To Nota Bene for dinner to see how the restaurant has emerged from the chrysalis of renovation and to taste the latest evolution of David Lee’s cuisine. The room offers a different definition of elegance than it used to – cool, sophisticatedly understated, and entirely grown-up. Those abstract cityscapes are gone from the walls, which are now boldly bare; there is less of a barricade between the bar and the dining room – just patterned glass screens in luminous purple and yellow. New tables are white with a beautifully asymmetrical wood inlay that picks up the hardwood floor and dado while a redeeming note of whimsy has been reserved for the ceiling, where pale twig bushes cling like antigravitational tumbleweed. Was there music at Nota Bene before? I don’t remember any. Now a murmur of innocuous Latin jazz underscores the civil hum of conversation.
In the kitchen, meanwhile, the new gastronomic harmonies and resonances are much more interesting. There’s a Japanese tonality to many of the flavours, more fish and vegetables than of old and less charcuterie, and a number of dishes that are unlike anything you’ll find anywhere else in Toronto. The big ticket items are still on the menu for those aching to buy such treasures as Northern Divine caviar with its full service ($100) or a six-ounce genuine A5 Japanese wagyu steak at $140. Simply but perfectly seared “a la plancha” and presented with nothing but a knob of wasabi, a shiso leaf and a dish of Nota Bene’s own citric soy, it’s a treat best shared by the whole table, for a single ounce of this Carrara-marbled beef is enough for anyone to understand what real wagyu is about.
Another starter features sashimi flown in every Thursday from Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. Last night featured madai, aka rich, densely textured, mildly flavoured red sea bream, one of the most sought-after prizes of the serious sushiphage, and a very fine hamachi. Each had its own presentation in a glass bowl set in a much bigger vessel filled with crushed ice. The two cubes of madai were simply laid on a shiso leaf, topped with lemon for squeezing (I can’t bring myself to do that any more than I can bear drowning the true taste of an oyster with a hit of mignonette) and dabbed with a compote of yuzu in citrus soy. The hamachi had brought other friends to the party, nestling in with some stunningly flavourful moments of clam jelly, a few crunchy knobs of lightly pickled cucumber, tiny soft black wands that tasted like charred scallion and a pale pool of leche de tigre, the milky citrus, onion and fish juice that Peruvians use to “cure” a ceviche. A fascinating balance.
The evening’s most interesting dish also nodded to the rising sun – a slice of foie gras torchon with the texture of cool butter set on an island of soft wakame seaweed in a pool of dashi. Two shavings of duck breast cured in koji and miso were draped alongside like snippets of ribbon and Lee had scattered a little puffed rice on top to add crunch. There were slices of radish and two splashes of creamy tahini in the broth which brought a charmingly unexpected note of bitterness to the dish. I have had monkfish liver served in dashi but never foie gras. Its richness was a brilliant contrast to the delicate textures of dashi and wakame. Nota Bene’s new sommelier, Daria Brys, matched it with sake – Dassai 50 junmai daiginjo – a clever solution to a difficult pairing dilemma.
She found a different sake (Miyasaka Yawaraka) for Wendy’s dish, which was another very original creation. Lee had rimmed a thick slice of celeriac with cumin and coriander then slow-roasted it for eight hours until it was as soft and sweet as baked apple. He placed the slice onto a swirl of crema and topped it with a thick tranche of blood orange, using a little of the crimson juice to colour the cream. Then he crowned it with crunchy grated celeriac tossed with rosemary leaves, olive oil and popped coriander seeds. If I were a vegetarian, this might well be my dish of the year, set just inside the boundary where savoury merges with sweet, the fragrance of those spices perfectly matched by the rooty taste of the raw celeriac.
You must forgive me for missing out a couple of dishes in this delicious progression – marvellously tender grilled octopus with sea asparagus and buckwheat is one; slow-roasted carrots with kale, Malaysian red curry oil and channa dal is the other – but I’m eager to get to the suckling pig (or should I say “sucking piglet” since it’s the sow that suckles and the piglet that sucks). This one is from St. Canut in Quebec, source of the sweetest and most tender baby pork I know and it is sensational – so juicy and topped with perfectly crunchy crackling. Lee serves it on a bed of savoy cabbage with three condiments – a dollop of Kozlik’s grainy mustard, a sphere of apple purée and a spoonful of boudin noir sauce with the colour and consistency of chocolate sauce but the lightly spiced flavour of Lee’s classic blood pudding. Brys paired it beautifully with Loimer Langenlois, a Grüner Veltliner with crisp acidity and aromas of hazelnuts, pear and yellow plum.
Wendy, meanwhile, was tucking into B.C. halibut cheeks, a part of the fish that almost has the linear texture of skate. Lee had paired it wth mashed lima beans and strips of shiitake fried like crispy bacon. Fried capers cut through the lushness, and so did a pungently citric gremolata and two dots of intensely flavourful black garlic purée. Pio Cesare’s L’atro Chardonnay had the weight to cope with it all.
We felt we had left those Japanese-influenced beginnings far behind as my main course brought a subtle exoticism of a different kind – the warm spices of Ethiopian cuisine perfuming a gorgeous ragout of Haldimand County lamb shoulder with chickpeas. It came with a roasted jerusalem artichoke, a roasted onion petal and a roasted scallion, a stripe of tahini and some shards of papadom to add something crisp to the plate. Norman Hardie’s 2013 Niagara Pinot Noir had enough fruit and complexity to match the dish without overwhelming the nuances of spicing as a heavier, more extracted wine might.
Desserts were delightful – avocado ice cream on a bright rhubarb compote with a sprinkling of granola and blueberry dust; a crème caramel – or what felt like the top half of a crème caramel – paired with a sorbet made of almond milk, sweetened with date.
So often, in the last decade, when a restaurant closes for a renovation, it has been an excuse to dumb things down. The reverse applies this time. Nota Bene feels and looks renewed and David Lee is cooking better than ever.