I couldn't believe it either, as I watched the golden rings disappear. After all, minutes earlier, she had brushed aside my suggestion that we share a platter. "I'm not much of a calamari fan," she allowed with barely concealed disdain. "Mostly, it reminds me of chewing rubber bands." But now, here she was, stuffing forkful after forkful into her mouth, relishing every bite.
Yes, the gingersnap-crusted calamari at Noosa Bistro was that compelling: crunchy outside, exceptionally tender within, a bit spicy, and, particularly when swept through the accompanying dabs of custard-like lemon aioli, almost dessert-sweet.
And the calamari wasn't the only dish coming out of this Mentor kitchen that elicited raves. Mushroom-studded risotto was deeply flavorful. Baked polenta was light and mellow, with true corn taste. And an appetizer of spicy grilled Italian sausage, slathered with a zesty tomato-basil sauce, performed a veritable tarantella on the taste buds.
The mind behind Noosa's snappy little menu of contemporary Mediterranean fare belongs to Executive Chef Tim Bando, whose résumé reads like a directory of some of the East Side's most interesting dining rooms, including Blake's Seafood Grill, Moxie, Market Square Bistro, and the former Tutto à Posto. This comfortable Lake County bistro is his newest venture, and although the restaurant has only been open since March, it already seems to have developed a large, loyal, and diverse clientele, attracted by the creative and intensely seasoned dishes that Bando devises.
His exuberant style makes good use of high-potency ingredients like goat cheese, roasted garlic, ramps, and lemons to pique everything from soups and salads to seafood, meats, and pastas. This layering of flavors -- sweet and tart, pungent and mellow, fruity and rich -- makes for dishes that, at their best, are complex and exciting, yet remarkably unified. An entrée of pan-roasted duck breast was a rousing example of that "more is better" philosophy. Beginning with the savory splendor of rosy-red meat, Bando upped the ante by introducing an entire orchestra of complementary tastes. There was the sweetness of strawberries . . . the sharpness of melting goat cheese . . . the slight astringency of buttery braised endive . . . and the peppery bite of arugula, all accompanied by a creamy-crisp risotto cake, a balsamic reduction, and a strawberry vinaigrette, for a dish so bold, bright, and well-coordinated that each mouthful was a festival of flavors. Less complicated but equally praiseworthy were entrées of fat seared scallops on a bed of that perfect risotto, lavished with foie gras butter and thyme; and grilled veal flank steak, stroked with savory wild mushroom sauce and sided by a triangle of baked polenta and stalks of smoky grilled asparagus.
Of course, the downside to such vivacity is the risk of sometimes inducing sensory overload, wherein flavors feud and tastes become befuddled. A mammoth portion of baked ziti, supporting the essences of orange, kalamata olives, basil, fennel, fontina, and roasted chicken, was allowed to travel down that road a few steps further than it should have: Riotously robust at first bite, this dish was one that quickly overwhelmed us with its busy interplay of flavors.
If the food here is often sexy and daring, the restaurant's exterior is its plain brown wrapper. Noosa is situated at the heavily trafficked intersection of two main thoroughfares, surrounded by strip plazas and repair shops, ringed by a narrow asphalt parking lot, and fronted by a small patio for warm-weather dining. It all scarcely hints at the warm and welcoming atmosphere inside. There are three small dining areas and a long, narrow lounge with a gleaming wood-parquetry bar, just right for enjoying a pre-dinner drink and a half-dozen chilled Empress Crab claws. At least during our visits, heavy window blinds obscured the uninspiring view onto the parking lot, but golden oak wall paneling, votive candles, and white tablecloths made the low-ceilinged dining space feel cheerful and sophisticated. And while the restaurant can get crowded on the weekends, with patrons dressed in everything from Levi's to pinstriped suits, the noise level remains mostly tolerable, and the space rarely feels claustrophobic. Even at their busiest, servers manage to maintain an enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and efficient demeanor.
As befitting a bistro, most dinner entrées are moderately priced at $20 or less. A big basket of warm Stone Oven bread with herb butter arrives soon after guests are seated; however, salads are strictly à la carte. The Noosa Salad, with a generous mix of greens, Maytag blue cheese, and bits of toasted walnut, was fresh and crisp, although the pear vinaigrette dressing was in short supply; next time, we may go for the moister-sounding Mediterranean Salad, with greens, roasted peppers, olives, artichokes, feta, and basil vinaigrette. At midday, a small lunch menu includes selected items from the dinner repertoire, priced in the $8 to $13 range, as well as a hamburger, a roasted chicken sandwich, and grilled vegetables on focaccia.
To accompany the often-complex and varied dishes, Noosa offers an elegant, comprehensive international wine list, with more than 100 fairly priced labels available by the bottle. While some bottle prices climb over $100, there are numerous alternatives in the $20 to $40 range. In addition, the 18 by-the-glass options are interesting and diverse, and move beyond the usual Chards, Cabs, and Zins to less-routine Sauvignon Blancs, Viogniers, Pinot Grigios, Rieslings, Pinot Noirs, and Italian super-Tuscans. There's also a martini menu, with an unusual number of sweet and fruity concoctions. A "Classic" Grey Goose martini, up with olives, was a properly strong, smooth, and icy pour, but the sugary St. Moritz, with Raspberry Stoli, champagne, and Chambord, reminded us of Cherry 7-Up.
Speaking of sweet stuff, desserts include tiramisu from an outside bakery, housemade crème brûlée, and assorted tarts, galettes, and crumbles executed by sous chef Goran Zecik. One evening's warm strawberry-rhubarb cobbler was a wonderful balance of the mellow and the puckery, and a scoop of pistachio ice cream, on top, was a fitting final grace note. We were less enthusiastic about another evening's flaccid-crusted galette, however, with its mushy apple filling and low flavor quotient. On this occasion, we found ourselves looking longingly at a neighbor's bowl of Mitchell Brothers' lush Key lime ice cream and wishing we had ordered that instead.
As for the restaurant's name, it honors the Australian city of Noosa, an oceanfront resort town with a growing reputation for exciting, upscale dining. Thus far, Mentor is no Noosa. But Noosa Bistro is a step in the right direction.