All That Jazz
Life always seems a little brighter when you hear of an honour being bestowed upon someone who truly deserves it. On October 23, my friend Fatos Pristine, proprietor of the renowned Cheese Boutique, was inducted into the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Taste Fromage de France. The ceremony took place in Paris and I know nothing of the rituals involved, what robes were worn, whether nights of waking vigil were part of the preparations.
Anyone who has watched Mr. Pristine hold a room silent and spellbound while he discourses on the glories of some favoured fromage, his passion for the subject apparent in every word he utters, will agree this knighthood is totally merited. The new Chevalier is the champion of cheese, the count and conquistador of curds, an educator and an enthusiast as much as a merchant. He is also an opera buff and I’m eager to find out whether he likes the new opera house as much as I did on Thursday when I finally made it to Così Fan TutteM. Spectacular. There’s only one thing I’ll miss about the Hummingbird Centre and that is nipping across the road to Biff’s after the performance for potted shrimps at the bar.
This was a week of music. On Tuesday, it was live jazz piano at Opal Jazz Lounge where Washington Savage is resident ivory-tickler. Years ago, he played upstairs at North 44° and I have a soft spot for his repertoire of mellow standards—the sort of songs Mel Torme or Nat King Cole used to sing. Oddly enough, the same tunes filled the air at Kaiseki-Sakura later in the week, though not live and colourlessly reinterpreted by Michael Thingummy or Sarah Folkvirgin or some other young contemporary whose name escapes me. It’s very strange how many of our best Japanese restaurants pipe mainstream American jazz into the room. Last time I went to Omi (too long ago, mea culpa) I heard The Essential Tony Bennett. At Hiro Sushi, it’s often Ella Fitzgerald.
Kaiseki-Sakura, just two months old, deserves to be mentioned in such company. The owner and chef is Daisuke Izutsu, last seen in Marc Thuet’s open kitchen where he spent a year bringing his artistry to bear on many appetizers and where he was also responsible for the presentations coming off the raw seafood bar. Now in his own place he has chosen to follow the kaiseki tradition, presenting set dinners of six or eight small, seasonal, intricate dishes called, respectively, Four Seasons and Floral Calendar. There is also an à la carte menu full of fascinating things (many of which show up in the omakase menus) but, where this sort of cooking is concerned, the chef’s careful progression of textures, flavours, cooking methods and ideas is an important part of the experience. As are the matched drinks—some sakes, one shochu, but most of them sake-based cocktails devised with considerable sophistication and explained in detail by the earnest young servers, all of whom are doing a fine job.
And the food? Dishes that wowed me included a first class soup served in an iron tea pot. You pour the rich, clear, tawny liquid into a tiny bowl, relishing the perfect balance of fishy and woodsy flavours. Inside the pot, chopsticks can reach supple strips of pine mushroom, little ginko nuts like balls of firm green paste, cloudy white morsels of conger eel and a pink shrimp. Then there was a sashimi plate of grouper rolled in powdered rice cracker and striped jack garnished with chives. Each had a dipping sauce—ponzu for the jack, soy with a raw quail’s egg yolk in it for the grouper. I could go on to mention the lightly grilled, miso-marinated black cod served with chestnut paste and burdock, or the beef tongue with raw and cooked onion and carrots carved like tiny maple leaves. But you get the picture. It’s very interesting, refined cooking, not quite as whimsical or intricate as Hashimoto, perhaps, but well worth a visit. Coordinates: 556 Church Street (a few doors north of Wellesley), 416-923-1010.
But I was trying to talk about Opal Jazz Lounge (472 Queen St. W. (at Bathurst), 416-646-6725)—such a cool and civilized place with the big black piano taking pride of place on a dais in the centre of the room and a giant photo of Miles Davis shushing us all with a finger to his lips. Happily, the volume of the music allows for quiet conversation (though I wasn’t tempted in that regard since I was there on my own and talking to myself always seems to attract attention). Service is exceptionally smooth and friendly from manager Andrew Gardner and his team. The cocktail list is from the classic era (indeed, Peter Lawford or Sinatra would surely have dug Opal) and so are some nuances of the menu. Baked Alaska, for example. Haven’t eaten that since I was a child. Chef Fawzi Kotb does beautiful things to a New Zealand venison rack, cooking it rare with a mustard crust to leave the lean red meat tender and juicy, and pairing it with roasted kohlrabi. Shaved octopus salad is another triumph, dressed with lime, olive oil, fig-infused vincotto and balsamic—subtle sweet-tart flavours that coax out the taste of the beardless cephalopod. Yummola, daddy-oh.