6 Garamond Court
Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, Toronto
$700 for dinner for two with tax and tip
To lovers of Japanese food, it's ironic that the proliferation of Japanese restaurants in Toronto has produced not an increase in quality but its converse. In some parts of town, there's a lousy Japanese restaurant on every block, slinging low-rent tuna sushi with a sides of sugary soy on heavy teriyaki or greasy tempura clad in thick batter.
But while real Japanese food may be hard to find, Masaki Hashimoto has been quietly serving fabulously elaborate kaiseki dinners in a strip mall on Dixie Road since 2001. Recently, he opened a second location under his name, in the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre near Don Mills and Eglinton. The place is small and only opens when it has reservations. Be persistent when you call.
During our visit, a young man in an intricately draped charcoal kimono appears at the entrance. He is Kei, son of Hashimoto, who is devoting his life to the ceremony of kaiseki. Kei leads us along a corridor to dark red wood arches, through some rice paper windows and past tall dried reeds. We finally walk by a wall of mini 3D Shinto shrines crafted in painstaking detail. We feel like Alice falling through the looking glass into a magical Japanese world.
Kaiseki, by the way, is a set, fixed-price seasonal dinner. At the Dixie Road Hashimoto, there is a six-course kaiseki for $150 a person and an eight-course one for $200. Kaiseki developed between 1600 and 1868, when Japan was closed to foreigners. The insularity of the period encouraged the exquisite cultural flowering that resulted in such iconic Japanese rituals as the tea ceremony. Kaiseki, a meal of many light courses served in teahouses, is conducted with the same painstaking attention to detail.
There is one table in our little paper-walled dining room. The first course is miso soup with egg tofu and a dab of mustard. Actually, Kei explains, it isn't really tofu but rather an egg custard named tofu for its soft texture. Belly-filling white rice comes with it, as does sesame tofu (also not actual tofu) with tiny, multi-coloured dots of sweet rice cracker atop a smoky green-pea purée.
A woman in a kimono delivers the food to Kei; he then serves as she stands immobile behind him. Kei never turns his back to us; instead, he backs away from the table each time, bowing before turning. Every motion is its own small act of grace, as exquisite as the porcelain tea cups that change with every course.
Next, Kei brings a small wooden cradle holding a single sweet tempura shrimp with two tiny egg wrappers of shredded daikon slightly marinated in sweet vinegar. Then comes fresh line-caught Japanese porgy sashimi with light and flavourful fresh grated wasabi. Kei instructs us not to slosh the wasabi in soy but rather to put it on the fish and then dip the fish in soy. The three different taste elements come together harmoniously.
Next comes a miniature sculpture: The top is threads of yuzu, a fragrant, lemon-like Japanese citrus fruit. Under it is a slice of turnip so thin you could read these words through it. Under that is barely steamed porgy with one small rectangle of freshwater nori, which is meatier than its saltwater cousin. The tiny construction is wrapped in bright red carrot from Kyoto and surmounted with pine needles to signify winter, one spearing three sweet black beans.
Kaiseki makes an art of presentation, each dish comprising a larger story. In the next course, a round black dish with a curled lip sits under a burnished-gold rectangular dish, which itself is under a sheet of gold and green Japanese paper topped with a square of bisque clay. A bright green sauce seems to sit on the very top, but it's not sauce: It's glaze on the white clay. This too is kaiseki. First came allusion - egg and then sesame alluding to tofu. Now there's illusion - ceramic glaze masquerading as sauce.
The food part of this course is a long silvery fish - as with everything tonight, imported fresh from Japan - baked in salt with a hint of soy; it's accompanied by purple potato purée topped with rice-cracker dots. Then comes the requisite steamed dish: a small piece of fresh Japanese sea fish hiding inside white turnip that has been scored to mimic the striations of a pine bough; leaning against it is one slender slice of golden squash, cut out origami-style to look like a pine branch.
The next dish is smoky dried kombu seaweed in sweet, rich fish-and-vegetable broth and a small fish ball topped with a tiny turnip. Then Chef goes in for the kill. Kei tells us that the beef in the next course is grade 5a Kobe from Kyoto. Now, I've had Kobe beef before and I've also had foie gras. This is where the two meet, in three little cubes of heaven. Kei suggests dipping them in salted matcha (powdered green tea) that jet propels the beef's savour. It comes with a pink daikon flower, a flower-shaped arrowroot chip and a perfect little crane carved from daikon.
The final savoury item is grilled fresh saltwater eel sprinkled with soy and a tangle of deep-fried ginger threads. It is served with lightly pickled baby cucumber, shreds of white turnip, sautéed daikon leaves and sliced daikon darkened with squid ink and sprinkled with sesame seeds; the eel backbone has also been deep-fried and is served with salted dried fish roe.
The parade of exquisite porcelain continues through to dessert, which is covered in a latticework porcelain hemisphere lid. Under it is an umeboshi plum marinated in sugar for 10 days and encased in crystalline jelly of agar-agar dotted with fragments of gold and silver leaf. On the side are three tiny spheres of ice cream made from matcha tea powder, whose sweet tang makes other green tea ice cream resemble sawdust by comparison.
After dessert we are led to a private tatami room for the tea ceremony, which involves kneeling on mats. Ouch! But Kei instills a meditative atmosphere with his careful motions, foaming green tea powder in hot water with a wooden whisk, pouring it out into cups, bowing slowly and gracefully at every step. We are in another time and place.
Until, that is, we pay the ridiculous bill: $300 per person, which would have included sake but they're still awaiting their liquor licence. And then we were a bit peckish upon arriving home. In my view, Hashimoto had better change things up, pronto. Forget sourcing everything fresh from Japan. Find substitutions and go local. The result might not be perfect, but it'll cost half as much. Likewise, offer a stepwise menu like on Dixie Road. Give twice as much food per course and half as many courses to those who want kaiseki lite. It will still be a taste of heaven - and Hashimoto will have a chance of survival.