Big Fish

Masaki Saito wowed New Yorkers with his old-school approach to sushi, earning two Michelin stars. Now he’s heading up an ultra-luxe, $500-a-head restaurant in Yorkville where food is only part of the show

Masaki Saito was having his fingernails buffed and shaped early this spring at a Japanese salon in Yorkville when the manager seemed to recognize him. Saito is five foot eight and pudgy faced, with the smile of a man who’s always got a punchline brewing. He’s what you might call a snappy dresser, in Gucci and Prada everything, with a fur collar on his coat (he wears it popped), an Italian leather man clutch in his hand and hairless mankles glinting winter bright over monkstrap shoes. He looked like he had someplace fancy to be. “Saito-san,” said the manager, slowly, puzzling about where she might know him from. When she asked his profession, he said he’s a chef.

“Ah!” she gasped, clapping a hand to her mouth. Her eyes looked as though they might pop from their sockets and land in a pot of cuticle cream.

Wakatta!” she said. Now I understand! “From New York! I knew!” She looked from Saito to his two young female handlers, waiting on a couch behind him. “He’s famous!” she told them. To which he proudly replied: “I know.”

Saito is a 31-year-old jet-setting sushi chef, one of the most charmed, charismatic and, by some estimations, bankable names in the big-money world of fish on rice. The counter he ran most recently, Sushi Ginza Onodera, a $400-per-head affair on Fifth Avenue in New York, won two Michelin stars and made him a media darling. But it wasn’t his name on the door; last August, with a mind to building a place of his own, he walked away.

The manicurists nodded and laughed through their pink masks as the manager told them Saito’s story. The more she went on, the more the room seemed to fill with an ambient, pixie-dust glow.

Saito is famous for his approach to fish: he doesn’t like to serve it fresh. Instead, he ages it for as much as a week—a practice that deepens the flavours and transforms the textures. Though it’s common in Japan, particularly at Tokyo’s high-end traditional sushiyas, aged Edomae sushi, as it’s called, is almost unheard of in North America.

Saito ages his fish, sometimes overnight, sometimes for a week. This is him preparing baby snapper

“In Toronto, raw, raw, raw! Sauce, sauce, sauce!” says Saito, disapprovingly. (Saito grew up in Japan. His English, though enthusiastic, is limited.) Toronto’s sushi chefs, he says, haven’t worked in Tokyo, or, if they have, only briefly, at the city’s cheaper spots. “No good experience,” he complains.

Saito, who moved to Toronto a few months ago, is on a mission to change how the city’s dining public thinks about sushi and fish. His new spot, called Sushi Masaki Saito, is in a narrow Victorian walk-up at 88 Avenue Road in Yorkville. It was built and financed by William Cheng, a Chinese-Canadian candle manufacturing magnate who is the little-known sushi impresario behind super-luxe Shoushin, at Yonge and Lawrence, and Tachi, the stand-up, quick-service counter at Assembly Chef’s Hall on Richmond Street West. But unlike those restaurants, nearly every piece of seafood at Sushi Masaki Saito—the squid and halfbeak, the scallops and barracuda, the tuna, the sea eel, the horse mackerel and goldeneye snapper, and even the baby white shrimp—will be aged in some way before it appears in front of customers. Which can be a tricky business for a sushi spot. “Aged fish,” at least to the uninitiated, sounds a lot like a rueful, morning-after euphemism for we probably should have thrown it out. At Sushi Masaki Saito, a dinner of aged fish on rice plus a few extra trimmings will go for $500 per person, and that’s before a single glass of the wine list’s first-growth Burgundy touches anybody’s lips.

Saito’s seared-skin Spanish mackerel with seaweed soy

There is another factor to account for Saito’s fame: while the sushi style and the setting he favours are unapologetically traditional, the chef couldn’t possibly be less like your stern old Jiro-style itamae. “First goal coming to Canada,” he tells me, more than once, “get girlfriend.” He is juvenile and cocky, but in a lot of other ways, he’s instantly likable. He drinks and wisecracks and sings show tunes while working. A few weeks before opening, Saito prepared a private dinner for the Raptors guard Jeremy Lin. When I asked him afterward how the service went, his only response was a sly smile and the words “he got orgasm.”

