Nota Bene Restaurant (Q&A with Chef David Lee)

Nota Bene is one of Queen St's most notable and popular restaurants since it first opened in 2008. The restaurant recently underwent a complete space renovation, and relaunched their menu this past February. They contracted +tongton to redesign their dining room, and it now feature mounted tumble weeds, hanging wine rack, and tree trunks that are oiled using the method of Shou Sugi Ba. The new look inspires a more earthy and nature concept. I also noticed that it's much more approachable now as they have removed the dark tinted windows that stare onto Queen St. According to Executive Chef David Lee, the new menu has evolved with a heavy emphasis on seafood and vegan/vegeterian dishes. The dishes are mainly inspired by David Lee's extensive world travels, and his recent interests in catering to veganism.



I was given the opportunity to do an interview with Chef David Lee (owner and executive chef of Nota Bene) after dinner.

First off, I want to congratulate you on Nota Bene ranking #12 on 2015 Canada's 100 Best Restaurants this year. Do you have anything to add? Thank you! We're very proud that we have been here for 7 years. It's a lot of hard work and dedication to our craft in what we do. I think the next stage of Nota Bene is definitely going to be a progression in terms of what we've done, and to think of what is next for us.

 What was the main reason for the restaurant relaunch earlier this February? I think the timing was right, and this was pretty much a progression of what we do. This was the first time where I had the restaurant to myself (note: he had a couple of partners before), and I felt that the restaurant needed a new identity.


I noticed while scanning around the room that the demographics of the patrons are a little older. How are you trying to attract the younger generation (aka millennials like myself)? In terms of the younger crowds - we have a great bar for casual affairs. We also offer a great 4-7 snack menu and the dining menu is for those looking for something more evolved. So, there's something for everyone.

What is the secret to your staying power in an ever-changing culinary landscape in Toronto? That's a good question, I don't know if I can answer that. However, I think it's because we're true and honest to our craft, as we believe in what we do. As long as there is progression and sensibility; we will never lose focus in what we're trying to achieve. I guess that's why we're still around.

Why did you choose to become a Chef? I guess it was a very natural path for me. I was also inspired by both my grandparents and parents - they are great chefs within their groups. I learned a lot about cooking from my culture, and I was taught to respect the ingredients from a very young age. Nothing was taken for granted while growing up.

In terms of the new menu - what would you say was the biggest inspiration behind it? I think we went for a very clean approach in terms of some of the items. Honestly, the seasonality is extremely important to us at Nota Bene. The moment that you get the season changing, we also change up the menu based on the seasons.

I read that you worked in a Michelin starred restaurant in the past. Did you take anything from that experience and apply it to owning your own restaurant? This was a while back in the 80's, so it was a very different dining scene. So in terms of the Michelin starred, you don't get to sleep much and you work a lot. The evolution in what you're striving for is pretty incredible and special. However, it's hard to apply my experience to today as it's different now in the sense of how the world thinks of the food.

What is your passion that allows you to wake up everyday and put this much dedication to your culinary craft? My family - absolutely! I have two families (the one at Nota Bene and the other one at home). I guess when it comes down to it - I also love what I do, and it drives me.

 What was the biggest challenge that you faced when doing the relaunch of the menu and space? I don't know as it has only been a couple of weeks. There are still hurdles that we're trying to figure out. However, we are still striving to do better everyday, so it's a work in progress at this stage. One of the  previous challenges was getting the restaurant done in time as we completely renovated the restaurant. Another is encouraging people to come out of their comfort zone, and try something new off the menu. There has been guests who have coming here for years looking for the same thing - so it's all about finding that balance. We're trying to keep the menu accessible, but still encouraging patrons to try new items.

Lastly, I have quite a few friends who are home cooks, and they inspired to be in the food industry. What advice would you give to home chefs who are inspired by your style, and your cooking? I think that if they're very serious about it, then they should knock on restaurants' doors. They should try to get an opportunity to work in the back of the kitchen as a start. There, they will be able to observe, and get a feel of what it's like to work in a kitchen environment.


It should be noted that the bar was also given a facelift, and the space is now larger. My evening started off with some light snacking at the bar where I was introduced to Nota Bene's bar snacks menu, which showcase several snacks for $4 each between 4 pm to 7 pm (Monday to Friday) - $7 after 7 pm. Also available on their menu is a small selection of smaller plates recommended for sharing for $12 each. The entire 4-7 menu caters very well to those who seek to partake in unwinding after work before dinner with their friends or colleagues.

Salt Code Fritters ($4 between 4-7, and $7 after 7 pm)


Crisp Pork Cheek ($4 between 4-7, and $7 after 7 pm)


 Puffed Beef Tendon ($12)

 

Suckling Pig Green Papaya Slaw ($12)


I also got to sample a few new dishes from Nota Bene Restaurant's relaunched menu. Please note that all of the dishes pictured below are sample sizes, and the main dishes are bigger (portion-wise). Nota Bene is open for lunch and dinner from Monday to Saturday (closed Sunday).

I don't eat vegetarian dishes often, but the Heirloom Cookstown Carrots ($16) - sunflower “sour cream”, kale, Malaysian red curry oil, channa dal, hemp hearts, stimulated my taste buds. 


 8 hr. Roasted Celeriac ($14) - crema, caramelized blood orange, rosemary


There are a few new Japanese-inspired dishes on the menu like this “Tsukiji Fish Market” Sashimi Plate, as Chef David Lee likes the clean flavor profile of Japanese cuisine. The fish are directly sourced from Japan's Tsukiji Fish Market, and the sake pairing complements the sashimi. Note that the platter is available Thursday to Saturday only.



The Hamachi Ceviche ($17) - clam & tomato jelly, leche de tigre, charred scallion, pickled cucumber was a beautifully presented, colorful, and delicious dish. 


St. Canut Farms Suckling Pig ($32) -  Savoy cabbage, Boudin Noir sauce, Kozlik’s mustard


 Wild Halibut Filet ($37) - lima bean mash, shiitake "bacon", black garlic, gremolata


The Chocolate Ganache "Fleur de Sel” ($12) - caramelized milk powder, toasted marshmallow, seabuckthorn, milk ice cream, was a more elevated take on the classic s'mores. I enjoyed the contrasting flavor profile of the dark chocolate with the light milk ice cream.


The Rhubarb CompĂ´te ($13) - avocado sorbet, dried fruit & nut granola was one of the new vegan dessert options; simply light and refreshing.



I had an enjoyable and satisfying meal sampling some of Nota Bene's new dishes. It was a busy Thursday evening, and I liked that there was an abundance of staff on the floor. Overall, the service was friendly, and prompt without being overly intrusive. I am happy to have visited the new and updated Nota Bene, and will happily return. 
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Address: 180 Queen St W, Toronto, ON M5V 3X3

Social Media:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NotaBeneToronto
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/notabenetoronto/
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Website: https://notabenerestaurant.com/

Disclaimer: The food provided in this post was complimentary. However, all of the opinions expressed in this review are of my own.

Nota Bene Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato