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Michael Parubocki, executive chef of Kasa Moto, places the bincho grilled beef on the pass.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

2 out of 4 stars

Name
Kasa Moto
Location
115 Yorkville Avenue, Toronto, Ontario
Phone
647-348-7000
Website
kasamoto.ca
Price
Small plates, $8 to $24; larger plates from $32; shareable sushi platters from $50.
Cuisine
Japanese
Vegetarian Friendly?
Yes
Drinks
Excellent wine and sake lists with plenty of interesting and affordable options; good cocktails (the plum wine sangria is strangely gulpable) and lots of non-alcoholic choices.
Atmosphere
A luxe, clubby, multilevel power restaurant and night spot with generally excellent service, and, on the ground floor, an enormous gulf between good and awful tables. It gets LOUD.
Recommendations
Kamameshi, lobster tempura, spicy crispy tuna rice, smoked salmon, steak, whole grilled fish, cheesecake for dessert.

There is a small stone at every place setting at Kasa Moto, the Chase Hospitality Group's flashy and frustrating new power spot on prime Yorkville Avenue. Some of the stones are glossy smooth and as wide around as two-dollar coins, while others are dull and lumpen and only a little bigger than mini jawbreakers; you wouldn't want to misplace one in your soba noodle and cashews dish. They have by all appearances been sourced in bulk, at random – take this bucket, kid, and fill it with rocks because we're gonna build a modern Japanese restaurant.

Those stones have just one job, which is to serve as chopstick rests, and yet almost none of them has a chopstick rest's required divot, and so almost none of them even remotely works. Kasa Moto's servers know this: to watch them try and balance chopsticks on those stones is to witness Jenga-worthy wariness and concentration, and even then the task often ends in the sound of clattering wood. Kasa Moto's customers also know it. If my experience over two visits was representative, even the most willing patrons try to use them exactly three times before giving up and wishing the bloody rocks would go away.

Why, after nearly three months of business, Kasa Moto's management hasn't corrected this is a mystery. The 410-seat restaurant, housed in the former Remy's space, includes a chopped-up, split-level dining room on its ground floor and a massive top-floor bar and patio. Kasa Moto is one of the toughest reservations in Toronto. At nighttime, that patio is often lined up down Old York Lane. Maybe they're too busy rolling in all the money. Or maybe Kasa Moto's management has its hands full with more pressing things.

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Those rocks, while frustrating, are the least of the restaurant's design concerns.

See the food and room at Yorkville's Kasa Moto

There are also the arm chairs that don't pull in because Kasa Moto's tulip-shaped table bases are too wide, so you have to either perch at the edge of your seat or lean way back with a gulf of lap between your mouth and your dinner, slouched like a drooling troglodyte. There's the matter of Kasa Moto's rear, sunken dining space, where every surface is hard and reflective and the ceilings are wood, and where the noise gets so extreme at night that even basic, shouted, monosyllabic communication feels damnably out of reach.

There's the sunken corridor, too, at the western edge of Kasa Moto's ground floor, where they've shoved a row of tables. It's as charming as the gurney track from Ambulatory Care to Radiology; this is where they seat the randoms. I can't think of another city restaurant where the difference between the great tables – and there are many of them at Kasa Moto; if you sit at one you may well love the place – and the bad tables is so profound.

Even the six-page menu is a design disaster, with its different sections for "hot," "cold," "rice and noodle," "robata," "large plates," "sushi and sashimi," and "maki."

The robata-grilled steak is found under large plates, not robata, and the tempura is under hot, unless you want the fish. The spicy tuna crispy rice, which is a rip-off of the Nobu chain's "crispy rice with spicy tuna," isn't under rice and noodles because why ever would they put a rice dish under "rice"?

Yet, the greatest tragedy of Kasa Moto is that when you remove the design of the place from the picture, it's a good (if entirely derivative) restaurant with a good kitchen and beautiful plates, and polished (or, at very minimum, charming) service.

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Eating here should be infinitely better than it is.

