My top crush only exists because of a double sacrifice. David Chang killed off Daishō and Shōtō last year, saying their time had come. I was floored: they were the best special-occasion spots, especially Daishō, with its outsized pig roasts and a soaring room that made every night feel big and fun. I went there for birthdays and, once, for New Year’s Eve. It’s where our friends took us after our city hall wedding. This felt personal.
But Kōjin lives up to its predecessors—and has even started to eclipse them. It’s an only-in-Toronto original that takes its name from the Japanese fire god and is built around a crackling wood grill, the cook’s tool of the moment. Kōjin has the same Momofuku-group polish but no steamed pork buns, no kimchee and not much else that people associate with Chang. Instead, it’s fully the vision of head chef Paula Navarrete. She was born in Colombia, moved here when she was 17, chopped her way through the starry kitchens of Colborne Lane and North 44, and entered Chang’s universe as a member of the founding team at Momofuku Noodle Bar downstairs. More recently, as Daishō head chef she convinced Chang to replace it with a steak house that’s so much better than any other steak house around.
I love Kōjin’s blend of moody, gentlemen’s club millwork and shelves of grandma gewgaws and potted plants; its all-hits list of small-outfit wines; and how it always seems to be playing something from the greatest weirdo album of all time, Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. But mostly, I love the cooking. One of Navarrete’s best inventions is a griddled flatbread that’s a crispy-chewy cross between the common English muffin and the arepas of her Colombian childhood, made with grains from a pioneer-era mill in Simcoe County. You snip them with a pair of ornamental scissors and load pieces with fatty butter or even-fattier Niagara ham and pickled sour cherries or, my go-to, a hot, gooey mess of melted brie, caramelized onions and prime rib served in a mini cast-iron pan.
She forgoes the steak house Caesar for a salad of bitter endive and escarole with sweet-tart segments of Cara Cara orange and mandarin, tossed in a poppy seed dressing with shavings of Mountainoak gouda and Marcona almonds. Dinner is a series of such surprises: the brightness of house-made chive oil and pickled red onions in a crudo of tender B.C. shrimp; the bergamot in a cup of earl grey–infused chicken-bone broth; the butteriness of a charred cabbage broth poured around grilled trout; and the whipped, airy lightness of Tita’s Mash, an irresistible skillet of cheese curds, gouda and potatoes that puts other steak house spuds to shame.
What finally sets Kōjin apart from—and far above—the competition is what isn’t on the menu: a dizzying selection of steaks. At some point, steak houses entered into a bovine arms race, competing to have the most esoteric and pricy cuts of Wagyu from around the world. Navarrete offers three superb options: a rib-eye, a strip loin and a butcher’s steak—plus a few nightly off-menu cuts—all from Ontario Hereford-Angus cattle. They’re cut in-house and aged for a month or more, the chops exquisitely marbled and intimidatingly thick. After grilling, they’re dusted with Montreal steak spice and finished with marrow butter. Most nights, you’ll spot Navarrete against a backdrop of sparks and flames, the one true fire goddess.
Momofuku Kōjin, 190 University Ave., 647-253-6227, kojin.momofuku.com