- Sushi Couture
- $180 for deluxe omakase for two, including sake, tax and tip
Omakase of the People has arrived. Sushi chef Ken Zhang (who was revered at Japango for his superbly fresh and creatively cut sushi) has opened his own dark, suave room on the Bloor West strip where discount sushi rules the day. Mr. Zhang is clever: His sushi menu is ordinary, although better executed than the local competition, and his prices dovetail with theirs (with the usual collection of $7.99 lunch specials). But Chef Zhang permits himself one flight of artistic fancy: He does omakase (where the chef selects the dishes to be served); six courses for $60, eight for $70. He's looking to bring in the junior Japanophile, the sushi freak who will never drop $300 per person for kaiseki at Hashimoto.
Things start out a little rough around the edges: They don't take your coat, and after sitting unattended a while, we receive a visit from the chef, who says we should settle in for a three-hour dinner. Three hours! They should have said that on the phone when I booked.
A waiter brings nasu dengaku. I ask him what's in it. He says "sauce" and then takes it away because it was a mistake. Oh well. Mistakes happen, right? The real dinner starts with a dreamy oyster shooter: Raw oyster, raw quail egg, fish stock and marinated salmon roe. I could eat a dozen of those and call it dinner. But no, next cometh a three-way beauty of hollowed-out persimmon (a traditional Japanese winter fruit) filled with black mushrooms and sliced persimmon under thick, nutty sesame sauce.
Then we get our own nasu dengaku topped with bonito flakes - eggplant baked till oozing, covered with miso sauce, served with a fried smelt and tempura of chopped shiso leaf with a layer of chopped mackerel. For Japanese food, both dishes are slightly indelicate (the persimmon un-ripe, the smelt a tad tough) but the tastes are robust and the explanations of each item both generous and helpful.
Next, the classic sashimi course arrives: toro tuna, butterfish with the tiniest hint of searing on the outside, and fluke dotted with hot chili. The pickled ginger is pedestrian but the soy is nicely smoky, thanks to bonito stock, and they've brought in a high-grade wasabi from Japan; it's hot but with a sweet horseradish undertone that renders its bite complex. Things are looking up. And we like the room. Red pleather banquettes contrast with black Formica tables, large calligraphy artworks and white tulips in glass cases. There is grace here - and some of it is edible. The next dish is chopped yellowtail tartare topped with a raw quail egg. It's Hoover time.
Chef Zhang then segues to cooked food, proffering each diner one huge shrimp split and char-broiled, with a hint of mayo for lubrication. Sweet, moist … I want more. Then he goes back to the world of raw, sending forth nigiri sushi, a single dish with three components: A tall chunk of hamachi cut on the bias; perfectly fresh, barely seared buttery-pale B.C. tuna topped with tiny threads of deep fried leek and even tinier dots of golden fried garlic; and sea bream from Japan just barely torched to crisp its skin. He goes in for the kill with sweet, earthy tempura eel atop warm, moist rice and draped with a thin slice of avocado.
The waiter brings each of us a small pottery teapot. On top of it is a lime wedge in a tiny upside down bowl. We squeeze the lime juice into the teapot, then pour the liquid into the tiny bowl and drink it. It's marvellous clear soup, built of vaguely smoky dashi (Japanese dried-fish stock) and infused with sweetness from the shrimps and fish and mushrooms in the teapot - which we eat after drinking the broth, which requires many refillings of the tiny, tiny bowl. This necessitates noticing the small tastes. It is an initiation into Zen and the art of attentive pouring. All very omakase.
As is the final savoury course of fried rice topped with a good dollop of raw uni (sea urchin) and a little circlet of thin golden omelette and crispy bonito flakes. A little more care not to let the peas, corn and carrot in the rice get so mushy, and it would have been perfect.
The finale is green-tea cheesecake, a clever act of cultural fusion. The pale green cake melds sweet cheese and green tea nicely, for a subtle statement, and the even paler green cream-cheese icing makes a pretty picture. Taken as a whole, this is the people's omakase - pleasant Japanese food, and a fitting addition to the Bloor Street strip.