The just-opened JaBistro is a tip-top Japanese restaurant from the owner of Guu.
In Toronto’s Japanese restaurants, rice doesn’t get much love: It’s often carelessly steamed, chilled, and used to bind overly complicated maki rolls. Koji Tashiro, however, takes his rice seriously. The chef stirs it with a small paddle in a flat-bottomed wooden tub called a hangiri-dai, seasons it with sugar, salt, and sushi vinegar, and then cools it to room temperature. This is no ordinary sushi rice, but JaBistro isn’t an ordinary sushi joint either.
Four years ago, James Kim, JaBistro’s owner and the man behind Guu and Kinton Ramen, met Tashiro when the chef was working at Vancouver’s much-lauded Miku restaurant. They exchanged business cards and talked of working together in the future. Two years later, Tashiro, then butchering seafood in Tokyo at the Tsukiji Fish Market, expressed interest in moving to Toronto. Kim brought him over and posted him at Guu. JaBistro, which opened last month, is the result of that chance meeting at Miku. “There are a lot of sushi restaurants in Toronto that are cheap and great for quantity, but I wanted to open something similar to what you could find in Vancouver or Japan,” says Kim.
The restaurant’s menu is divided into two sections: traditional Japanese cuisine (like sushi and sashimi), and contemporary fusion dishes, like a Caesar salad with spinach leaves, deep fried prawns, and miso–sweet chili dressing or a salmon pie with a mushroom and oyster sauce in puff pastry. You won’t find spicy-dragon or California rolls here. Tashiro’s fish is first-rate—sea bream from New Zealand, skipjack tuna from Japan, and bluefin tuna from Spain—and it gets its due in nigiri-style sushi.
“Sushi is a very old food,” says Tashiro. “I’m trying to respect traditions, but also create new things.” He dresses thin slices of Japanese amberjack (a mild whitefish) with lemon and sea salt—the chef likens it to a Mediterranean carpaccio. The menu includes oshizushi—an old-school dish made by moulding rice and fish into small rectangular boxes—but Toshiro also wields a blowtorch to char Atlantic salmon and cured mackerel. Prices are slightly higher than at many of the city’s sushi restaurants (assorted platters are around $30 and hot plates from $9 to $26).
Tashiro incorporates North American elements in smart ways. The demi katsu, for example, are thick finger sandwiches made with a breaded pork cutlet, seasoned with a sweet demi-glace and a salty miso-mirin sauce. They come with a side of creamy burdock-root soup on a plate lined with black-and-white checkered paper. The dish deftly plays with perceptions: It looks like diner food, but the flavours are refined and distinctly Asian.
Decked out in exposed brick and natural wood, the dining room is clean, casual, and more polished (not to mention quieter) than Guu’s. Sitting at the sushi bar and watching Tashiro work is a unique experience. The chef, acting equal parts sushi master and waiter, slices Australian ocean trout as thin as a credit card and grates fresh wasabi root while chatting with diners about his ingredients. He quickly forms individual balls of rice and fish, seasons the rolls with a brush of sweet soy sauce, and places the creation on stone slabs in front of each diner, one at a time, creating a succession of different tastes and textures. He asks a young couple if they’re game to try raw sea urchin, and smiles when they agree without hesitation. “No challenge, no success,” he says, before adding a gentle sprinkle of sea salt and a squeeze of lime to make for a scrumptious little bite.
222 Richmond St. W., 647-748-0222, jabistro.com.