The cooking comes courtesy of executive chef Michael Parubocki (Momofuku Noodle Bar, Frank's Kitchen, Centro), as well as the sous chefs Tsuyoshi Yoshinaga (Yasu, Kingyo) and Daisuke Izutsu (Don Don Izakaya, Kaiseki Sakura). Michael Steh, the Chase company's group executive chef, oversees it all. It's Japanese in spirit, but with brown butter sauces and wasabi sour creams – with the luxe, Frenchified touches you'd expect from the company that also runs The Chase and Colette.

Kasa Moto's creamy wild mushroom and truffle rice, for example, has far more in common with Italy's risotti than with Japan's typically humble kamameshi meals, which is the name the menu uses; either way it's a deeply fragrant and delicious starter.

They do smoked salmon and cream cheese here, but with the floral citric scent of yuzu in the cheese and with ikura salmon roe atop the salmon slices. The presentation is as refined and seemingly elaborate as any high-end kaiseki dish.

Mr. Parubocki's kitchen whips the cream cheese with nitrous oxide and pipes it into delicate bread shells that are reminiscent of India's puri. Our waiter one night referred to the shells as "air bread" and we all laughed a little, but each bite was nearly as light as helium. How'd they do it, I wondered?

They do it the way they do most of the innovative-seeming things that you find at Chase Hospitality Group restaurants: They straight-up copied it. The Spanish-American chef José Andrés developed air bread a few years ago; his recipe is easily located online.

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Kasa Moto's lobster tempura is good for a such a high-volume kitchen (tempura is always best in tiny, fresh-from-the-fryer batches). The shellfish was tender and juicy, in crisp, yielding batter. The broccoli tempura was gummy, as broccoli tempura too often is.

The restaurant's robata cooking, over super-hot, long-burning binchotan charcoal, is excellent in spots: The grilled corn was good, the asparagus limp and bland and two months out of season, but saved, and then some, by its gorgeous brown-butter ponzu sauce. The steak was delicious beyond all expectation. Kasa Moto's steak – not the $200 American wagyu nonsense, but the $42 prime Canadian striploin – was one of the best pieces of beef I've eaten in a Toronto restaurant. It was profoundly, deliciously beefy, with undercurrents of the nutty, cheesy, primal-tasting funk that careful dry-aging brings.

They serve it sliced, on a miniature tabletop grill, over a stick of glowing binchotan that makes the meat pop and sputter. You feel like clapping for this sort of presentation. I would go back over and over for the steak. And I'd go back for the whole grilled sea bass, deboned before cooking and then expertly reassembled, perfectly cooked and seasoned for a reasonable $36.

As for the sushi, I wouldn't bother – not, at least, for traditional sushi. The fish on the $60 "traditional sashimi platter" was laid out over a bowl of ice ( keeping it much too cold), with a scattering of Japanese maple leaves, and tall, ridiculously extraneous flora. The fish: farmed salmon, very good mackerel, nicely creamy urchin from New Zealand, bland East Coast lobster chunks and Japanese kampachi. Nothing all that special. It also included Mexican bluefin tuna, which is the Cecil the Lion of seafood products. The slice I tried tasted more like flubber than like food.

If you're after sushi and you've got money to burn, go to Yasu, where $20 more gets you infinitely better product and preparation. Which yes, I realize, misses the point of Kasa Moto. Kasa Moto has a full menu and valet parking, a Yorkville address and seating for 410 customers. Kasa Moto has NBA players at the corner tables and Lamborghinis parked out front. The point of Kasa Moto is to be Japanese without being too Japanese-y, which isn't such a bad business plan for upmarket Yorkville dining. Still, it would be nice if The Chase Group, a company with talented staff and outsized aspirations, would develop an original idea or two.

There's Japanese soufflé cheesecake to finish with – it's exactly like the soufflé cheesecake at Uncle Tetsu, the Japan-based chain that recently opened in Toronto, except that Kasa Moto's costs more and doesn't come hot from the oven. It arrives with (very tasty) pound cake croutons, and a dish of (admittedly: exquisite) yuzu curd.

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If you don't want the soufflé cheesecake, there's also a dessert called "chocolate stone." It's probably great, but I didn't try it. I'd had enough of stones by then.

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