Critic: JaBistro—Guu for grown-ups—brings prestige sushi to clubland
The team behind Toronto’s cultishly popular Guu restaurants cranks up the luxe factor at JaBistro
222 Richmond St. W., 647-748-0222
It’s a Tuesday night in clubland and I’m witness to an execution. I’m seated at the sushi bar of JaBistro, a Japanese restaurant on Richmond Street West that opened this past fall. For our first course, my dinner companion and I have ordered the sashimi platter for $100. It’s pricey partly because JaBistro flies its fish in daily, fresh from nets around the world, but also because we’ve asked for a house specialty: lobster sashimi. Raw crustacean flesh exposed to air goes tough in a matter of moments and must be eaten immediately. Our sushi chef lays a thrashing, mottled Nova Scotia specimen out before us and severs the tail from the torso in one swift slice. He scoops out the tail meat with a spatula and places it in an artful pile on our platter, surrounding it with wedges of ocean trout, sea bream, uni and bluefin tuna belly, and glistening puddles of salmon roe. For decoration, he places the torso in the middle of the platter, its antennae and spindly legs in a death-throes twitch. The lobster seems to watch, beadily unamused, as we pick at its tail meat, which is nearly flavourless aside from an ethereal trace of the briny sea. Its gelatinous fibres don’t melt in your mouth so much as they pop and burst, like edible bubble wrap. The verdict: raw lobster is worth trying once, like chocolate-dipped bacon or Nicki Minaj, just so you understand what all the fuss is about.
Until JaBistro came along, only exclusive restaurants like Sushi Kaji, where the diners are usually CEOs with expense accounts, dared to serve such delicacies as lobster sashimi. Otherwise, Toronto’s Japanese food options were mostly limited to interchangeable sushi counters serving all-you-can-eat maki specials, bento boxes filled with greasy discs of battered sweet potato, and nori stuffed with pallid salmon that, for mysterious reasons, is called the Toronto roll—the sorts of places we go as students because they’re cheap.
JaBistro is one of a new, ambitious breed of mid-range Japanese restaurants, and the latest addition to a mini-empire run by James Kim, a Vancouver businessman who moved here in 2007 to open Guu, the Church Street outpost of a B.C. izakaya chain specializing in casual after-work Japanese bar food. A well-developed izakaya scene and proximity to ski resorts (that aren’t mountains in name only) are among the few things Torontonians admire about Vancouver, so the opening of our very own Guu was met with considerable glee. And lineups: three years later, there’s still a wait to get into the no-reservations restaurant. Its success inspired Kim to open an Annex location called Guu Sakabar. Together they set off a small Toronto invasion of izakayas from Vancouver (Hapa, Kingyo) and Toyko (Nejibee).
Part of what makes izakayas so popular, and so disorienting to first-timers used to hushed-and-bowing Japanese restaurants, is the cultivated rowdiness: staff yell Japanese greetings in unison at new arrivals, J-pop blares on the stereo, customers cram together at picnic tables, and the entire room seems to break into “Happy Birthday” on the hour. They’re like theme parks for a generation raised on Hello Kitty, and punishment if you’re not in the right mood. Guu’s menu, in true izakaya fashion, is the Japanese equivalent of tapas—small plates of deep-fried shrimp or chewy udon noodles or chunks of barbecue eel. It’s the kind of food that’s best paired with tankards of Sapporo. There’s always one or two hit-or-miss tributes to Western dishes, like beef carpaccio sprinkled with fried garlic chips and dotted with tart ponzu (a hit) or oysters Rockefeller topped with garlic mayo and panko crumbs (a miss—it manages to be both over-broiled and slimy). You should only go with a group, preferably after a long week, and be prepared to leave more tipsy than full.
After introducing us to izakayas, Kim opened Kinton Ramen last year on Baldwin Street. It’s second only to the new Momofuku Noodle Bar as the city’s most-hyped ramen restaurant. The small room, designed to maximize hubbub with polished concrete floors, seats 36 customers, mostly on stools facing the boiling pots of the open kitchen. The specialty is house-made alkaline noodles in a cloudy, pork-based tonkotsu broth that’s less greasy than Momofuku’s version but also less complex. Kinton’s servers zip around the room, deliver your meal moments after you order and give you the bill the minute you reach the bottom of your bowl of spicy garlic ramen, a sinus-clearing concoction of chili-reddened broth, with a salty strip of slow-cooked pork belly and a snowball of minced raw garlic. That garlic mellows once mixed into the piping hot soup but is nevertheless so pungent it’ll haunt your palate for days. Kinton is a cheap and tasty place for lunch, which is the point of a ramen shop, but the lineup—yes, here too—means your wait is longer than the time you spend inside.
No-reservations policies are an affectation—restaurants aren’t nightclubs—that has become the norm south of Bloor. I’d like to think James Kim read my mind when he conceived JaBistro, which is like an adult version of Kinton and the Guus. JaBistro accepts reservations. Instead of J-pop, they play Sade and Stevie Wonder at conversation-enabling volumes. The room is moodily lit, with one plush banquette stretching its length. When you arrive, waiters take your coat to a hidden cloakroom and offer a drink from a list of serious sakes and Japanese-themed cocktails like a lemony bourbon smash garnished with shiso. The place feels like a private club.
JaBistro’s menu is divided between “bistro” dishes, which resemble Guu’s fusion creations but are prepared with more exactitude, and showily complicated sushi and sashimi. The standout bistro dish is nanban, chicken that’s marinated in a tart mixture of rice vinegar, soy and chili before it’s battered and deep-fried. It’s served in a porcelain bowl with a nest of shredded cabbage and a pool of tartar sauce—deconstructed coleslaw. Another successful combination is kamo, a plate layered with tender slices of smoked duck breast, baby greens, a poached egg, a tangle of brittle burdock root chips and a dusting of Parmesan. (Kim’s restaurants introduce cheese in strange places, like a misconceived deep-fried brie at Guu and a logic-defying but enjoyable blanket of Swiss on the miso ramen at Kinton.)
JaBistro’s way with fish is a revelation. Koji Tashiro, the head chef, wears a newsboy cap, and belongs to a set of young Japanese cooks who balance the rigorous skills of traditional sushi with a taste for innovation and fun. He came from Guu Sakabar and, before that, Vancouver’s upscale sushi standard-bearer, Miku, where he perfected his aburi technique—a style of sushi in which the fish is glazed with a sauce (usually a mayo-garlic or miso combination), then seared with a blowtorch to intensify the umami punch. The technique seems best suited to oily fish like salmon—the searing causes the fish to release a creamy sweetness into its rectangle of lightly vinegared rice. The untorched options are no less delicious, especially the amberjack carpaccio, so delicate you can see the white plate beneath the gauzy slices.
This is prestige sushi. It’s pricey—seven pieces of nigiri cost $27, triple what they would be at a generic sushi counter—because you’re paying for top-notch fish and Tashiro’s knife skills. He grates his own wasabi and makes his own soy sauce. This is no Kikkoman joint. Several tables over, a group of Bay Street traders brag about who spent more that time at Hiro, and what about that last omakase at Kaji. JaBistro, they decide, was up there, definitely the freshest they’ve had in Toronto. And they agree that the sashimi platters they just destroyed, with several rounds of sake, were a bargain for the quality.
The traders were too squeamish to order the lobster sashimi, but they look envious when the waiter presents our table with two steaming bowls of miso soup containing the now-cooked meat from the same lobster claws that had served as decoration on our platter. The claw meat is tender and luxurious, but somehow quite ordinary after everything that came before.