To Nota Bene, to preview David Lee’s Taste of August menu – a most elegant expression of some of the treats of an Ontario summer. The restaurant has a charming feeling of calm and spaciousness early in the evening and early in the week, though the bar is usually busy with patrons taking advantage of the generous Happy Hour (actually 4:00 to 7:00) when Lee’s delectable bar snacks are offered for a mere $4. The menu itself – five courses – costs a very reasonable $59 with matched cocktails and wines for another $36.
The first course stars the year’s first great tomatoes – a selection of different small red, yellow and purple heirlooms from Vicki’s Veggies in Prince Edward County, intense little flavour bombs of tangy sweetness. Lee dresses them with basil leaves and a chipotle vinaigrette thickened with roasted tomatillo pulp and chili oil, the prickle of peppery heat a lovely counterpoint to the perfume of the basil. On the other side of the plate, meanwhile, representing the pleasure of sin against the virtuous salad, is a slim crab melt sandwich of rich, runny cheese and crab meat inside golden fried brioche slices. Nota Bene’s sommelier (Nick Baldassari, lately of Bar Buca) proposes a cocktail with the dish rather than a wine, a Rio Cubano of muddled mint leaves, lime juice, pineapple juice and cachaça. It’s cold, tart, aromatic and utterly refreshing.
My wife’s unabashedly eager affection for chilled sweet English pea soup has raised eyebrows in the past, but her standards are high and based around an insistence on pea-purity (woe betide the potage that sluts itself up with alien flavours). Lee’s version passed her scrupulous tests. A thick, silky purée, it contained a few whole peas and, at the heart of the bowl, a small slice of creamy burrata Pugliese to add the richness of dairy to the head-filling, pea-green flavour. A crisp, golden, wafer-thin crostini, like Melba toast that’s died and gone to heaven, was served separately, to be crumbled onto the soup perhaps, or dipped into it, or used as a utensil to fish for the slice of burrata – there were no instructions… Matching a wine to a soup is often tricky – especially a soup with such a full body – but Baldassari found a dazzling solution – “Sillery,” a white Pinot Noir from Frecciarossa in Lombardy with great weight and richness of its own.
A pasta course followed: a brace of big firm tortellini with taleggio cheese and black Australian “perigord” truffles grated on top. Zucchini blossoms had been chopped into morsels to add an intriguing, almost bitter vegetal note. This time the wine was chosen to contrast the unctuous textures of the dish – Norm Hardie’s 2013 “Calcaire,” a bone-dry, sharp and minerally ménage of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Melon de Bourgogne and Riesling.
Do you pay any attention to the prophesies of experts who claim to predict the coming trends? The next big thing in gastronomy? I have it on good authority that lamb will be the darling meat for the next little while. By a complete coincience, David Lee is offering Haldimand County lamb “three ways” as one of the two main course options on this August menu. He prepares it with his customary elegance and refinement. There is a firm piece of loin, almost gamey in its lamby-lanolin identity, a smaller chunk of tenderloin with a more delicate flavour and a texture so tender you really don’t need to take a knife to it, and lastly, a tranche of the lamb belly or “breast” as it used to be called – a cut that is rarely seen but is layered with delicious fat and, in this fine version, perfumed with rosemary. A bonus “fourth way” came with the scattering of crispy little shards of lamb crackling. Then there was a friter of peaches-and-cream corn, soft on the inside, crisp on the surface; a moment of olive tapenade (classic with lamb, of course, and justifiably so); some spinach for balance and a mustardy jus. It sounds straightforward but the quality of the lamb (and the cooking) lifted it head-high. Somm Baldassari paired it with 2013 Whoa Nelly! Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette valley and a very good time was had by all.
Were we full by now? We were not. So the house slipped in an extra course of three cheeses – minute amounts of three beauties curated by afrim Pristine of Cheese Boutique: buffalo milk Fuoco, Eweda Cru and Glen Garry’s renowned Lankaaster. Taylor Fladgate was an ideal accompaniment but a cinnamon-spiked apple purée was a much too powerful condiment.
And then it was time for dessert… Years ago, I remember Michael Stadtländer’s default pud was a loose compote of wild blueberries with lemon foam – and indeed the two flavours (and the two colours) are divine together. This time, Nota Bene’s pastry chef had topped an impeccable blueberry compote with a spoonful of lemon gelato and a spoonful of lemon curd – delectable, but a bit too much for the blueberries who had to shout to make themselves heard. A fin of apricot meringue was a brilliant garnish.
There are other, heartier treats at Nota Bene this season for those with the foresight to order them 48 hours in advance. How about a roast suckling pig spread across two courses, one traditional, the other taco-style? Or a lobster boil that also involves shrimp, corn, Linzer potatoes and pork and Mexican oregano sausages? Both are offered for two or four persons.
But I urge you to drop in for the Taste of August menu. Chef’s tasting menus have been out of style for a while, which is a shame because they offer an artist like David Lee a fine opportunity to show his mind and his palate at work over a whole evening, with careful progressions and resonances all in place.