Saito left Japan a few years into his career in large part because of the customers. Unlike the Chinese and North American tourists he served there, well-to-do Japanese patrons at high-end restaurants often look down on chefs, he says. They see them as simple labourers. In work as in life, he expects to be respected as an equal. Which is to say that for a lot of the modern, international foodie types who think nothing of dropping $500-plus on dinner, Saito is relatable. He isn’t some hidebound, fun-hating dinosaur, but a prodigiously skilled, live-in-the-now professional, tired of playing by other people’s rules.

 


Saito drinks and wisecracks and sings show tunes while working. He is completely unfiltered. “First goal of coming to Canada,” he says, “get girlfriend”

 

Even his work schedule is a rejection of the old ways. Sushi Masaki Saito will accommodate at most seven people per seating, twice each night, and Saito plans to tend to each one of those customers himself, to personally place each piece of nigiri into their open hands. As we were standing around the kitchen one afternoon, I made the mistake of suggesting he will have to work hard to do that.

“Me?” he answered. “No! Only dinner. In Japan, every day, 6, 7 a.m. I start and I go home at 1, 2 a.m.”

I asked him, “So this is easier?” I’m slow to key to the punchline, I guess.

“Very easy!” he answered, laughing. “Very good!”

Masaki Saito intends to open the smallest, priciest, most ambitious and, if all goes to plan, most delicious sushi spot in Canada, on what might pass in Japan for side-hustle hours.

Saito’s father, a construction contractor, and his mother, a nurse, were what you might call sushi hounds. In their small, coastal town in Hokkaido’s south, they often ate at the best local spot, called Chiyo Sushi. But kids weren’t allowed at Chiyo’s counter. For Saito’s first few years, he had to sit “with the babies,” as he puts it, in a separate room. While his parents ate fish and laughed with the grown-ups, he got the cheesy-flavoured fermented soybean product called natto for dinner, and little sheets of nori to roll it in.

Saito at age three with his mother and sister in Hokkaido

When Saito turned eight, his status changed. At last he was old enough to eat the real thing. Sitting at the counter in awe, he watched the chef with his knives and his little ceramic pots of sauce, slicing and seasoning fish as if only by feel and instinct, draping it over the loose, just-warm rectangles of rice he formed with his hands. Saito saw the skill and training that the chef, who was also the restaurant’s owner, put into every piece of nigiri. That counter became the family’s special-occasion spot, after piano recitals, calligraphy lessons and soccer games, on holidays and birthdays. And then one day, his mother came home from work and told him that Chiyo Sushi’s chef had just died. Saito’s response, he recalls, was pragmatic, mostly: where were they supposed to eat sushi now? So his family started trying the town’s other sushi counters, and none of them compared. Even as a child, Saito knew the difference between good sushi and just okay. The grandson of fishermen, he became obsessed with seafood, diving for abalone and urchins at an age when most kids are just learning to swim. From 10 years old, he says, he knew he would become a sushi chef.

Saito moved out at 15, to a town 180 kilometres south. He enrolled in a technical school that taught marine engineering, aquaculture and fish processing, storage and quality control. He lived alone in an apartment—“Home alone,” he says, like Macaulay Culkin—and took up smoking and drinking. His schooling gave him some serious hands-on experience. For one class project, he spent 53 days and nights on a commercial tuna boat in the South Pacific, baiting and hauling 200-kilometre lines most of the way to Hawaii and back. They’d often bring in as much as 1,000 kilos of fresh tuna a day.

After high school, Saito moved to Tokyo and got a job as a dishwasher at a mid-tier sushi spot. Each morning, he’d go with a chef to the fish market. His job was to lug around whatever the chef purchased and otherwise stay out of the way, but he learned a few things. From the hundreds of types and grades of fish that came through the market, he figured out how to find the best: how to judge from their eyes and gills, from the state of their bellies and the condition of their scales. He watched the market’s fish selection change from season to season. He learned who the best vendors were and how to gain their respect. He learned to instantly identify which fish had been caught on a line, by hand, and handled right, and which had died slowly, tangled in a net.

