THE CITY’S BEST NEW SUSHI
Kaiseki is the ultimate high-roller dining experience. Miku takes the ritualized Japanese tradition and subverts it— to amazing ends
I’ve fallen in with a gang. They’re in their 30s and 40s, all guys, an anesthetist, two start-up investors, a consultant and a reality TV producer. Our shared obsession, the one thrill of our content, slightly dull lives, is the occasional night of no-expense-spared, exquisitely indulgent sushi. We splurge for great sushi the way our dads did on cigars and steak. When we travel, we check off a bucket list of two-syllable raw fish temples: Masa, Nobu, Raku, for a start.
And we debate whether the finest Toronto sushi is at Sushi Kaji or Kaiseki Yu-Zen Hashimoto. Both opened in the early 2000s in the suburbs—Kaji in Etobicoke, Hashimoto in Mississauga before relocating to North York’s Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre—and no other sushi restaurant has reached their heights. They’re also the priciest: Kaji starts at $120 per person and Hashimoto at $300. Add tip, a modest bottle of sake and, perhaps, an extra course of hotpot wagyu, and there goes the next mortgage payment.
I can see why people go gaga over the Hashimoto experience. Sachiko Hashimoto, the wife of chef Masaki Hashimoto, meets you next to the gurgling fountain at the entrance and escorts you, her silk kimono susurrating as she shuffles along in traditional geta sandals, to one of a handful of private, screened rooms. Japanese chanting and drum music plays. Servers bow as they enter and exit. The idea is to transport you to Kyoto, where Masaki trained in kaiseki, the ritualized, formal style that’s the Japanese equivalent (you might say the progenitor) of the modern tasting menu. The point of kaiseki is to pay tribute, through ingredients and techniques, to the season. When I visited early this winter, the emphasis was on fattier coldweather specimens like line-caught porgy, Arctic char and ocean perch. Every dish was stunningly intricate. Masaki had fresh uni flown in from Hokkaido, then saltcured it and shaved thin slivers on an appetizer of rice. He formed jellies out of seaweed and baked a persimmon stuffed with a mixture of miso, pine nuts and more persimmon, and wrapped a cube of steamed mountain potato in translucent ribbons of carrot, daikon and a Japanese version of a ramp. Each course arrived in a lacquered box or a hand-thrown bowl set on a gilded tray. His signature flourish is a crane carved out of daikon. Like the restaurant, the bird is pretty and refined, but precious in the extreme. At the end of dinner, another kimono-clad server ushers you into a separate tatami-matted room for a blessedly truncated version of a tea ceremony (a true ceremony would go for hours). For a moment, you can almost forget you’re only feet from the DVP.
I prefer Sushi Kaji, where you don’t get sucked into a nostalgic time warp. For the past 15 years it has been a jewel hidden in the unlikeliest spot—in a Queensway strip mall, around the corner from a Costco. The restaurant has only 28 seats and reservations are hard to get, especially around bonus time. The best seats are at the bar facing the open sushi prep area, where chef Mitsuhiro Kaji surgically slices through glistening slabs of fish flown in that morning from Japan. I’ve sat at that bar at least a half-dozen times and I’ve yet to hear Kaji, who glares grumpily if anyone breaks his concentration, speak above a mutter to his sous-chefs. He’s the closest thing Toronto has to Jiro Ono, the legendary Tokyo chef and the subject of the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (a repeatviewing classic for my gang). That doc crystallized everything that’s at once sublime and crazy-making about top-flight Japanese food: the exacting traditions, the lifelong apprenticeships, the nervous breakdowns over the consistency of a wad of rice. Kaji, like Jiro Ono, prepares an omakase, or chef’s-choice, menu. He’s the master; you’re the supplicant (though he’ll make concessions to allergies). Omakase is less overtly formal than kaiseki, though no less cerebral. Kaji is also telling his own tale—about the seasons, of course, but also about a slippery fish that travelled thousands of kilometres, and the colour of his mood that night. On my last visit, I ate nori-wrapped rolls of rice and fluke that had been lightly deep-fried and set in a house-made soy sauce, followed by a warm block of sesame tofu the consistency of custard, sashimi (Spanish mackerel, sea bream, octopus, amberjack) dusted with yuzu zest and precisely fanned out with a shiso leaf, then steamed turnip with a briney dollop of Boston uni and a hash of lightly breaded and deep-fried scallops. The night ended in a procession of sushi, handed across the counter at the exact moment it should be eaten—wait a moment longer, and Kaji’s meticulous balance of acidic, warm rice and soybrushed fish would be lost.
Miku, at the foot of Bay, has a massive, 180-seat dining room that’s always overrun