call for the $75 seven-course chef’s tasting menu as he’d like, with most people ordering a la carte off the menu.

That said, the restaurant is busy enough on Saturday nights that manager Jennifer Jin quite often has to wait-list people calling for reservations. Other would-be diners are turned away at the door. But hey, at least they’re drinking more wine and cocktails than expected while they sit, and many of his guests are repeat customers, something he takes as a sign he’s doing things right.

He’s also finding he doesn’t hate an open kitchen as much as he thought he would.

“It allows guests a personal connection,” he says.

“People make a bee-line for him at the door,” says Ms. Jin.

Celebrity must make up for a lack of sleep because the 31-year-old father of three looks far more rested than he did in the lead-up to opening night on New Year’s Eve, with a neatly trimmed beard and relaxed smile. And he obviously must find an occasional minute to play, as evidenced by the cool new tattoo on his left wrist: “notion” in Courier typeface.

“I feel great,” he says. “The restaurant’s going great.”

It hasn’t been completely smooth sailing while Chef Racicot and his staff have settled into a routine and perfected the menu, or rather, worked to make customers understand it. What do you mean chef doesn’t substitute or cook meat to order? Portion sizes (they’re not big) also have raised some eyebrows, as has the absence of bread and salad. He instead offers an amuse bouche to “excite the senses.”

“Quality versus quantity. Just one of the many challenges of a chef,” he noted on Facebook on Jan. 24.

Other problems have been beyond his control. “Small farms and winter storms,” he lamented on Jan. 27, a Thursday. “My duck is coming a day late and I didn’t order lamb. That’s the price you pay sometimes for great product.”

Another weekend in February, pastry chef Joshua Lind was off doing drills with the Army National Guard.

Chef Racicot is learning to go with the flow. At Lautrec, he says, the stress level was so high that the entire staff walked on eggshells. “I had a temper,” he admits, adding, “If it wasn’t perfect, it was the end of the world.”

He still is under pressure, of course. As he posted last Friday, “This is the hardest, most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life. There was a time I thought the stress of trying to get 5 stars was hard! HAHAHAHA! It’s nothing compared to this.”

But it’s his stress, which frees him up to have more fun.

“If we don’t fill the water glass just so, or pull the chair out far enough, or drop something on the floor, it’s OK,” says Ms. Jin.

The numbers aren’t yet where he’d like them, but Notion already is generating a buzz. On Feb. 18, Chef Racicot was named a semi-finalist by the James Beard Foundation in its annual national awards in the Best Chef Mid-Atlantic category. Five finalists in that and each of the 18 other restaurant and chef categories will be announced March 21, with the winner bringing home the bacon at the annual awards ceremony and gala reception on May 9 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in New York City. The same day, he was invited to cook, for the second time in as many years, at the famed Beard House.

“Unbelievable,” he wrote after learning of the nomination. “I know it’s the long list but who cares! It says notion!! Finally doing it for myself and my team.”

He’d love to take them up on it, of course. But without investors to pick up the tab, the experience could end up costing the cash-strapped chef thousands of dollars — money he needs to immediately put back into the restaurant to assure its success.

Some might wonder how a chef who was in business for only one day — opening night on Dec. 31 — and not yet reviewed could find himself on Beard’s list.

“As a chef, I’m offended that Dave Racicot was chosen as a semi-finalist,” sniped an anonymous writer on the foundation’s blog. “His nomination makes me wonder about the checks and balances involved in the JBF decision making.”

Characteristically, Mr. Racicot let the criticism roll off his shoulders.

“I was a semi-finalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year two times” in 2008 and 2009, he says, “so the foundation knows about me, and there’s also people who follow chefs and know what I was accomplishing at Lautrec.”

With uncharacteristic modesty, he adds, “I don’t expect it to go any further.”

That’s because Pittsburgh, unlike Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., isn’t known as a food town. “It’s about changing the culture, and getting people who live in the city to support restaurants that are trying to change the way we think about food.”

A nod from James Beard, he continues, won’t keep his doors open; the only way to accomplish that is to consistently make money.

Notion is generating a pretty decent buzz, but a nice review on Urban Spoon only gets you so far, says Chef Racicot. So this spring he’ll advertise in local magazines and he’s also joining Open Table to boost the restaurant’s presence on the Internet. The place also is reaching out to wine lovers with classes, offering Saturday wine tastings from 3 to 4 p.m. ($40) with sommelier Alan Uchrinscko.

Mr. Racicot also is toying with the idea of an “evolutionary” tasting menu that would feature upwards of 20 courses paired with even fancier, more exclusive wines that are currently out of the question — say, a high-quality white Burgundy. Private chefs dinners are another possibility.

But that’s jumping the gun. The immediate challenge is getting people in during the week, and making them realize Notion isn’t just for special occasions.

“So far, it’s so much better than I thought,” he says.

“I walk into my own restaurant each day, and just smile. There’s still stresses, but it’s mine.”