For this we trekked to Newmarket? Solo Sushi Ya is in a nasty little strip mall. Its neon sign is unattractive, and after parking behind the building we get to walk by a grocery cart full of junk and the open door to the kitchen. Once inside, we’re given menus and left alone. After 15 minutes, the server has still not visited our table. Looks like a long night ahead.
Having had plenty of time to study the menu, we’ve settled on one person ordering “kitchen” omakase (a set dinner), one ordering sushi omakase, and the other three of us ordering à la carte, a perfectly plausible option, according to the menu. When the server finally arrives, she takes the order. Then the honcho comes out from behind the sushi bar. He speaks slightly haltingly with a heavy Japanese accent but is clear and sure of himself, polite and deferential. To the person who ordered “kitchen” omakase: “Do you not eat fish? To have only one kind of food is boring.” We were happy to switch to two mixed omakases and annoyed at the menu miscommunication.
More annoyed when the server brings the first omakase course and has no idea what half the stuff is. But annoyance evaporates, floats away on a winged cloud, at first bite. Impeccable raw tuna cubes are tossed with chili flakes and house-made subtle, smoky soy. On the side are two tiny plates – lightly pickled burdock root, and glass noodles strongly scented with seaweed. Omakase second course is sushi, a generous platter of one huge raw shrimp served with the head on, lightly grilled yellowtail raw in the middle, amazingly fresh raw salmon and tuna sliced on a diagonal plane for maximum flavour, and a small dish of another kind of ama ebi (literally, “sweet shrimp,”) this one from deeper water, served raw and diced with sesame oil and green onion.
Omakase act three is chawan mushi, the lightest of egg custards, egg whisked with chicken stock, with tiny treats of enoki mushrooms and salmon baked in it. This is like eating hot, eggy feathers with a tiny, carved wooden spoon. Act four is perfect mackerel stewed with sweet soy and a hint of chili, sided with batons of burdock root dipped in sesame seeds. And the curtain comes down with coffee custard with neither egg nor cream in it. The thickener is seaweed, for lighter-than-air texture.
The omakase is grand, but there are so many other Solo Sushi Ya pleasures. Gyoza bear almost no resemblance to the leathery dumplings found elsewhere. The outside consists of dough thin enough to read a newspaper through; the heart is delicate and gingery. Agedashi tofu cubes have the lightest possible fried crust, and a great bouquet of smoky dashi flakes on top.
Owner Jyo Gao, from Yokohama, is the sushi wizard. He leaves the sushi bar again to tell us about tonight’s Eastern European wild white sushi clams, which he says mimic the texture of abalone. The clams are indeed fabulously sweet, tender but with bite. But Gao’s sushi rice steals the show. Not since a $700 dinner (for two) at Hashimoto have I met rice this good, and not before that for a decade. The rice is warm (i.e., freshly made), moist, and its grains more differentiated than anyone else’s I have found hereabouts. The rice is usually merely the vehicle for the fish. Here, it could be the main event. Except that the fish is also astonishing in a way that’s attributable to its freshness and also to Mr. Gao’s knife skills. His fiery house wasabi doesn’t hurt either.
Mr. Gao is an artist, a man of integrity, who leads his customers gently toward what he thinks they should eat. Maybe he has only the one inarticulate server because he wants to control the communication. He is abetted by having only 32 seats in the cozy room, its walls crammed with landscapes by his 16-year-old daughter, who is channelling Tom Thomson.
There are two cooks in the kitchen who usually do a great job. Their sole misstep is negima yaki: Horribly overcooked beef and green onions with teriyaki sauce. Save for that one inedible item, their work measures up to Gao’s sushi. Oft times the combo of cooked and raw they offer is superb: Dragon roll, so often a flavour-free cliché, is very fresh, melt-in-the-mouth eel with avocado, and, and its heart, ultra-crisp fat tempura shrimp. After the dragon roll, the master comes forth from his sushi bar yet again, to inquire: “How are you doing? Is it enough? Do you want a little more?”
Who could decline? A little more hamachi and some clean-tasting, perfect uni later, both on the unbelievable rice, and it’s time to stop. Reluctantly. We trust Mr. Gao now, we are putty in his hands. He is the master and we the willing recipients of his edible art.