Has Susur Lee still got it? The chef's latest restaurant, called Bent, opened this summer a few blocks east of Trinity Bellwoods Park, on the increasingly stylish Dundas Street West. The place is a family affair, with Mr. Lee as executive chef and his sons, Kai and Levi Bent-Lee, both in their very early 20s, as partners in the business. The boys' mother, the designer Brenda Bent, and her business partner Karen Gable are responsible for the nightclubby but whimsical room.
The broad strokes of Bent and Gable's design – long bar stocked with magnums of sake, lots of glass, low ceilings in the centre to make it extremely loud and incredibly close – are smartly conceived and work well enough, depending on your age and outlook. Bent is very much a young person's restaurant. But beyond the broad strokes, the design details are uncommonly rich.
The restaurant's back and side walls are covered with antique wooden letterpress trays that the designers filled with thousands of tiny collectible toys and trinkets: Chinese wooden cricket cages, pill bottles, flapper-era cigarette silks and pucker-lipped Hasbro Dolly Darling figures from the 1960s. They've set the hostess booth over a glass vitrine done up inside as a verdant mountain diorama. (The hostesses no doubt spend all night muttering "Hello? My eyes are up here," and not for the usual reasons.)
Bent and Gable papered the bathrooms downstairs with class pictures and portraits from the 1960s and 1970s, and, far from being hokey, the images are familiar, strangely haunting, the jug ears, the buckteeth, the horn-rimmed glasses and polyester turtlenecks. In one of the women's stalls there's a series of portraits that follow a girl from Grade 1 or 2 to the edge of adulthood; you may find yourself spending far more time away from your table than is appropriate, or worse still, sneaking into the ladies' like I did. It's worth it. This isn't decor. It's pop anthropology, the best Brenda Bent design I've seen so far. I admire that they took such a risk.
The cooking is classic post-Susur (the restaurant that turned Susur Lee into an international culinary celebrity). It's familiar, much as those portraits are, but without the labour or the risk. You can draw a straight line to here from the chef's populist King West restaurant, called Lee, the short-lived Madeline's that he replaced Susur with, and his sushi-focused room in Washington, D.C., called Zentan. The textures ply crispy-juicy-crunchy, the flavours balance bursts of acidity against gentle spice, hot against cold, East against West, sweet, creamy fat against comforting umami depth.
Much of the menu is built around rare or raw fish. There's very good tuna and salmon tartare mounded onto rice that's been formed into fingers, as with Japanese nigiri, but then deep fried, Italian arancini style, so it's browned and crispy – what a tasty bridge between traditions. Crudo of pink salmon brings four fat, fresh-tasting slices of the fish, with a splash of Moroccan argan oil, a dusting of black pepper, and half of a calamansi citrus wrapped in cheesecloth to keep the seeds from falling out with the juice.
The spinach custard is also nice, Japanese chawanmushi without the fishiness. It's vivid and refreshing, especially with chopped cucumber, a pool of cold, yuzu-spiked dashi and mildly briny salmon roe. The tuna and watermelon ceviche is the best of the raw: The cubes of fish taste dense and meaty, while slices of red onion, hot red peppers, and juicy, sweet-sour hunks of watermelon lighten the whole dish up.
A few of the hot entrees need sharpening. The steamed clams, ladled with orzo pasta and three small mussels (there are exactly six bivalves per serving) into a bowl of broth made from chicken stock, sake and what tastes like a drop of cream, don't get any favours from the dish's mealy, under-ripe tomatoes. The smoked-cod tacos, filled with an almost musky fish mash and wrapped in hard shells made from taro, taste like somebody in the Taco Bell test kitchen tried and failed at going Asian for the day.
The gorgonzola and fennel tart, though, is built on excellent homemade puff pastry and enriched with dark-caramelized, citrus-kissed onions, as well as orange segments; it's fantastic. Meat fanatics will also love the braised short-rib, tender and jiggly, topped with chives and sour cream and served on creamy-smooth pureed parsnips. The foie gras and chicken liver pâté is a can't-miss at $15. The duck salad, a fowl-driven riff on Lee's famous, 30-ingredient Singapore slaw, is fine, though if you like that Singapore slaw, you're better off saving your pennies for the real deal on King Street West.
Dessert, which they sent out gratis whenever I ate there (it wasn't me; they seemed to be doing it for everybody), was a sesame ball stuffed with red-bean paste and chocolate ganache, set beside a little cup of wild-blueberry compote, lemon curd and Chantilly cream. It's one of the best desserts I've eaten this year, and it's also a prime example of what Susur Lee does best: combining western flavours and ideas with eastern ones.
In answer to the question of whether the chef has still got it, I'll say: Yes, absolutely, if your memory's short. I've pined in the past for the old Lee, for the guy who built and ran Lotus and then Susur, the city's first truly top-flight restaurants. But it seems clear that guy isn't coming back. These are the chef's best-of years, time for the reunion tour and the compilation album, the one with his children on the front. The room's been packed since opening; waits for a table can top 90 minutes.
The new Susur Lee is a still a fine chef. And sometimes the best of is pretty good.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
** Very good, with some standout qualities
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution