Amid the rush of new sushi restaurants into the city these past few years, there’s always been a conspicuous absence. We’ve seen new pan-Asian spots where they’ll wrap your futomaki rolls in Thai black rice, new all-you-can-eat joints (caveat you’ve-got-to-be-crazy), a “sustainable” sushi counter, vegetarian sushi businesses, aburi-style specialists where nearly everything comes blowtorched, and restaurants where you pluck your sushi from a conveyor belt and hope it’s on its first time around. There are big-box-sized rooms where the sushi comes in wooden boats, as well as pressed-sushi purveyors, hybrid sushi-ya-izakayas, an arriviste new Vancouver-style spot where the fish is great (but what they do with it isn’t), and a place where they seem to think that deep-fried sushi pizza is an extremely good idea.
But until this past spring, what the city didn’t have was the sort of sushi restaurant that you might have seen in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. What we didn’t have was a sushi counter that did nothing but top-quality sushi: that served only just-warm, vinegar-seasoned rice draped with superlative fish, made to order right in front of you and served a single bite at a time.
Early this May, an Osaka-raised chef named Yasuhisa Ouchi [Oh-oochee] quietly opened just such a spot on Harbord Street. Yasu, as the room is called, is bright and modern, wide glass out to Harbord’s stream of summer bicyclists. The décor is suitably minimalist for a place with such laser-focus: There is little more here than an L-shaped counter, 10 comfortable stools and an open glass icebox where the fish is kept.
At Yasu, there is only one menu option: for $80, you get 20-odd pieces of pristine sushi, cut right there in front of you. All but two pieces come served over just-warm rice.
It might start with an ivory slice of Japanese amberjack, its texture almost apple-crisp, its flavour clean, brushed lightly with nikiri (sweetened soy sauce), and set on gently roasty-tasting rice. There will be grouper from South Carolina, sweet and buttery with a minor wasabi backnote (the wasabi is fresh, of course; Mr. Ouchi prepares it a bit at a time by rubbing a gnarled-looking piece of the root on a sharkskin grater). All the fish is seasoned when you get it; you won’t be needing a bowl of soy sauce to dunk it in.
The scallops are warmed with a blowtorch and brightened with sour-floral pepper seasoned with summer yuzu; they melt as you eat them, almost like ice cream from the sea.
The fish selection changes constantly. The chef has had Pacific spot prawns, live Maine and B.C. urchin, and Gaspé scallops on the half-shell lately, in addition to many other less common sushi species. To eat a piece of Mr. Ouchi’s sardine sushi, to name just one, is to forever banish anything you knew about oily-fleshed seafood. Where you might be expecting your usual sardines’ greasy pong, at Yasu they are fresh enough to taste disarmingly mild: rich and dark-flavoured, umami-dense and meltingly light, without even a hint of fishy.
And as with everything else here, they are beautiful also: Those sardines appear as whole shimmering fillets, topped with a daub of ginger and a tiny green tangle of scallion shavings, lain out on a bed of cloud-like white rice.
Yet what’s extraordinary about eating here, beyond all the fish’s tastes and textures and remarkably different characters, is how the focus and the pace of the meal – one piece at a time – encourage you to do something that people too often forget when eating sushi: to think about what you’re eating.
There’s no filler here, no salad or noodles to arrive just as you’re about to get to the Tasmanian sea trout; no wagyu beef sukiyaki sizzling at the counter space next to you so that all you can smell is aerosolized fat. (Both of these happened to me at Sushi Kaji earlier this week.)
Both times I ate at Yasu, the progression of fish and the pace of the evening sent me into a seafood-induced bliss-state. While I’ve had that experience at a sushi counter in Tokyo and another in Vancouver, I had never before felt it here.
Mr. Ouchi, who is 40, began his sushi training in Osaka when he turned 16, he said. He spent the first five years of his thirties in Australia, much of that time at modernist sushi king Nobu Matsuhisa’s Melbourne branch. He came to Toronto in 2009 and opened a takeout counter in Leaside called Nigiri-Ya.
Yet what he’s always loved most is straight-up Edomae-style sushi, made and served to order. “For Japanese, when you think sushi, it’s just fish and rice,” he said. He sold Nigiri-Ya last fall and took the plunge.
Yasu has so far gone mostly unnoticed. (Credit to The Grid’s Karon Liu, who was the first, and until recently only city food writer to feature the place.) The first time I ate there, I was one of just five people at the counter. The second time, it was just me and a friend. There are two seatings nightly, at 6 pm and 8:30, and the restaurant doesn’t accept walk-ins (it buys just enough fish for its reservations); I don’t doubt this is part of the problem. But maybe it’s also asking a lot of the city to accept an $80-per-person sushi place that isn’t known and doesn’t have a gimmick.
For the record: $80 is a steal for sushi this good. And as for the empty part, I can only hope that this will change, fast.
The last time I was there, they had small, sweet shrimp from Hokkaido, dense, dark purplish bonito dressed with garlic, superb Norwegian mackerel with pickled daikon, and warm, candied-tasting sea eel.
The urchin had just come in from Hokkaido that morning. It tasted intensely of the ocean: of sea spray and iodine. Even the nori was extraordinary. Mr. Yasu’s sous chef handed us each a square of it, topped with a cube of rice and a spoonful of vermillion-coloured salmon roe and a squall of summer yuzu zest. Nori is usually unremarkable: it is structure, not splendour. But here it tasted like dark grass and smoke and green tea – it was the first thing we noticed. (The rice and ikura were exceptional too.)
The final sushi course, a piece of the sweet, sponge-cake-like egg and shrimp omelet called tamago, is one of the most traditional tastes in the Edomae sushi canon; it is also perhaps the most difficult to make. (In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, one of the Great One’s acolytes recalls crying when after four months and 250 failed attempts he finally made one fit for service.)
Mr. Ouchi has spent much of his life making tamago, and still it isn’t perfect. The edges, where the square pan is hottest, were puffed up a touch too much both times I had it; one of the pieces was slightly cracked. Yet while it may not have been perfect, it was unequivocally delicious. And in the tradition of all great sushi chefs, Mr. Ouchi said he won’t ever stop chasing perfection. “I work on making better tamago every day,” he said.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won’t blow a lot of people’s minds.
** Very good, with some standout qualities.
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original with near-perfect execution.