It’s clean – from the lines of the Bennett Lo (Dialogue 38) designed space to the exquisite cuts of fish that slide off the single bevel blade of chef Koji Tashiro’s knife; a true sushi master at work. It’s the dream of restaurateur James HyunSoo Kim, who brought the Guu-dness to Toronto. It’s in the details: the subtleties in presentation and amicable presence of the waitstaff, the pale brick behind the bar to the slivered bamboo walls opposite, the slate serving platters, the house infused sake and soju…
It is, of course, JaBistro.
We sidled up to the long, stone sushi bar so we could watch the wizards at work. A new sushi chef had joined the ranks from Japan a mere four days ago. His English was sparse, but good food transcends all language barriers.
There’s been growing online debate about the humane nature of extracting sashimi from a live lobster. Good thing lobsters aren’t human, says I. The centrepiece of the exquisitely arranged sashimi platter ($50 or $100 + $25 for lobster) was the near translucent bits of lobster meat. Straight from the tail that was wiggling but a minute before, the mild flavour was perfect with a bit of lemon and salt.
The rest of the offerings were not to be overshadowed and consisted of some of the freshest and most incredible fish I’d ever tasted – this includes my time in Asian markets picking live fish out of the tank for sashimi-on-the-spot. Salmon, Bluefin tuna and toro (tuna belly) of the highest calibre; uni resting on rounds of ankimo (monkfish liver), the foie gras of the fish family; sea bream and Australian ocean trout, the specials of the night…
All of this was served alongside two types of soy sauce: house made Nikiri-shoyu (“soy sauce that is simmered down”) with slight sweetness and rich umami flavour perfect for whitefishes, and a traditional Japanese soy sauce with a saltier edge, to be paired with redfish. The details.
Each new day at JaBistro brings a new snack ($8). Today, a grilled cheek of Australian ocean trout with creamed spinach puree and pickled ginger. It was a pretty contrast of colours, but the dish didn’t need the spinach. The fish was so smooth and soft in itself, so perfectly seasoned, so rich from the fat around the bones that it truthfully didn’t need anything. (More fish, maybe.) With that in mind, the pickled ginger added a great textural contrast and helped cleanse the palate after each bite.
Aburi is starting to pop up at more and more high-end sushi and izakaya establishments in the city – this makes me happy. Quick blasts from a blowtorch transform otherwise ordinary (in the traditional sense of the word) nigiri into little bites of varying complexity. I wasn’t sure what all the toppings were, but I was so distracted by “mmm’s” of amazement that I doubt I would have heard what our waitress was telling us. Bluefin tuna, sea bream, amber jack and tamagoyaki… epic!
Also on the 7-piece sampler ($27) were types of oshizushi – tightly pressed rectangular pieces of nigiri that seem to smash the flavour of the fish into the dense rice-pack below. Salmon belly to die for, a magical piece of mackerel, and prawn that my friend described as “the best piece of shrimp I’ve ever tasted!” Over exaggerated? I’d splurge for it again.
I didn’t identify with my disappointment until it stared me in the face – where had my lobster claws gone? Claws are not fit for sashimi. The meat stays in a near liquid form until cooked, so my guess was that the claws were not coming back. Surprise – soup’s on! One taste of the sweet, rich, warm lobster broth, a bite of the tender meat, and my malcontent vanished as quickly as it had become apparent. This was the final touch, and a fitting finale.
Before leaving I asked chef Koji how working in Toronto differs from his time at Miku in Vancouver or the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. “People of Toronto know how to enjoy ‘food’. Dining out is part of their lives; they are open to try new things. They do not hesitate to share opinions, give us feedback – either what they really liked or not. This is very important to keep satisfying their palates.”
Whether by virtue of his own palate or the palliated opinions of his diners, chef Koji and the JaBistro team are doing everything right to satisfy, at the very least, mine…