Table Talk: Joanne Kates reviews Bent
By Joanne Kates
Like Nobu, but not (Image: Cheol Joon Baek)
A family business is a very complicated creature. The older generation desperately wants the younger generation to succeed. The younger generation desperately wants the older generation out of their face, but they know (some days) that they need them. The older generation wants to trust the younger to do well and do right, but trust isn’t usually an entrepreneur’s strong suit … so they meddle. And if they’re Susur Lee, they meddle deliciously.
Two of Susur’s three sons, Levi (aged 22) and his brother Kai (aged 20) opened Bent in late summer. We can be forgiven for wondering as to the preparedness of two such young men (neither with significant professional restaurant experience) to run a business. And so can Susur — be forgiven, that is. Which is perhaps why doting dad is in charge of the food at Bent, named for his wife, Brenda Bent, who designed it and Susur’s restaurants as well. The room is very pretty: sake bottles in clever niches behind the bar, lacquered wooden tables with inlaid red stripes, shiny white tiles on one wall and small white bistro tiles on the floor. The only downside to all those hard surfaces is the noise: everybody’s shouting to be heard.… Oh, and the service: five different servers bring us food one evening — a tad scattered.
Being executive chef at Bent is the perfect gig for Susur Lee. It’s incredibly low pressure. I’m guessing he doesn’t need the money, and he gets to hang out with his kids, give them the best leg up possible and cook for fun. It must be like rolling off a log for Susur.
Here, we have one of the three best chefs in Canada selling coconut shrimp soup for seven bucks! Okay, so it’s not the stuff of Susur’s glory days, but the balance of green curry against shrimp with coriander, mint and squash is quite the flavour party, lightened by foamed milk on top. Also pretty great for the price is the sake oyster shot, a classic eastern marriage of bivalve and booze zinged with shallot and salmon roe soaked in ponzu sauce for entertainment. Even more fun is the vodka scallop shot: half a lime topped with chopped raw scallop, with vodka in a shot glass of ice.
It’s an inexpensive Asian fusion menu weighted towards Japan with, say some foodies, more than a nod to the Nobu restaurants, although Bent’s execution is far less delicate than Nobu’s. We wish for more spinach savour in the tofu with its roof of ponzu salmon roe atop chopped spinach, and its yuzu dashi broth is too tart. The barely seared tuna is perfectly correct, but its fragile flavour is overwhelmed in a bath of yuzu, wasabi, citrus and marinated mushrooms, and the crispy rice cake isn’t.
Some things are much better: Peruvian-style ceviche (a Nobu inspiration?) is ultra-fresh sweet snapper, clams and calamari jazzed with lime and chilis. Smoked cod is splendid and moist and cleverly set off against jicama for sweet, tomatillo for pungent and chipotle mayo for hot, all in a cute ’n’ crisp little taro taco.
Chef sends every table a complimentary dessert: tiny panna cotta with milk foam, lemon curd with blueberries and flaky mini moon cake. He strolls the dining room in his whites, relaxed and calm, the very picture of a retired perfectionist.
Bent, 777 Dundas Street West, $80 Dinner for two
Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cordon Bleu de Cuisine in Paris. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chatelaine, and she was the Globe and Mail’s restaurant critic for 38 years.