You can sometimes tell as much as you need to know about a restaurant from the “about” page on its website. At the “about” page for Just Sushi, a high-profile takeout spot that opened last fall near Humber Bay, the most promising thing you learn is that the business uses only fish that’s been certified sustainable by Ocean Wise, a Vancouver Aquarium conservation program.
This is a big deal. Just Sushi was the first Canadian sushi shop to sign on 100 per cent to the Ocean Wise standard. (Another place in Vancouver has since followed.) The vast majority of sushi places turn up their noses at questions of sustainability, as if it isn’t their problem. They are the problem. Here at last is a place that’s willing to act.
Yet the rest of Just Sushi’s about page is not reassuring – not if you cut through all the marketing to read what it actually says.
The restaurant’s founders (the website calls them “masterminds”) have zero restaurant management experience. Ian Clifford started Zenn Motor Company, a “preeminent electric vehicle company” that – and you have to Google for this next part – hasn’t made an electric vehicle since 2010. Co-founder Evan Clifford, who is Ian’s nephew, also worked at Zenn.
The restaurant’s third partner, Gabrielle Charlebois, has taken a lead role in the creation of Just Sushi’s menu, that webpage tells us. Her qualifications: she is “a highly creative individual.” Ms. Charlebois is also “a recently Ontario-certified paramedic with a passion for nutrition.” None of this brings images of sushi nirvana to my mind.
As for Just Sushi’s head chef, whom that about page eventually gets to, it’s complicated. Though Just Sushi opened last fall, it is already on its second head sushi chef. (The first one left a few months ago.)
The website doesn’t say that. What it says about the new guy is that he “spent eight years studying the art of sushi,” and that “along with his Just Sushi colleagues, the team have individually held the positions of head sushi chef at some of Toronto’s leading sushi restaurants.”
I spoke with the new guy on the phone this week, after I’d already been twice to Just Sushi.
The new guy has not worked in even one of Toronto’s leading sushi restaurants. The best thing on his résumé: he worked at Bento Nouveau, a company that makes packaged sushi for hospitals and grocery stores. So let me be clear up front: I do not entirely blame the new guy.
Just Sushi’s sushi is a disgrace.
The sliced fish here was mushy textured and ragged and in many cases barely held together both times I visited. I’ve seen tidier cuts in slasher flicks. The slices were notably stingy: just eight grams on some of the nigiri (I weighed them with a digital scale), or about half what you find at many places. A few of them were cut so thin and so narrow that it would be hard to tell them from scrap.
The white rice under the fish was cold and lumpy and had no discernible vinegar in it. The organic purple rice, a popular menu option was so strongly flavoured that it was all you could taste.
The wasabi was grayish green, as though it had spent the night on a park bench.
The nori around the hand rolls was so chewy that I had to pull, hard, with my teeth to tear off a bite.
The sushi chef kept a wet, dirty white kitchen towel next to him as he sliced and rolled and sprinkled. He used it periodically to wipe his hands and his knife and his cutting board. It was covered in bits of food and sauce. I had to stop watching him work after that. None of this comes on the cheap.
Just Sushi’s nigiri pieces sell two to an order. An order of nigiri costs between $4 and $7. Considering the varieties of fish that Just Sushi serves – it’s mostly the same sorts of fish as other sushi places serve, minus the Bluefin tuna, the farmed salmon, the boxed urchin, the grilled eel, etc. – this is about as expensive as Toronto sushi gets. When I spent $46 on a dozen sorry pieces of Just Sushi’s nigiri one night recently, no one thought to offer soup. (I ate in for that visit.) They did offer tea, however. It comes from a can. “We can heat it up for you,” the counter man told me. It costs $2.50 for a can of tea.
The tempura at Just Sushi sells for $9 an order. The order I had included three thin, pathetic pieces of squash and sweet potato, two tiger prawns from Southeast Asia (sustainable, technically, according to Ocean Wise, but seriously?) and a few lumps of an indeterminate substance that might have been a form of mushroom. I ate it in my car after my second visit, not two minutes after it was handed to me in a takeout bag. The tempura was cold and soaked with grease and nearly as tough as doggie chews.
The seaweed salad was excellent. It was a mix of oranges, yellows, light and deep greens, with a dressing made from tamari and balsamic vinegar. It was nutty, pleasantly chewy, gently grassy, bright-tasting, iodine. I could eat more of that.
There are also vegetarian “garden” sushi: heirloom carrot rolls with tarragon; tomato and mozzarella in a non-GMO soy wrap; mango with cayenne. These were not awful.
The spinach and asparagus roll has walnuts in it and is made with purple rice. My wife said she loved it. I would eat more of it if I were stuck at Humber Bay in a natural disaster situation and all of the other restaurants and corner stores and edible weeds and Labradoodles had already been wiped out.
All this matters because there is no legitimate reason why a sushi shop that uses only ocean-friendly fish shouldn’t be able to thrive in this city. It matters because Just Sushi has sucked up so much attention (the press coverage has without exception been a) fawning and b) entirely credulous) not just for itself but also for its cause.
It matters because the food that Just Sushi serves sets that cause back, not forward. It’s sustainable sushi that isn’t worth eating.
Which, when you think about it, is maybe the most sustainable sushi of all.
No stars: Not recommended