When Vancouver's Guu Izakaya chain arrived in Toronto three years ago, it breathed fresh life into the city's Japanese scene, which at the time was mostly limited to cheap teriyaki joints and sushi restaurants.
Guu was the new kid, bound by little, indebted to no one. Loud, cheap, profane and delicious, the company's first location on Church Street was a classic izakaya , a drinking hall that happened to have unconventional things to eat. Then, as now, it was jammed every night with a mix of college kids, young urban professionals and Rockport-shod foodies who sucked back mayo-slicked corn croquettes, jiggly-savory pork intestines and steaming bowls of kimchi udon over steins of Sapporo – who weren't above slumming it for a gleefully seditious bite.
Guu opened a second izakaya on Bloor Street at Bathurst, and then last fall, a superb ramen-ya called Kinton Ramen on Baldwin Street, all with very much the same vibe.
But what happens when the tattooed, nose-ringed, peroxide-headed punk takes on the hush-toned world of high-end sushi? The answer, it seems, is JaBistro, the new, Guu-owned spot on Richmond Street. In the words of the restaurant's website, JaBistro is "a cozy hideaway for Toronto's sophisticated crowd."
They accept reservations, take your coat, fold your napkin and deliver truffled chocolate mignardises after dinner. It's Guu, but for grownups with expense accounts.
JaBistro's $100 showstopper of a sashimi platter features pristine Japanese mackerel, B.C. geoduck and fat, creamy slabs of bluefin tuna loin and belly, among several other aquatic species. For an extra $15, chef Koji Tashiro will add the translucent ivory tail meat of a lobster that was whacked in half only seconds earlier. You can watch the other half twitch on the counter as you eat it.
It's clean-tasting, lightly sweet, with a texture that's both crunchy and yielding, a little like lychee fruit.
The $57 "ultimate fresh pieces" sushi selection is fairly well-made; its fresh sea urchin with salt and lemon is a standout.
JaBistro's specialty is aburi sushi: fish that's set over vinegared rice – as with nigiri sushi – but then brushed with sweet soy sauce and blowtorched, so the flesh turns caramelly and its fat renders down into the grains of rice. (Mr. Tashiro spent two years at Vancouver's Miku sushi, which by many accounts was the first restaurant in Canada to specialize in aburi sushi.)
Yet what works well with oily, big-flavoured fish is less successful with more delicate seafood. While JaBistro's torched mackerel is all amped-up flavour and sugary, decadent fat, the ocean trout turns soft and flabby-tasting under a blowtorch; it might as well be farmed Atlantic salmon. Same with the B.C. spot prawn they served as part of the $27, seven-piece aburi platter one night; with eyes closed, you'd struggle to distinguish it from a commodity South Asian tiger prawn.
The design doesn't quite work, either. Bennett Lo, the designer behind Guu's other Toronto rooms, has confused "sophisticated" for "sedate." He's rendered JaBistro's long, thin, windowless space in earthy yellow and beige; it feels bland and soulless, not at all like what you'd expect from Guu. The lighting is muddy, bright where it shouldn't be, shadows where you want illumination. The easy-listening soundtrack – an up-tempo take on John Lennon's Imagine was playing one night recently – also doesn't help.
The pace of service, even a full three months into JaBistro's life, was glacially slow both times I visited; Mr. Tashiro badly needs to hire more sushi chefs if he hopes to keep up with the 44-seat space.
There was a sloppiness to some of the fish, too: a streak of gristle in a bluefin piece; an oyster that came on a preposterously poorly-shucked shell, so you had to pick bits out of your mouth after slurping. (I blame the dim lighting at the sushi counter to some extent, though poor technique was evident. The shucking knife appeared to have gone in from the shell's easily-shattered side, instead of prying at its hinge.)
These are the sorts of faults you don't find at Sushi Kaji, or downtown's Japango, or Scarborough's stellar Zen Japanese Restaurant.
Yet my greatest issue with JaBistro is chef Tashiro's liberal use of Spanish bluefin tuna – he puts it on his sashimi platters, as well as on many of the sushi plates. Bluefin tuna is one of the ocean's most threatened species, particularly around the Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic, where Spain and a few other countries are blithely fishing it to extinction, in large part to feed the sushi trade. (Eastern Canada also has a commercial bluefin fishery, which at very least attempts to enhance the species' chances at survival.)
None of this seems to have crossed Mr. Tashiro's mind. When I asked him why he uses Spanish bluefin, he simply said that it was excellent fish for the money. It's cheap and available. The thought of the species' survival did not trouble him. "Not many of our customers have complained," he said.
Thinking back, I wish that I'd refused it. I wish even more that Mr. Tashiro didn't put his customers in that spot.
The cooked dishes on JaBistro's menu include a good duck breast salad, served with a just-set egg and crispy burdock strips. The fried softshell crabs were juicy and excellent, served on citrus-goosed pinto and white beans – but skip the sablefish, which came underseasoned and strangely greasy, with shrimp toasts made from what looked a lot like Wonderbread.
Desserts, rarely a high-point in sushi restaurants, are fantastic, none more than the matcha cream puff with chestnuts and matcha-flavoured ice cream.
One of the keys to Guu's early success in the city was the paucity of other restaurants like it – that first izakaya on Church Street was the first of its kind in the city. But Toronto has plenty of sushi spots already. Unlike JaBistro, many of them are unquestionably great.
No stars: Not recommended.
One star: Good, but won't blow a lot of minds.
Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities.
Three stars: Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
Four stars: Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect