Stuart Cameron, Exec Chef at NAO is the superhero of spice. Buckle up your seatbelts and get ready for a roller coaster ride that will hurtle your taste buds through an Asian Fusion volcano. Balancing on a gastronomic tightrope, he knows just when to give us a blast of heat and when to turn the thermostat to mellow. But wait, they told us NAO was a steak house.
Once seated upstairs in a kind of open mezzanine dining room, we look around as our eyes become adjusted to the sultry lighting. We appreciate the huge modern stylized Japanese wall art; the respectable space between tables and the rarified aura of the place. It begins with a hot bergamot scented towel handed to us with tongs. Once refreshed, our server explains the restaurant’s social dining concept and recommends the types of dishes to share. And thus we begin our New And Old dining experience.
Miso flour dinner rolls set the tone. Finely shredded kale salad tossed with pickled shitake and spicy sesame dressing is a refreshing take on what’s to come. A server wheels up a cart and mixes tuna tartar at table, lightly tossing diced tuna, wasabi, avocado and other finely minced goodies. A whole sea bream prettily marked from the grill is boned at tableside. The server adds a drizzle of Spanish olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and proceeds to grate a large square of Himalayan rock salt over the fish. “Go easy, ” I say, “it’s salt.” To clear the palate, butter lettuce salad textured with togarashi spiked pecans.
We’ve come for the main event and are delighted by surprises. The list of steaks and their provenance is impressive with two pages to choose from. Each steak has its own character and bears the “terroir” of its habitat. Canadian Prime, Alberta; USDA Prime, Omaha; A5 Wagyu, Japan. Pasture raised and grass fed, Kearney, Missouri, and countless others to choose from. After intense deliberation, the decision is David Blackmore’s Full Blood MS 9 + Wagyu pasture-fed, Alexandra, Australia 10oz striploin, $180. We share this medium rare delicacy, and it seems quite enough.
The approach to this exceptional steak is unique. Frederick Scanlon handcrafts the knives in a method he learned from South African native tribes. The knife is not serrated; it does not tear the meat, it just slices through. Suddenly, a server is at our table with a cart and mixing ingredients from a dozen little bowls. He whips up the Bulgogi sauce for our steak. Three sea salts in their individual bowls are offered. We like mushrooms and potatoes with our meat. These mundane items are given royal treatment. Frites with a kick of togarishi spice elicit a “wow”. Seasonal mushrooms are an exotic selection that include hen of the woods, chanterelles, shitaki and crisp panko crusted oyster mushrooms. The side dishes here could make a vegetarian’s heart flutter.
NAO is a restaurant worth exploring for its exotic dishes and diverse menu. Two can sit at the bar and taste a small dish or two, have a splendid 3 course dinner for $150 or, well, the sky’s the limit.
~ NAO Restaurant, 90 Avenue Road, 416-367-4141 ~