Dinner is the show
How two newcomers, Alo and Shoushin, are reinvigorating Toronto’s tasting menus
Three years ago we reached peak tasting menu. The New York Times food critic Pete Wells went so far as to say that “tasting menu–only restaurants are spreading like an epidemic.” It wasn’t just the tired parade of tweezer-plated dishes that had us yawning, but the stuffy accouterments that often accompanied $300-a-person dinners. Over the past year, Toronto’s tasting scene has been reinvigorated thanks to two newcomers: Alo and Shoushin.
Alo and Shoushin couldn’t be more different from each other. The former has stripped the stuffiness out of the tasting menu experience. It’s not just chefowner Patrick Kriss’s elegant, five-bite creations that have Alo booked straight for the next two months. The inviting room and reasonable price point ($95 per person) are also part and parcel of Alo’s success. Shoushin, on the other hand, is dedicated to preserving traditional Tokyo-style sushi. Fans of Jiro
Dreams of Sushi will be enchanted by the genuineness of this sushi shrine, which specializes in omakase.
“Omakase,” loosely translated from Japanese, means “to entrust.” At an omakase restaurant there’s no set menu; you put yourself in the hands the chef. According to Shoushin chef Jackie Lin, omakase sets itself apart from western tasting menus in that there is a trust element built into the dining experience.
“It is the chef’s choice, and everything is while supply lasts, so I may serve you something you are unfamiliar with, but you must trust me to make the call,” says the 31-year-old chef, who started training in the art of sushi making 12 years ago under Zen’s Seiichi Kashiwabara.
The fresh-faced Lin chats cheerily with patrons while cutting into filets of semi-fatty tuna with a surgeon-like precision. While he’s yakking about ethically caught tuna, Lin is simultaneously keeping track of which course everyone in the restaurant is on.
Shoushin offers three omakase menus: A, B and C, which graduate from $80 per person to $250. Omakase menu C not only has more courses than menu A, as well as caviar and wagyu beef, but the price point also affects which parts of the fish chef Lin will serve you. “Fish are delicate,” says Lin. “There are oily parts, parts with more veins, parts with firmer flesh; every bite is different,” says the sushi devotee.
We order the six-course omakase B ($120 per person). The meal begins with a duck meatball in a rich dashi broth. Sashimi follows. The highlight: sweet Boston shrimp are buttery perfection. The third course, another so-called appetizer, is sesame-crusted wild-caught chinook. Another app. And then, finally, the much-anticipated sushi.
Lin serves sushi in sets of three, progressing from delicate white fish like sea bream to heartier-fleshed fish like tuna and mackerel. While Lin chats with guests seated at the sushi bar (who are served piece by piece), he’s keeping tabs on his room. A regular is seated at the far end of the bar, so Lin will send him some challenging mouthfuls like mantis shrimp.
Before you even enter Shoushin, the weekend valet service (an increasing rarity in this city) tips you off to the establishment’s pedigree. Alo, by contrast, has a nondescript entrance tucked behind a shuttered Hero Burger. To call this foyer unfussy is tantamount to saying Donald Trump is boisterous (an understatement, to say the least). A hostess directs you to a ramshackle elevator which then opens into the sumptuously decked restaurant. The juxtaposition of the gritty ’80s Toronto and today’s vibrant version couldn’t be more apparent. Commute Design has transformed the third storey of this Victorian with heather grey banquettes, swaths of marble and sculptural brass light fixtures. The completely exposed kitchen is the room’s centrepiece.
It’s 2 p.m. and chef Kriss is visibly exhausted. “I’m 35, but I feel like I’m 52,” he jokes, dryly. Once service starts, Kriss will have to turn on. The lucky six sitting at the kitchen counter for the extended menu ($120 per person) will get show-ready Kriss, who will personally explain each dish. A portion of madai ( Japanese red sea bream) is punctuated with coriander stems, pickled cucumber pearls, compressed radish and caramelized lemon purée.
Kriss spent two years as chef de partie at Daniel Boulud’s flagship Daniel in New York. One of the most memorable tasting menu experiences he can recall was at Germany’s three Michelin starred Restaurant Amador.
“I was there with Daniel and Jean-Francoise [Bruel, executive chef at Daniel], and I loved the way the meal began with a bunch of small plates all put on the table at once, sort of like tapas,” says Kriss. Bruel has stopped by Alo; Daniel has yet to visit.
Amanda Bradley, Kriss’s co-owner, runs a tight front of house ship. A woman wearing red lipstick will be given a dark napkin (no stains), while someone sporting a white outfit is paired with matching linen (no visible lint).
“Amanda knows what people want before they do,” says Kriss.
From the bread course (served with house-churned butter and paired with its own wine) to the napkins, no dining detail has been neglected at Alo. Shoushin similarly obsesses over the details, and that’s where a restaurant sets itself apart from the pack.
PATRICK KRISS’S MADAI DISH
JACKIE LIN’S SUSHI