 


The grandson of fishermen, Saito became obsessed with seafood, diving for abalone and urchins at an age when most kids are just learning to swim

 

In the kitchen, Saito would hurry to finish his dishwashing duties so he’d have time to watch the chefs work; eventually, one of them allowed him to clean a horse mackerel. He scraped away the scales first, sliced off the head, then teased out the bloodline and guts. Soon he was permitted to handle a second. Cleaning and gutting didn’t take him long to master. “It was easy for me,” he says now. “For other student, two or three years.” He points to his chest. “But genius.” While most of his contemporaries were still washing dishes, Saito moved up to filleting. Within a couple of years, he was working behind the sushi counter making nigiri.

Compared to what Saito is known for now, that Tokyo restaurant was remarkably simple. They bought fish, cut it, seasoned it and put it on rice. His next job was at an infinitely more interesting place.

At 23, Saito moved to Hokkaido’s capital, Sapporo, to work under one of the most respected sushi chefs in Japan. Tsutomu Shimamiya had two Michelin stars and the designation of master contemporary craftsman. Critically, much of Shimamiya’s sushi was aged.

When North Americans think of sushi, most of us picture either nigiri, the classic combination of uncooked fish squeezed carefully onto tart-sweet rice, or sashimi, which dispenses with the grain. (If you thought instead of California rolls, there is nothing anyone can do for you.)

What few sushi-lovers consider is how fundamentally its taste has changed in the last 5,000-odd years. Sushi’s earliest iteration, which appeared along the Mekong River, was wincingly sour and funky, a product not of gastronomic exploration but necessity. Each rainy season, rice farmers along the river raised freshwater fish in their flooded paddies. When the paddies dried up in the fall, the farmers needed a way to store the harvested fish. They learned that cooked rice, packed around the raw flesh and left to ferment, produced enough lactic and acetic acid to preserve the fish.

That long storage changed both foods. According to journalist Trevor Corson’s history The Zen of Fish, as the flesh aged in rice, it turned sour and buttery, like “pungent aged cheese.” As for the rice, the fermentation made it too sour to eat. One record from the 12th century likens its flavour to “the vomit of a drunkard.” People just threw the rice out.

The technique spread to China and then to Japan, where in the 1400s, much shorter aging periods left the fish firm but pleasantly funky, and the rice abundantly edible. A long-storage pantry item was transformed into a Japanese luxury food. A couple of centuries later, sushi makers added a new, bottled invention—vinegar—to their rice. They no longer had to bother with aging it. Haya-zushi—quick sushi—was born.

Yet much of the fish that sushi vendors put on top of that rice still needed at least a bit of preservation. At the streetside sushi stalls that sprang up in the late 1600s around Edo, as Tokyo was then called, the vendors learned to salt, soy-soak, steam, cook, quick-pickle, layer in seaweed and press their seafood, depending on the species and its condition, all to keep it from going off. That preserved Edomae zushi, as the nigiri of Tokyo came to be called, endured well beyond the end of World War II. In some places, it hung on even longer.

What Saito learned under his new boss, Shimamiya, was that all those old techniques had been playing a role more interesting than simple preservation: the funk and depth that for five millennia had been a by-product of aging could be harnessed expressly to sharpen sushi’s taste. A great sushi chef, Saito realized, didn’t just source and cut fish, but combined chemistry and a bit of magic into something far more profound.

Saito learned to age fish by trial and error. When I asked him how many fish he had ruined over the years, he told me not too many. “Genius,” he said. He didn’t even remotely seem to mean this as a joke.

After his time working under Shimamiya in Sapporo, Saito landed a position with Sushi Ginza Onodera, an exclusive spot in Tokyo. From there, he was sent to the company’s Hong Kong outpost, then, in 2015, to Manhattan, to open Ginza Onodera’s first North American sushi counter. Under Saito’s direction, the room quickly won a Michelin star, then within a year, another one. Ginza Onodera became Michelin’s second-highest-rated sushiya in town, after the three-starred Masa in the Time Warner Center.

The chef’s easy approachability endeared him to food writers and other media. Saito, ever cheerful and irreverent, had a habit of flashing shaka hand signs—the Hawaiian “hang loose” symbol—whenever he appeared on camera. “I have a lot of joke,” he says. “Jokes is very good. Yes.” And Saito knew the tricks of keeping New York money coming back. He often had a glass next to him at his counter, which his best customers kept filled with wine and sake. “Kampai, kampai!” he says of his free-drinking style. Late at night, for his biggest spenders, he whipped up bowls of spaghetti studded with his finest urchin from Hokkaido.

