Meat and Co.: how restaurants like Yorkville’s opulent NAO are reinventing the steak house

Meat and Co.: how restaurants like Yorkville’s opulent NAO are reinventing the steak house

meat-and-co Chef Stuart Cameron cradles a side of beef inside the aging locker at NAO (top left); The stunning multi-tiered chandelier hanging over the bar at Yorkville’s NAO is made of clear acrylic tubes (top right); The menu at NAO lists the provenance of each steak, like this 18-ounce, bone-in prime strip loin from Nebraska. The steaks are aged in-house for a minimum of 40 days and cooked over a wood-fired grill stoked with sugar maple logs. On the side are brûléed mac and cheese and brussels sprouts with miso-cured bacon (bottom).
NAO ★★★
90 Avenue Rd., 416-367-4141
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Last fall, I met with five friends for a bachelor party at Barberian’s, that most old-school of steak houses. Little has changed since Harry Barberian fired up his grill in 1959. At the entrance there’s a wooden statuette of Sir John A., as if to remind the politicians who frequent the place that they’re partners in a grand project. Our waiter addressed us as “sirs” and delivered baskets of bread sticks. The “Bill of Fare,” illustrated with bucks and rifles, includes the ultimate throwback: an after-theatre selection of crêpes Suzette and fondue.

Our little party knocked back bottle after bottle of terrific wine (the cellar is legendary) and did our best to imitate our dads by ordering slabs of garlic bread, baked potatoes smeared with full-fat sour cream, and New York strip (grilled a couple of minutes longer than advisable), a sprig of thyme the only green on the table. Even though we’re all pushing 40, our bachelordom antics largely behind us, we were just getting started—ready to carry on all night like a bunch of Bradley Coopers in search of a tiger. Who knows what trouble we’d have gotten up to if a guy at another table, not much older than us, hadn’t suffered a medical emergency. The dining room fell silent while ambulance attendants wheeled him past on a stretcher.

I didn’t need a cameo from Death to be reminded that old-school steak houses are past their prime. They’re the last restaurants where men are required to wear jackets and the few women in attendance seem like decoration.

Yet, in the cyclical nature of restaurant trends, steak houses are cool again—or at least new variations on the stodgy ones of old. It could have something to do with the return of expense accounts on Bay Street, or with the craze for high-protein diets. I trace the beginnings of the resurgence to 2007, when Mad Men debuted, lending renewed cachet to skinny suits, humidors and bacon-wrapped tenderloin. That same year, the restaurant group that owns The Saint and the three Buca locations opened the steak house Jacobs and Co. in a two-storey building on Brant Street that once housed the dance club Roxy Blu. The lower level is now a dimly lit piano bar, while the cavernous upstairs, where I spent a few nights in the late ’90s awkwardly shimmying to house DJs, is now two broodingly masculine dining rooms of walnut and leather.

The glass-walled aging locker at Jacobs and Co. is visible from your table. Everyone gawks, like new parents glued to the window of a hospital nursery, at the precious bundles of prime Angus and Wagyu. The Jacobs and Co. servers give detailed accounts about the provenance and flavour profile of the day’s cuts, as if describing a storied wine vintage. On my last visit, I shared a brick-thick rib-eye from a small farm in Guelph that raises Herefords. The cut had a slightly funky, mushroomy quality from its 50 days in the locker. I tried to convince myself I detected the tang of the southern Ontario hay the cow munched under the shade of a maple tree, though the truth is I was still tasting the combination of garlic, anchovy and salty double-smoked bacon lardons from the excellent caesar salad our server had assembled tableside, with a heightened sense of ceremony, in a gargantuan wooden bowl. It was a strict, by-the-books caesar, the only nod to a post-’50s world the Microplane he used to grate the parmesan, and I was left wondering why so many chefs fuss and fool around when the classic works so well.

Places like Bestellen, the Harbord Room, Union, and Parts and Labour have steak houses in their DNA, but they’re relaxed and their menus evolve frequently, sometimes daily. The star dish is usually a prime rib-eye, bavette, chateaubriand or whatever the chef decides pairs with in-season vegetables. Chef Robert Rossi of Bestellen, who installed his own glass-walled aging room, makes a point of working with small farm operations. Matty Matheson, the great big bear of a chef at Parts and Labour who’s covered from head to toe with tattoos of animals, roasts a gargantuan côte de boeuf, which he serves with piles of broccolini and a burgundy pool of bordelaise. On a recent Friday night at Union, I had a Grey County sirloin and a small mountain of frites with mayo, which is possibly the finest end to a long workweek. A chalkboard lists the farms that supplied everything on the menu. The meat-obsessed, French-trained chef Teo Paul (he also runs the neighbouring boutique butcher, Côte de Boeuf) marinates the cut in galangal and soy, which caramelizes into a magnificent crust.

Usually I favour the character of a small bistro like Union over the slick formula of a corporate restaurant. So I was pleasantly surprised by NAO, the showy steak house that opened late last year on Avenue in the old Boba location. NAO, which stands for New and Old, is another joint venture from the restaurateurs Hanif Harji and Charles Khabouth, who’ve had a great run with Weslodge, Patria and Byblos. It’s a Japanese-style steak house where executive chef Stuart Cameron assembled what may be the city’s best locker of prime U.S. and Canadian beef. They charge a small fortune for Kobe and have no tolerance for creamed spinach or baked potato. Instead they make modern side dishes like panko-breaded crab croquettes with seaweed seasoning, kale and shiitake salad in a sesame dressing, and an excellent ahi tuna tartare tossed with avocado and fresh B.C. wasabi.

It’s the most elegant steak house in the city: the quaint, yellow-brick Victorian façade hasn’t changed, but inside it could be an old Hollywood nightclub, with its swivelling black leather lounge chairs and seven-foot-tall tubular spaceship of a chandelier glowing over the long marble bar. It has become a hangout for that particular Yorkville species who maintain orange tans deep into winter, like one I’d spotted earlier cruising slowly down Cumberland in his canary-yellow Lamborghini.

NAO is the kind of place where there’s one cook whose job is to prepare an amped-up Japanese version of Worcestershire sauce at your table, and where the servers grandly present you with a set of steak knives from a special wooden case. (They have a neat story: they’re made by a Toronto blacksmith and still bear black scars from the forge.) One night, I tried a strip loin from Nebraska, which arrived on a warmed platter, sliced beside its bone. It was $75 for 18 ounces, making it one of the cheaper cuts on offer. Steak aged and grilled with so much care always leaves me torn between savouring birdlike bites and chowing down like a true red-blooded carnivore at the kill (I chose the latter). Aside from an over-peppered crust, it was perfection.

The most prized specimen in Cameron’s collection isn’t the Japanese Kobe, which you can also get at Jacobs and Co. It’s the top-grade Wagyu, exclusive to NAO, from an Australian eco-farm that traces the lineage of each cow back 80 years and supplies DNA records with each purchase. Steak people take this stuff very seriously.

I opted for the rump, $230 for 30 precious ounces. You need a healthy reserve of swagger to get away with such an outrageous order. Wagyu is famously tender and sweet, the beef nearly equal parts fat and muscle tissue. My cut was intricately marbled, too delicate to bastardize with the special Japanese sauce or the extra tray of imported rare salts. My dinner date’s eyes bugged out when he tasted a piece.

We sank back into the banquette, blissed out. This, I realized, is the reason steak houses are back again. They give us permission to eat like kings.