Kaiseki is the ul­ti­mate high-roller din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Miku takes the rit­u­al­ized Ja­panese tra­di­tion and sub­verts it— to amaz­ing ends

Toronto Life - - Front Page - By mark pupo

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

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