One of Saito’s regular customers there, William Cheng, had been sizing him up. Cheng, who’s now 39, grew up in Hong Kong and owns Premier Candle Corporation, the largest independent candle manufacturer in Canada. Premier makes candles for Victoria’s Secret, Target, Loblaws, Pottery Barn, Estée Lauder and Tom Ford, among other major clients. In the last few years, Cheng has worked to build a name as a philanthropist, supporting Sunnybrook in particular. He has also developed a healthy sideline investing in commercial real estate. Rather than renting out all his properties, he decided a few years ago to put some of them to use in service of another of his passions: food. “If I have an investment property and I happen to know a talent, I just open,” he says.

William Cheng runs an international candle empire. Food is his hobby. He says he’s spending $2.5 million on Sushi Masaki Saito and doesn’t expect to turn a profit

Late one evening at Onodera in Manhattan with friends, after a dinner bill that ran to $25,000, Cheng took Saito out for a night of karaoke. Cheng has been taking voice training for the last 12 years, he told me recently. In the space above Shoushin on Yonge, he built a karaoke lounge that he opens only for his associates and friends. Saito, who also loves to sing, goes to late-night karaoke to relax when he gets off work. The two of them hit it off. For the next two years, Cheng wined, dined, bromanced and jetted Saito around the planet in hopes that he’d move to Toronto. Cheng had quietly started building a small but exquisitely designed and furnished sushi counter in Yorkville, and just above it, a hidden Japanese cocktail bar. The millwork and sliding pine panelling came straight from Japan, as did the hinoki wood countertop, which was cut from a 200-year-old tree. The cost of the build for those two spaces, the restaurant and the bar, will total $2.5 million, says Cheng—a ludicrous figure for a restaurant meant to serve just 14 customers in an evening. But for Cheng, the money is beside the point.

Last December, Saito finally agreed to partner with him in Toronto. He agreed, the chef told me, because Cheng values the pursuit of excellence far more than profitability. As for Cheng, his best-case scenario, he says, is to eventually not have to write the business an enormous cheque each month. In the meantime, Sushi Masaki Saito will be perhaps his signature philanthropic act, one aimed at the 0.01 per cent.

On a Thursday near the end of March, Sushi Masaki Saito received its first shipment from Toyosu Market in Tokyo—seven Styrofoam bins, each of them brimming with newsprint-wrapped fish. Saito uses a buyer on the market floor, a friend he’s worked with since his early days in Tokyo, to get the best fish available. It certainly looked that way as they opened the bins.

Saito and his sous chefs found iridescent-skinned mackerel, a crimson goldeneye snapper, shimmering black throat sea perch, glassy-eyed sardines, an arm-sized squid, two cuts of tuna, a gory mess of pinkish-beige monkfish livers and a filled-to-bursting bag of baby ginger root packed in brine. Despite having flown on ice across the planet, they looked far better to my eye than any fish I’ve seen around town. That sort of quality comes at a price, of course. One 20-piece box of Hokkaido urchin Saito showed me set the restaurant back $460, he said.

Saito cleaned the monkfish livers then slipped them into a pot of water that he set to a simmer. Some of the other fish, like the tuna, he’ll dry age in a fridge, much the same way as beef is aged. Other types will get a salty marinade, while the oiliest fish, which go off most easily, get a light soak in acid, effectively a pickle. Even the chef’s miso soup, which he blends from six different fish stocks and five different misos, needs five days in the fridge before it’s ready. “One day, triangle,” Saito said, making the shape of a triangle with his fingers. The soup’s flavour, he meant, is all awkward edges and angles on day one. “Five day: circle.” Smoothness and harmony. “Amaaaaaaayyyyzing,” he added in a scarily accurate New York hedge funder drawl. He’d clearly heard the expression once or twice. “Amaaaaayyyzing miso soup.”

