Party Like It’s 1989: Yorkville’s Kasa Moto is an unholy mix of spray tans, bottle service and spectacular sashimi
115 Yorkville Ave., 647-348-7000
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I somehow managed to avoid Remys during its 26-year run. The place seemed to me the pinnacle of tacky Yorkville. No one ever went for the food, which had a reputation for being one step above swill. (The menu included an abomination called Oriental Chicken Stir-Fry Linguine With Oriental Teriyaki Sauce.) Instead, the draw was Remys’ rooftop patio, which was perfectly positioned for basking in the late evening sun and big enough to accommodate a couple of hundred people. I remember once stopping in with friends at Hemingway’s, the neighbouring Yorkville pub, after a weekend matinée at the Varsity. We’d planned to discuss the movie but instead sat mesmerized by the scene across Old York Lane, everyone in whites and sunglasses and as emaciated as the Virginia Superslims dangling from their fingers. Remys was like a Fellini movie, only louder.
When it closed last year, people said the usual stuff about an end of an era. Yorkville had changed. It’s true how, colonized by luxury condos, the neighbourhood’s dining scene has ratcheted up. Remys could never compete with the likes of One, Buca Yorkville or NAO, and the fact is you can’t sustain a business on Toronto’s brief patio season alone. The building was claimed early this year by The Chase Hospitality Group, a mini-empire run by the entrepreneurs Michael Kimel and Steven Salm. They own downtown’s The Chase and The Chase Fish and Oyster, where the emphasis is on oysters and lobster and other guaranteed high-roller bait, and the Thompson Hotel’s dainty brasserie, Colette. They’re easy places to like: I’ve had brilliant lobster pastas at The Chase and a masterful if conventional bouillabaisse at Colette. But Kimel and Salm have yet to open a place that strikes me as distinctly Toronto (they’re adept at copying the successes of the NYC celeb chef Andrew Carmellini).
Yorkville is as good a place as any to try. Kimel and Salm have done their utmost to eradicate the ghosts of Remys. The new restaurant, Kasa Moto, is the city’s fanciest izakaya. No one yells “irasshaimase!” when you enter—instead, you’re greeted by modelesque hostesses in slinky black dresses and heels. They’ve upgraded the rooftop patio with a forest of large umbrellas, outdoor sofas and flat-panel TVs. The Kasa Moto kitchen is overseen by The Chase group’s executive chef, Michael Steh, and run by a trio with stellar credentials: Michael Parubocki, who previously cooked at Momofuku Noodle Bar and Brassaii; Daisuke Izutsu, who cooked at Kaiseki Sakura and as a private chef for the Consul General of Japan; and Tsuyoshi Yoshinaga, who sculpted inspired sushi at Kingyo and Yasu, and once trained under the Etobicoke strip mall sushi star Mitsuhiro Kaji.
But for all the changes, you can’t take the Yorkville out of a Yorkville restaurant. During one lunch on the roof patio, I watched a woman in oversized, red-framed sunglasses, her Kate Spade bag perched on the table, grab at a busser so she could send back a half-eaten order of vegetarian sushi because she forgot she isn’t “doing” cucumber. I overheard an elderly couple asking their granddaughter about whether she was happy with the colour of her new horse. Anyone allergic to cologne, spray tans, form-fitting white jeans or long conversations about cleanses should probably stay home. At one point, noticing the background music was Sade’s “Smooth Operator” and that I was surrounded by men in popped-collar Lacoste tennis shirts, I realized that Yorkville is locked in a permanently coke-fuelled, ’80s state of mind, which explains what I saw the following Saturday night. On weekends, Kasa Moto’s patio is more like a nightclub, complete with a DJ and curtained cabanas. I watched one guy, built like an enforcer with threaded eyebrows and cue-ball head, snap his fingers at a passing server, point at his table’s empty bottle of Grey Goose and hold up two fingers to signal for more, while carrying on a conversation on his gold iPhone. His group—all strapping men, shirt collars open a minimum of three buttons—decided, to the annoyance of Kasa Moto’s staff, to move a sofa and merge their group with a neighbouring party of women.
