Thirteen of Toronto’s best Japanese restaurants
Our favourite places for sushi, ramen and sake
Kaiseki Yu-Zen Hashimoto ★★★★★
Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, East Entrance, 6 Garamond Crt., 416-444-7100, kaiseki.ca
At this Don Mills restaurant, the wife of chef Masaki Hashimoto meets you at the entrance and escorts you 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. On one visit, he had flown in fresh uni from Hokkaido, salt-cured it and shaved thin slivers on an appetizer of rice. He formed jellies out of seaweed and baked a persimmon stuffed with miso, pine nuts and more persimmon. At the end of dinner, a kimono-clad server ushers you into another tatami-matted room for a truncated version of a tea ceremony. For a moment, you can almost forget you’re only feet from the DVP.
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For the past 15 years, Sushi Kaji has been a jewel hidden in a Queensway strip mall. The best of the 28 seats face the open sushi prep area, where chef Mitsuhiro Kaji—the closest thing Toronto has to Tokyo’s Jiro Ono—surgically slices through glistening slabs of fish flown in that morning from Japan. On one visit, Kaji’s omakase included nori-wrapped rolls of rice and fluke, lightly deep-fried and set in a house-made soy sauce; a warm block of custard-like sesame tofu; sashimi dusted with yuzu zest and fanned out with a shiso leaf; and steamed turnip with a briny 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.
From the moment it debuted, Miku’s 180-seat dining room has been overrun—an advantage of being in the heart of the new office district south of the Gardiner. The kitchen is overseen by chef Kazuya Matsuoka, who also runs the company’s three B.C. locations, known for using sustainable fish and for popularizing aburi sushi. Miku’s kaiseki menu is a clever combination of random exotica. One night, its star course was a tiered plate of sushi: ocean trout with jalapeño and pink grapefruit, toro with funky black truffle, golden-eye snapper with a kumquat compote, and shima-aji (mackerel) with okra and dashi jelly. It was one of the most exciting things to happen to fish since Nemo reunited with his dad.
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Chef Yasuhisa Ouchi is Toronto’s newest Jiro Ono, tracking down the freshest seafood, fussing over the consistency and temperature of his rice and hosting only two seatings a night (three on weekends) in his narrow, gleaming-white room. He presents each nigiri on an individual cut-glass tray, the morsels as glossy and ornately composed as an art nouveau brooch, and he takes you on a world tour: Sri Lankan tuna, Japanese striped jack, Greek sea bream, Scottish ocean trout, British Columbian uni. The night ends with a traditional slice of flan-like tamago and green-tea panna cotta.
For the sweetest raw shrimp and creamiest yellowtail, sushi enthusiasts know to head to a little Newmarket strip mall. Chef Jyo Gao’s six-course omakase is a marquee item, and absurdly good value at $65. He shows off his skills with sharp spears of fresh tuna, thick fillets of rich mackerel braised in a homemade soy-chili sauce, and chawanmushi, a silky egg and mushroom custard. He’s just as skilled with meat, as in a dish of thinly sliced, sweet roast beef bundled around green onions and chunks of salty pork belly.
Chef Tetsuya Shimizu’s set-course dinners are by turns traditional (a pot of dashi tea poured tableside over yellowtail sashimi, the hot liquid slowly poaching the luscious fish) and experimental (a scattering of root vegetables dressed with a bacon-infused “snow” and a tofu–grana padano smear). One night’s highlight: a fantastically tender roast duck breast arrives with rounds of confit leek, their chip-like exteriors hiding a dense, oniony core.
Leemo Han’s secretive Dundas West izakaya bears the junk-shop look he and brother Leeto established at snack-food spot Oddseoul. As at the best izakayas, the chef maintains a healthy disregard for dieters. Prime example: a sandwich of roasted, super-fatty pork belly, coated in soy remoulade, barely contained by a coco bun. Dyno Wings are stuffed with spicy pork and rice, deep-fried and served in a takeout box. Even more impressive are a tartare of fantastically fresh hamachi and the nasudengaku—Japanese eggplant charred until creamy, the length of it covered in finely shredded deep-fried beets. The drinks list is short but thoughtful: Asahi on tap, quality sake and Asian-inspired cocktails.