Saito’s service kit contains bowls of soy (one house blend, the other shiso-flavoured), sake, tsume, plus Japanese lime, yuzu, green perilla, ginger and fresh wasabi

For Saito’s favourite species, the goldeneye snapper, he employs a three-part aging treatment: salting, scalding and wrapping in sake-soaked kombu, an algae that’s rich in glutamic acid, the natural version of MSG. “Kelp umami,” Saito said once the fish was wrapped in the kombu and vac-packed in a bag. “Goes inside flesh.” Saito’s other prep jobs that day were harder to follow. He didn’t often pause between the steps. With six or seven considered knife swoops and a couple of firm tugs he dismantled the squid before salting the pieces and massaging them in a bowl of 53-degree-Celsius water. (Exactly 53. He measured it with an infrared thermometer.) Over the stove, he squeezed a bit of the squid’s discarded guts—the ink sac—into a saucepan of salt, which he whisked and cooked then ground into a cephalopod-flavoured, depths-coloured dust. “Squid salt,” he said. He flecks it on his squid nigiri.

As for the monkfish liver on the stove, he skimmed the pot then added mirin, Japanese soy, tamari, sugar and most of a bottle of Côte de Nuits. Soon, his kitchen smelled like a candied, boozy, red fruit and seafood dream. That’s when he started shouting at one of his cooks.

“Are you stupid!? Are you drunk?” he scolded her.

All afternoon, the tension had been building. The little—and not-so-little—things kept knocking his prep off track.

The kitchen was still under construction, for instance. The exhaust hood over the stove wouldn’t turn on without blasting a jet stream of winter air into the kitchen. Saito was doing his prep in a down-filled hoodie, and it was cold enough that my fingers started to go numb. Over the whoosh of that blasting air, a Shop-Vac whined and wheezed not five feet away, where tile layers were getting down to work. “Not professional,” Saito said.

The staffing was proving a frustration as well. The cook he put in charge of cleaning fish kept missing scales, which Saito found as he filleted. “Why?” he said angrily, holding one up. “For the customer?”

Another employee, a young but from what I could see hard-working woman, hadn’t yet become accustomed to the kitchen’s layout, so she dithered when she put things away or tried to locate equipment. She was a half-step behind, hesitating, which doesn’t seem so strange on the first full day. “Anybody can stand around,” Saito said angrily. “Grade-school student can stand around.” Saito variously pecked and shouted at her throughout the afternoon, which made her even more hesitant; she didn’t seem able to meet any of his standards. (She’s no longer working there.) Another of the cooks, a young Japanese-Canadian man, didn’t seem to have ever made a dashi before. The stock, brewed from kombu and dried bonito flakes, is a foundation of Japanese food. Yet Saito treated him with a cheerful, arm-around-the-shoulders benevolence; I didn’t see him shout at the kid once.

Meanwhile, Saito’s senior sous chef, a respected sushi veteran named Tsuyoshi Yoshinaga, was quietly overseeing the staff and kitchen, which had its own undercurrent of awkwardness. Until just a few months ago, Yoshinaga, who trained at Sushi Kaji and Yasu and was co-chef at Shoushin, was meant to be the lead chef here; the restaurant was supposed to bear his name. (Cheng later told me that Yoshinaga has “a very good chance” of getting his own place within the company, and that learning under Saito would be a valuable opportunity for him.) In any case, everything changed when Saito came along.

The day of his manicure, the chef was in the mood to shop. He and his two handlers, a marketing manager from Cheng’s candle company named Anna Bediones and the restaurant group’s operations head, Kamen Sun, strolled in the direction of Bloor Street’s Mink Mile. Saito was happy to be out. As Cheng later told me, Saito’s real job isn’t sushi chef. “You know what this guy’s profession is? His profession is to make girlfriends,” he said, laughing. “Number-one profession, girlfriend. Hobby is sushi.” As two women walked by, he stopped in his tracks, not three feet away, and loudly offered the appraisal, “Ooooooh, looks is very good!”

“I always, ‘Oh you are very beautiful,’ ” he told me.

 


One of Saito’s customers took a bite of fatty bluefin tuna and whispered, “Oh my god.” Saito cheerfully bellowed, “OMG!”

 

At the Hazelton Hotel, we stopped so he could say hello to one of the doorwomen, whom the chef introduced as “my girlfriend.” They spoke in Japanese for a while. Though I couldn’t understand what they were saying, it seemed the chef was inviting her to the restaurant. That’s when I heard him say the words “dry orgasm.”