The servers, who glide around like a troupe of dancers, ask if you want sparkling or still water, and pause a long second before adding that there’s also (free) ice water. They deliver single drinks on tiny silver trays—as if they’re there to serve only you and your needs. They’re professional coddlers, but they haven’t bothered to bone up on what comes out of Kasa Moto’s kitchen. That isn’t a strict requirement given the see-and-be-seen clientele, who pay only passing attention to what they’re eating. For the rest of us, it’d be nice to have some basic help with Kasa Moto’s menu, which is split into cold dishes (like Wagyu carpaccio and ceviche salad), hot dishes (tempuras, crispy rice bowls), dishes from a robata grill (which overlap, confusingly, with the hot dishes), large plates (which include some options, like a Wagyu strip loin, grilled over the robata) and sushi (which covers all the usual terrain, plus some tempura options that overlap with the hot dish section, as well as some large options like a sashimi platter). They should provide a decoder ring.
One night, I was seated with my guest in the Siberia of the ground floor dining room. When I asked our server what was in the $60 sashimi platter, he said it changed daily, and walked away—a diffident attitude I’ve never encountered at The Chase, where the staff practically draw family trees for each of the available species and testify to the noble method of capture. The junior server who delivered the sashimi to our table didn’t know what it included either, so he grabbed our diffident server, who stared for a moment, index finger on his chin, and guessed.
I wouldn’t make such a big deal out of their bumbling routine if that platter weren’t some of the best sashimi I’ve had in Toronto—up there with Sushi Kaji and Yasu. The kitchen flies in top-quality fish, mostly from Japanese suppliers. Yoshinaga, the sushi chef, had built an ikebana-like display out of petals of mackerel, hamachi, sea bream, fatty Scottish salmon and precious tuna belly, with fronds of seaweed and an angled stick of bamboo for decoration. He ages his own soy sauce over six months, and, for an extra $8, your server will grind fresh wasabi tableside. Yoshinaga’s other raw options were no less ingeniously composed: a mound of yuzu-touched tuna tataki on a curl of daikon, triangles of hamachi in a pool of shiso oil.
As far as I can tell, since Adelaide West’s Shibui closed earlier this year, Kasa Moto is the only restaurant in Toronto that grills on a robata—a tiered Japanese barbecue that emits an intense heat from bincho (compressed white oak charcoal). It’s a fussy technique, the goal of which is to avoid flames and caramelized char, and instead infuse your meat or veg with a concentrated fug of smoke. Some people can’t get enough, but I’ve found it’s hit or miss, and can render more delicate objects, like Kasa Moto’s plate of enoki, shiitake and king oyster mushrooms, into dry husks. (In the case of those king oysters, they became more cigar than mushroom.) It’s a surer hit with fatty meats. Skewers of cubed pork belly were equal parts moisture and smoke, the meat given a final, tart brush of pickled Japanese plum. They offer two kinds of strip loin—a $120 Wagyu and a Canadian dry-aged prime for less than half that price. I went for the cheaper cut, which was delivered to the table on a personal-sized grill containing a couple of smoldering chunks of bincho. Each slice was more peppery and flavourful than the last, like a wine that surprises with more depth on every sip. The table grill wasn’t really warm enough to make much of a difference, though I appreciated the ceremonial touch.
It’s a rare Yorkviller who consumes sugar, so the server seemed startled when we asked about dessert. The best option is the Japanese-style cheesecake. There was a mini-mania this past spring when the Hakata cheesecake chain Uncle Tetsu opened a spot on Bay. Kasa Moto’s is even better, more spongy and less sweet, though sweetness came from a dice of macerated, peak-season Ontario strawberries.
It’s hard to walk out of Kasa Moto without spending less than $200 for two, even for a relatively light lunch. A basic Tom Collins with a faint hint of lemongrass syrup and a sprig of Thai basil costs you $20 with tip. These are Yorkville prices—$8 for wasabi!—and you can almost rationalize them if you factor in the lingering. Everyone lingers, waiting to see what boldface name will arrive next.