Toronto’s Best New Restaurants: Skippa

Toronto’s Best New Restaurants: Skippa

Skippa

Before Skippa, the restaurant I’d dream about most often was Sushi Kaji. In a strip mall on the Queensway, it was like a secret lair known only to the omakase cult. Five years ago, the intimidating Mitsuhiro Kaji took on a new apprentice: a skinny white guy, always a step to Kaji’s side. Soon that guy was slicing fish, forming jewel-like pieces of sushi with a quick twist of the hand and presenting them to you across the sushi bar. He spent his off-hours practising his moves at home in front of a mirror. Your customers, Kaji told him, can never see you hesitate.

Last summer, that guy, Ian Robinson, opened Skippa on an anonymous block of Harbord near Ossington. Robinson told me he chose the location because he wanted his first restaurant to be a destination. Like Kaji, he’s happiest on his own, operating at his own speed.

Chef Ian Robinson and his sake-stocked fridge.

He spent his 20s running marathons, and it was during a race across the Sahara, the 2012 Marathon des Sables, that he decided he would quit studying economics at York and spend his life doing something that made him truly happy—cooking. He landed a kitchen assistant gig at the then new and already trendy Grand Electric, and worked his way up to junior sous-chef in his first year. In his spare time, he ate his way through the city’s sushi restaurants, feeding an abiding interest in all things Japanese. That’s when he met Kaji.

Spanish mackerel with house ponzu, daikon and chives.

Skippa was his ultimate plan. Robinson conceived it, in every detail, as a place to showcase the food he loves. His sister, Kati, is the general ­manager. An immense table constructed from the trunk of a sugar maple dominates the centre of the room, but the best seats are right at the sushi bar for a close-up view of Robinson and his sous-chefs. And when every extra millisecond threatens the fragile marriage of rice and fish, it’s best to sit closest to the source of the exquisite omakase offerings: octopus from Morocco on a thumb of rice hiding a burst of wasabi; New Zealand red sea bream with shiso; Boston fluke dotted with fermented scotch bonnet dressing; and another piece of sea bream, oilier and sweeter, its flavours magnified by preserved lemon.

Amberjack with pink peppercorn.

Robinson’s talents extend beyond sushi: he grills black maitake mushrooms with thyme, then tosses them with mizuna leaves in a miso sauce, for an extraordinary salad that tastes of char and the wilderness. He marinates mackerel for 24 hours in soy, mirin and sugar, and sprinkles it with toasted sesame. His pickle plate, best snacked on with sake, consists of sticks of quick-pickled cuke, carrots dyed with beet juice, and persimmon glazed with plum and filled with three types of mushroom. My favourite dish is a simple mound of steamed rice in a bath of dashi flecked with sesame and seaweed. In the centre of the bowl is a water lily, its petals sculpted from sea bream sashimi.

Word is getting out about what Robinson is doing. Masaki Hashimoto, the revered kaiseki chef, came one night. Kaji himself has been there four times, to sample his former pupil’s work. He approves.

379 Harbord St., 416-535-8181, skippa.ca

Grilled black maitake mushrooms with thyme and mizuna leaves in a miso sauce.
Sea bream sashimi over steamed rice in a bath of dashi, flecked with sesame and seaweed.
A few cans of sake can’t hurt.