“Oh. Okaaaaay,” she answered, slowly but cheerfully, and then we left. As another woman passed on the sidewalk, he stopped and pointed. “In Toronto, good woman!”

At the Louis Vuitton store, where he dropped $10,000 on a black leather weekend bag, an embossed-logo blazer and a pair of pants, he paused his conversation with a saleswoman to tell us, “Very good. Very good! She’s very good.” She was standing directly beside us. “Beautiful and working also. Very good!”

A few minutes later, as he was trying on some clothes, he asked her, “You have boyfriend?”

“I have husband,” she answered with a slightly nervous laugh.

“You have husband?” He sounded surprised.

“I just got married a month ago,” she said.

“Only husband?”

“Only husband, yes. One husband.”

“Why?” Saito asked. “You’re beautiful. You can make a lot of boyfriend.”

“Uh-huh,” she answered. “Because I want him to have one wife, so I have to be fair.”

To which he replied, “Maybe your husband hide?”

“Um, I don’t know, let’s trust him?”

Saito is a snappy dresser, usually outfitted in head-to-toe Gucci and Prada, when he’s not in his chef’s whites. On a recent spree at Louis Vuitton, he dropped $10,000 on a black leather weekend bag, a blazer and a pair of pants

Not once did I hear Saito’s handlers suggest he tone it down a notch—that the leering, Prada-clad Austin Powers routine might not play so well in Toronto in 2019.

Instead, Kamen Sun couldn’t stop laughing throughout Saito’s line of inquiry, as if it were the funniest thing she’d heard in a month. But maybe it was just the shock of recognition that was funny, because Saito seemed interested in being Sun’s boyfriend, too. “I need a Kamen,” he said at one point. “I need! Why no marry me? Why?”

In the next breath, he closed that circle. “She doesn’t like playboy. I understand.”

On the way to dinner that night, Saito said in the car, “Kamen, I went to Miss China in Toronto.”

“Oh, the Chinese pageant. The Toronto pageant.”

They were talking about the Miss Chinese Toronto pageant. Cheng took Saito to see it in December.

“I want a Japanese pageant,” he continued. “In it, I can find a girlfriend. Easily, right?”

Bediones, the marketing and PR handler, chimed in, “Oh, we should do a reality show! Saito’s bachelorette.” They were warming up now. “I like that idea! I want to be a part of organizing it,” Sun said.

Saito looked at me and offered, “I introduce you. Japanese girl.”

Later that night, over yakitori skewers and sake at an izakaya in Cabbagetown, Saito couldn’t stop hitting on the restaurant’s manager. “She good! Smile is very cute, very beautiful,” he said. He and the manager talked for a while. It was hard to follow, but he seemed to be asking her about the business, stroking her forearm admiringly as they spoke. “She has husband,” he finally said. They both laughed for a moment. “If separate, I can get.”

Dinner service began in the lounge, behind a set of sliding wood and paper doors, where the guests that evening, a group of food writers who’d come out for a preview, sipped glasses of gold leaf–flecked sake. Cheng had personally commissioned the sake while in Japan, Sun announced. A few minutes later, as we entered the dining room, Sun pointed out a handmade knob on the cabinetry behind Saito’s counter. “They cost $200 (U.S.) each,” she said. She later revised the figure to $320.

This was a Tuesday night in early April, and the chef was in very good spirits. Standing at his counter in chef whites and a counterman’s hat, he looked transformed. He served a tiny, exquisite salad of wakame, pearlescent Japanese grouper slices and umibudo, a jewel-like sort of sea grape from Okinawa. He presented a hunk of nodoguro—black throat sea perch—that had been grilled on skewers on a gleaming copper binchotan barbecue behind the counter. It was as decadent and juicy as the ripest summer fruit. But there was a hyper-precise sort of delicacy to his flavours: his shime saba, vinegared mackerel, had been aged overnight, yet it was lighter, somehow milder and more cleanly textured, just more delicious, than any mackerel I’d tried before.

As he worked, he constantly scanned our plates and cracked jokes. One of Saito’s schticks is to pick up on conversations at his counter. When he heard the word “tomorrow,” he started to sing the song from Annie. “Tomorrow, tomorrow… ashita wa shiawase.” His voice is clear and high and remarkably rich. It’s the tenor of a former choirboy. “You’re a singer!” I couldn’t help saying. “I know!” he answered.