After a recent renovation, this Vancouver import replicates the raucous clamour that Toronto has come to expect from its Japanese izakayas, as well as their characteristic culinary sophistication. Attractive servers handle questions about the food as deftly as they do the blowtorch used to sear slices of cured mackerel tableside. Mild pickled daikon, eggplant and cucumber make fine palate cleansers between bites, but the kimchee could be a bit gutsier. A bossam-like platter allows diners to create their own messy mini lettuce bundles filled with pork belly, apple-yuzu jam, tangy pickled onion and crunchy fried wonton skins. A hot stone bowl of rice has salt from miso, richness from minced pork and snap from fresh chives; its energizing warmth will inspire return visits. There’s a fine selection of sake and shochu, served in frozen bamboo shoots.
This standout izakaya run by former Guu and Kingyo cooks began as an occasional pop-up in the back of the Dundas West watering hole Churchill. It now has a permanent home down the street, in a former Portuguese sports bar. There’s a short, evolving menu and fleeting specials like smoky, sticky short ribs. The excellent regular options include sticky wings coated with toasted sesame seeds, fritters made of whole corn kernels, barely seared beef tataki, and a meaty squid tentacle grilled and slathered in soy sauce and butter, served with Kewpie mayo. Though there’s Sapporo by the litre, the atmosphere isn’t as hard-partying as at other izakayas. Maybe it’s the Japanese soul records; maybe it’s the serious eating.
The latest from Chase Hospitality Group, Yorkville’s Kasa Moto is currently the city’s fanciest izakaya. No one yells “Irasshaimase!” when you enter—instead, you’re greeted by modelesque hostesses in slinky black dresses and heels. Executive chef Michael Parubocki makes ikebana-like displays out of mackerel, hamachi, sea bream, fatty Scottish salmon and precious tuna belly sashimi. Skewers of cubed pork belly, cooked on a robata grill and given a final brush of tart pickled Japanese plum, are equal parts moisture and smoke. Strip loin is delivered to the table on a personal grill containing a couple of smouldering chunks of bincho. Each slice is more peppery and flavourful than the last. The Japanese cheesecake for dessert is better than Uncle Tetsu’s.
Kingyo is surprisingly sophisticated for a restaurant with light-blasting pachinko machines on the wall and Doraemon cartoons behind the bar. Watermelon kimchee, spicy and barely sweet, is as fun and surprising—and beer friendly—as the whole place. Deep-fried brussels sprouts with smoky bacon slices are rich with umami; and soft tofu cubes come topped with an almond-packed chili sauce. Slices of hamachi carpaccio seem at odds with their spring greens pairing and benefit mostly from the accompanying avocado and crispy lotus root. And who needs a bowl of black sesame ice cream when frozen grapes on a stick are delivered with the bill?
Chef Jackie Lin offers three omakase tasting menus that change almost daily—the most expensive of which ($250) includes caviar, bluefin and Wagyu. We recommend booking early to snag the coveted seats at the bar where you can watch chef Lin work. The meal unfolds slowly: first, a course of duck in a dashi broth alongside fried tofu and tender grilled leek. Next, a flawless sashimi plate: sea bream, tuna, spot prawn and octopus. Carefully formed sushi comes seasoned with a brush of soy, fresh wasabi, and a dose of yuzu zest or ponzu-infused daikon. Tuna hand rolls and slices of sweet omelette segue into a dessert trio of black sesame pudding; a soft, deep halvah; and a complex green tea mousse. Servers graciously walk diners through the affordable, carefully crafted sake list.
The offerings at Markham’s Zen are resolutely minimal. To start, bite-size hunks of broiled beef tongue come on a skewer. There’s no dipping sauce or topping other than a pinch of salt, but the meat has a natural mineral flavour. For a main dish, a daily changing plate of sashimi might include meticulously cut, lean pieces of octopus, meaty tuna, buttery salmon and, the highlight, a beautifully briny raw scallop.