105-10 Bay St., 647-347-7347
860 The Queensway, 416-252-2166
Kaiseki Yu-Zen Hashimoto
6 Garamond Ct., 416-444-7100
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 cold-weather specimens like line-caught porgy, Arctic char and ocean perch. Every dish was stunningly intricate. Masaki had fresh uni flown in from Hokkaido, then salt-cured 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 repeat-viewing 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 soy-brushed fish would be lost.
This past fall, my gang found a third contender for best sushi. A sushi spot seems to open in the city every week, but Miku is special—and has serious built-in cred. The restaurant, off the lobby of the RBC Waterpark Place tower at the foot of Bay, is the newest in a string of Vancouver Japanese mini-chains, following Guu, Hapa and Kingyo, to drop anchor in Toronto. The Miku kitchen is overseen by chef Kazuya Matsuoka, who also runs the company’s three B.C. locations, and is known for using sustainable fish and for popularizing aburi (lightly torched) sushi.
After the solemn Kaji and Hashimoto, Miku is completely disorienting. First of all, the place is massive, comprising a smartly minimalist, 180-seat dining room with 20-foot-high ceilings and a section of bar seating, plus two private dining rooms (they stretch the definition of private, being entirely visible through glass walls). From the moment it debuted, Miku has been overrun—an advantage of being in the heart of the new office district south of the Gardiner. From what I noticed, the typical Miku-goers are 30-something millennials, a couple of years into their first career-track jobs. They’re born foodies, used to a diet of tuna belly, sidestripe prawn sashimi and uni, the ultimate acquired taste. If you search online, you’ll see they post an endless stream of Instagrammed Miku sushi porn.
The Miku à la carte menu covers the usual range of sushi, plus trendy-though-not-especially Japanese dishes like a delicious slow-roasted pork belly with roasted sweetbreads (the Japanese touch comes from a yuzu glaze) and an overflowing bowl of East Coast bivalves that would fit right in at any oyster bar. There’s also a long list of foamy $16 cocktails. The view from the main dining room is of the gym in the facing condo tower—a reminder you’ll later need to burn off all this rice and booze.
Miku offers a kaiseki menu, too, though it’s not the kind that Hashimoto would recognize. While it follows the pacing of traditional kaiseki, in some ways it’s more closely related to the tasting menu you’d get at a place like Alo or Momofuku Shōtō—plates artfully smeared with sauces, random exotica cleverly combined. One November night, the kaiseki began with an amuse of edible flowers and raw asparagus spears, followed by a plate with a block of seared foie gras and king crab, a morsel of uni resting in a Kusshi oyster dressed with a citrusy mignonette, then a box of hamachi, salmon, spot prawn and ebi sashimi. After that, there were fantastic (though once again not especially kaiseki-ordained) dishes like butter-poached lobster tail with a section of trendy crisp-roasted chicken skin, and beef tenderloin with charred brussels sprouts (the jus got a sharp kick from wasabi).
The star of the kaiseki menu, and the reason I’d rank Miku up with Kaji, was the penultimate course, a tiered plate with seven pieces of sushi. It was one of the most exciting things to happen to fish since Nemo reunited with his dad. The chefs layered a section of ocean trout with bright, biting jalapeño and pink grapefruit; toro with the funk of black truffle; golden eye snapper with a tart kumquat compote; and shima-aji (a kind of mackerel) with a crisp section of okra and a jelly made from dashi. The server listed all these ingredients when he dropped off the platter, but the radicalness at work didn’t fully register until I tucked in. Each marriage was a surprise and made complete sense. I’d met sushi bliss.
The kaiseki wrapped with dessert far beyond the middling macarons at Kaji and the rock-hard sorbet scoops and syrupy fruit salad at Hashimoto: a trio of smooth, seductive jasmine ice cream, molten matcha and chocolate fondant, and a brightly tart berry coulis mixed with cubes of tea-flavoured jelly.
Miku hasn’t knocked Kaji off his pedestal, but I’ll glady return with my gang. The place is more conducive to hanging out. There are boardroom-size tables and booths—maybe we’ll even take over one of those private rooms and have our fill while we dream of the next sushi conquest.