Steakhouses have long been a place of pomp and circumstance where businessmen make deals while they enjoy steak and potatoes with a glass or two of 35-year-old whisky. The doyen of Toronto restaurateurs, Hanif Harji and Charles Khabouth's NAO is not your typical, stuffy steakhouse. NAO stands for new and old and the duo has modernized the traditional steakhouse by giving the restaurant a feminine and sleek aesthetic.
As the culinary master behind some of the city's most celebrated restaurants including Byblos and Patria, executive Chef Stuart Cameron's reputation precedes him. With NAO, he has turned the traditional steakhouse on its head with his inventiveness and by drawing upon inspiration from Japanese cuisine. While NAO caters to the most discriminating of steak lovers, it also offers lighter fare for those wishing to enjoy a smaller meal.
I recently visited NAO for its one year anniversary to see firsthand just how it differentiates itself from the established steakhouses in Toronto. The focal point of the elegant restaurant is an impressive and unique chandelier, which is made from clear sporadic acrylic tubing. Yorkville is still the place to see and be seen and the swiveling Italian made chairs ensure that you have a 360-degree view of the action around you. As I took in my surroundings, I was greeted by the manager and led upstairs where I was ready to enjoy an evening out after a long day at the office.
Dinner commenced with our pleasant server preparing the table side tuna tartar ($22) before our eyes. He gingerly mixed avocado, wasabi and puffed rice with the tuna as we eagerly watched him.
I adored the Miami short ribs ($15) which were presented on a dainty, floral patterned plate. Moist with XO sauce, the delicious combinations of burnt honey and spicy sesame gave the short ribs bursts of sweet and savoury flavours. Never in my relatively short life, have I ever had a craving for kale salad, but there's a first for everything.
My mouth still waters at the memory of tasting the most extraordinary shredded kale salad ($13) with pickled shiitake mushrooms, fried shallots and spicy sesame dressing.
The main event is most certainly the steak and NAO offers the finest dry aged cuts of meat from around the world, as well as locally sourced meat. I shared the tender and flavourful swinging rib Canadian prime ($145) and the generous, fatty bone in Canadian Angus ($130). I thoroughly enjoyed the perfectly cooked and seasoned porterhouse steak, which did not require any of the melange of sauces or salts that accompanied it. Brussels sprouts ($14) plus bacon cured with miso equals a winning side dish to complement and balance the steak.
The Japanese influence extends into the culinary offerings available, such as Kobe strip loin ($85 per 4 oz) chicken kaarage ($12) and even creamed spinach with yuzukosho ($13).
Those with more traditional palates need not fear, for mashed potatoes are indeed offered on the menu. For something different, try the dense rosti ($15) with crème fraiche. Crispy and golden on the outside and tender and chewy on in inside, it is a filling and satisfying dish. The creamy mac and cheese ($14) made with Gruyere and smoked bacon can serve as a main or can be shared to accompany a meal. What's more is that the pasta is hand-rolled for freshness.
As if we could eat another morsel, our server rolls out a pie trolley ($12) and presents it with a flourish. Rarely is banana banoffee pie offered on a dessert menu in Toronto. I was in for a real treat when I tasted the heavenly dessert. The crunchy pastry is flaky and tastes like shortbread. This alone was enough for me, but I just could not resist a bite of the filling. Milk chocolate shavings strewn upon fresh whipped cream garnishes the pie, while the inside is layered with moist, flambéed bananas and delectable banana cream. It was the most novel and decadent ending to a meal that I have had in long time.
Photos: Joel Levy Photography, Jesse Milns Photography and Paula Wilson.
Alison Silveira is a loyal civil servant, hot sauce connoisseur and the editor of The Charming Modernist, a lifestyle blog for curious minds. Follow her on Twitter @AlisonSilveira and Instagram TheCharmingModernist.