Sushi and Ushi: The best place for sushi in Canada

Sushi and Ushi: The best place for sushi in Canada

I finally got back to Sushi Kaji after far too long an absence and had a meal that confirmed my opinion of the restaurant as the best place for sushi in Canada—including Tojo and Blue Water Café in Vancouver. Mitsuhiro Kaji has recently redecorated, and the serene little room looks much more spiffy than it did (no more glimpses of packing boxes behind curtains). Some clever artist has also repainted the mural of a giant koi behind the sushi bar and written a motto alongside—“each meeting with a fish is precious”—modified from the traditional Japanese proverb, “each meeting with a person is precious.” A new toaster oven has replaced the old beaten-up version that had sat at the right of the bar since the place opened eight years ago.

Kaji himself is as roguish and entertaining as ever, now growling like a demon, now pulling a comical face and lifting his fists like a puppy begging for food. An artist of his calibre is entitled to be as disarmingly bizarre as he chooses to be. The restaurant’s secret weapon is kitchen chef Takeshi Okada, a charming and eloquent man who appears from time to time with the explanation of a dish and then emerges for good at the end of the evening to sculpt gorgeous flowers and sprigs of blossom out of carrot, daikon and scallions for the ladies to take home. Success (the place is packed to the gills every night) has allowed Kaji the luxury of hiring more servers, who are overseen by his wife and who contribute a merry energy to the evening while still maintaining a most attentive professionalism.

There’s nothing wrong with coming to Sushi Kaji and sitting at a table, enjoying the food and conversing with your date, but the real fun is to sit at the sushi bar, order the $120 omakase menu (at least ninecourses) and watch the masters at work. Okada opens the pitching, sending out a starter of shredded beef sizzling on a hot cast-iron pan and tossed with slivers of bitter burdock and a light dusting of ground Japanese red pepper. It’s not Kobe beef but it might as well be—the texture and the flavour are as rich.

A trio of hors d’oeuvres follows. On the left, ribbons of bamboo shoot and morsels of chicken have been bound into a tight roll and then sliced, the tenderness of the meat and the slight crunch of the smooth, moist bamboo in delicious contrast. On the right, some perfectly soft-crunchy spinach in yuzu sauce offers a smoky hint of bonito. In the middle, posed over shredded daikon, is a patch of vinegared Tasmanian sea trout that has the colour and texture of cooked salmon but tastes considerably more delicate.

Then another roll appears, this one presenting the evening’s primary theme of fresh snow crab with a little of the juicy leg meat folded with crunchy cucumber inside a skin of cooked egg. Seedlings emerge like the furred antennae of a moth, and Seussian wires of crunchy fried noodle. Dots of two sauces decorate the plate: one of yellow egg yolk, the other tinted green with spinach.

Kaji’s sashimi collation is lifted down onto the highly varnished shelf of the bar. Some of these are famous favourites, others new. Here is Spanish tuna belly with the texture of raw foie gras that melts on the tongue. By contrast, Japanese amberjack is so fresh the raw flesh is almost crunchy, its juicy sweetness bringing out the inner Gollum. Greek octopus is as tender and innocent as a child (and as intelligent, they say—we may all have to stop eating octopus). Tasmanian sea trout is the fish that adolescent male salmon dream about. Sea bream, slyly rich, is dotted with tiny golden flecks of yuzu zest. My daughter-in-law, Kayoko, suggests I wrap the last bit with the fresh herbs provided on the dish—a shiso leaf and a trembling frond of kinome, a herb that looks a bit like chervil and tastes like minty lemon verbena. It’s a fine idea, refreshing the palate for the next course.

Now a whole snow crab appears from the kitchen, steamed, cracked and opened but still needing a long, careful excavation of the heavenly flesh. Then a second treatment of the crab, the meat tangled with ribbons of bean curd on top of a curious spongy cake that Okada has made from winter melon and kuzu starch. Around it in the bowl is a cool, clear bonito broth the colour of Cutty Sark whisky that has almost set into jelly.

Another little marine exhibit brings a fried cake of minced shrimp, more minced shrimp stuffed into a miniature Japanese green pepper, a seared scallop and a curling, glossy slice of bamboo, all hiding in a mitre carved from bamboo bark.

I said a couple of postings ago that this was uni season and now it appears, disguised as some sort of golden remora clinging to the tail of a split langoustine. Alongside lolls a sleek, butter-soft nugget of glazed black cod, a morsel of Japanese eggplant in its own wee bowl, a dainty treatment of foie gras and fig, and a cold rissole of minced chicken with yuzu sauce on some steamed rapini (“country style,” whispers Kayoko). The last element is a diamond of layered tofu dyed in pink, white and green stripes, the diamond a traditional gift on March 15, also known in Japan as Girls’ Day. It’s a crowded and complex dish that explores notions of smoothness and richness, and the next course, a relatively ascetic bowl of broth with soba noodles and a brunoise of many vegetables, is suitably admonitory.

But the best has been saved until last: seven little sushi gems, each more interesting and flavourful than any diamond, starring toro with a creamy emulsion of ginger and vinegar; lobster; scallop; uni; salmon roe as a crown for king crab meat; fatty toro stirred up with shavings of mountain potato; a laced-up bamboo leaf that opens to reveal a glazed fillet of freshwater eel. Kaji’s sushi are more relaxed and freeform than those of our other Japanese masters. He uses a different kind of wasabi than he does for his sashimi, and the soy sauce is, of course, a subtle and heavily ameliorated concoction that takes many days to prepare.

And then there was dessert and then another dessert and all the time beer and several sakes that progressed in complexity and refinement as the meal wound on. And then there was the long, contemplative ride home.

IN OTHER SUSHI NEWS Guy and Michael Rubino are about to embark on a bold new plan that just might put up a contender for Kaji’s crown. In Guy’s words, “Michael and I will be literally cutting Rain in half and opening a sushi/sashimi restaurant where the bar area currently exists. It will have its own entrance and own kitchen with a dividing wall from Rain. Rain will not lose any of its seating capacity, and the new project, tentatively called Ushi Oni, will seat approximately 50 people. The menu will have classic sushi and sashimi as well as some interpretive kaiseki. The design will be very organic and will have nuances of the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. We plan to open this in early summer (June), and I will oversee this new venture and obviously Rain as well. The name Ushi Oni is based on a crab-like monster from Japanese folklore that kills fishermen to protect the sea.” I can’t wait.