Saito’s hairy crab boiled in sea water

Saito’s nigiri service opened with goldeneye snapper, slow-cooked scallop, barracuda, baby white shrimp and both medium and fatty tuna. If there’s any constant to the fish he serves, it’s that it tastes more of itself than any sushi I’ve ever tried. It’s richer and more savoury than it has any natural right to be. That, and the flavours seem to last forever. When someone at the counter whispered a reverential “Oh my god” after tasting the fatty bluefin tuna belly, Saito cheerfully bellowed, “OMG!”

His rice is also brilliant. This is the part of the high-end sushi experience that most casual sushi-lovers know they should register but so rarely do; though sushi rice is supposed to be of the utmost importance, most diners just can’t make themselves care. Saito’s rice, though, is more brown than white: he seasons it with a blend of red rice vinegars until it’s almost the colour of a caramel. It’s sweet, but not too much, and sour, but just enough, and Saito packs the grains so they fall apart the instant your brain begins signalling for a hint of pressure from your teeth. His rice is properly warm, too. For every new round of nigiri he makes—for every different type of seafood—the chef has the kitchen send him out a fresh batch.

What he demands in return for his care is that his customers eat when they’re told. Saito doesn’t like to put his sushi on plates. If it were up to him, he says, he would deposit each piece directly into his customers’ mouths. When the woman beside me didn’t notice the nigiri he was trying to hand her, he pulled it back dramatically, with a smile that was distinctly double-edged. He barked at a server, who stepped in to translate. “Sushi is alive,” the server said. “You have to eat.” With that established, the chef handed the guest the piece of sushi and stared into her eyes. “Focus. Me,” he said.

Next to him at the counter, Yoshinaga acted throughout the dinner as Saito’s assistant. He’s the griller and expediter of hot food and the slicer of pickled ginger (Saito makes his own, of course; he stopped at one point to mock any restaurant that would buy their pickled ginger, which is to say, almost all of them). Yoshinaga is the arranger of plates and the fetcher of rice. He also answers the odd question from the counter’s guests. When one of the guests asked him how a piece of Spanish mackerel was grilled, he answered simply, “It was torched.” Which seemed to set Saito off.

“No torch! Sear,” he scolded, before finishing the thought in Japanese.

Hai!” Yoshinaga answered. But Saito couldn’t quite let it go.

“You a chef, right?” he asked.

Hai,” Yoshinaga answered.

Saito: “Please!”

There was a brief but awkward silence.

Hai!” Yoshinaga said.

The show went on. In spite of the occasional tensions, it was the most delicious sushi experience I’ve had, either here or in Japan. It was also the most interesting by far. As the nigiri service began to wind down, Saito deftly peeled the skins from a pair of needlefish fillets, pierced them with the heel of his knife then wrapped them in a neat double helix on a bamboo skewer, which he handed off to Yoshinaga to grill.

It’s hard to know how long the chef will stay in Toronto; he spoke openly of having other, unrelated future projects in mind. Apart from success and rapid progression, his career so far has been marked by peripateticism. He is not the commitment type. The last time I saw him, I asked him his plans. “Tomorrow, if I hate here, I go,” he said of Canada. “If 10 years later I love here, more 10 years.” Which is to say that Cheng and Sun and the restaurant company’s staff have a very big stake in keeping Saito content.

As for Cheng, he says passion is the key to keeping Saito around. “It’s like marriage—you can’t force someone to be with you your whole life,” he told me. “But if you enjoy being with someone and you see the same vision, the same goals, then you continue to be together, and you do big things.”

When that skewer of needlefish skin returned, it was smoky and sizzling, dripping with sweet, maritime fat. That bit of aged, grilled skin—which most places might just throw away—was one of the best bites of seafood of my life. We also had that urchin from Hokkaido, the absurdly pricy stuff from the $460 box. It was clean-tasting and wildly rich, creamy and light-textured, as marvellous and insignificant as a hologram.

There was more fish still, and that aged miso soup (it was superb), and an exquisite green-tea blancmange. As we left the counter, the woman beside me gushed, “That was just incredible.”

The chef stopped what he was doing to point to his chest.

Mister Incredible,” he said.


This story originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.