Friday, August 16, 2013

Sushi Kaji Tasting Menu

Based solely on location and appearance, you would not peg Sushi Kaji to be a fine dining establishment, boasting some of the best Japanese food in Toronto.   Nestled in southern Etobicoke, in midst of an inauspicious set of low-rise storefronts on the Queensway between Islington Ave and Royal York Road, you can even find free parking after 6pm right in front of the restaurant - no valet parking here!  The interior does not seem much different from any other sushi joint, except for the large wrap-around chef's counter where you can choose to sit and observe the sushi masters at work.  The piped-in muzak playing a cheesy Gypsy King version of "I Will Survive" didn't do much to change first impressions.

But once you try the food, you will know that you are in for something special.  Sushi Kaji has no a la carte menu, but offers two omakase (chef's choice) tasting menus, priced at $120 or $150.  We have eaten there twice in the past five years, each time to celebrate our wedding anniversary.  Both times, we chose the higher priced menu which offered much better selections, since once you are up at those price points, you might as well go for broke.

Rich ordered a cup of sake, which was served in a most interesting fashion.  The sake was poured into a large ceramic "shot glass" sitting in a square ceramic saucer.  The waitress poured the sake right up to the brim (at which point I thought whoa... it's going to overflow), and then continued to pour so that excess sake fell into the saucer.  It took a few seconds to realize she was doing this on purpose.  Apparently this is meant to symbolize wealth (overflowing riches).  Now the trick was how to drink from this without spilling it all ...

The tasting menu started with three delicious appetizers including a battered fish cake with shredded snow peas sitting on top of a daikon radish, Japanese eggplant with a chicken miso sauce, and my favourite–a sweet asparagus soup made with kuzu sauce and a crispy asparagus cake.  At least, that is what I think we ate, since it was very difficult to discern what was being said by the heavily Japanese-accented waitresses.

The sashimi course contained the freshest, tenderest cuts of fish and seafood including Spanish mackerel, red tuna, octopus, sea bream, and hirame (Japanese sole).  There was also shredded white carrot, seaweed and cucumber that was to be dipped in a special sesame sauce.

The most beautifully plated dish consisted of a slab of seared black cod, lotus root slices stuffed with sharp tasting mustard seeds, and a slice of corn on the cob which was hollowed and stuffed with a shrimp/crab mixture.  Brightly coloured edible flowers and dabs of sweet hoisin-like sauce completed the the artistic creation.

The main course was not only tasty but also a unique dining experience.  A personal Hibachi burner was placed in front of each of us and then a pot full of udon noodles, greens, enoki mushroom and slices of raw wagyu beef was set on top of it.  Once the burner was turned on, the soupy sukiyaki dish quickly came to a bubbling boil and we were given instructions to allow the beef to cook until about 80% done.  A bowl containing a soft-poached egg was placed beside the burner.  We were told to stir the egg into a sauce and use it as a dip for the noodle dish.  The result was bursting with flavour and I only wished we were given a spoon so we could drink the broth at the end.

By the time the exotic sushi course came, I was already nearly full, but soldiered on.  The pieces of nigiri seemed never ending as we were presented with seared scallop, tuna tartar, hirame with plum sauce, fried abalone, as well as the more traditional red and white tuna and shrimp.  It was interesting that we didn't seem to get any salmon in any of the courses.  I guess this was considered too commonplace and uninteresting for the chef.

The meal finally ended with a bowl of cold somen noodles with ginger and green onion, followed by a different dessert for each of us.  I received a green tea creme brulee, while Rich got a fruit salad with jello squares and a blob of red bean paste (yuck!).  Neither desserts were quite my cup of tea (where was the chocolate??) but since Rich loves creme brulee, we switched.  I made him eat the red bean paste, but enjoyed the fruit salad which had strawberries, watermelon, pineapple, blueberries and honey dew.

All the staff including the host, waitresses and chefs seemed to be Japanese.  The one conspicuous exception was the white apprentice chef, who spent the first part of the evening merely observing the others.  But by the end of the night, he was taking part in creating the sushi and sashimi dishes.  It was fun watching the sushi master, who was so graceful that his hands seemed to be doing a dance or tai chi movies, as he scooped the rice and the fish and joined them together.

Sushi Kaji
860 The Queensway,  (416) 252-2166

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