Table Talk: Joanne Kates reviews JaBistro


JaBistro chef Koji Tashiro prepares torched sushi, known as ‘aburi’ (Image: Cheol Joon Baek)

My sushi fatigue is so much better now. Sushi fatigue is when it all tastes the same and nothing much jumps out, flavour-wise. It’s when raw salmon and tuna start feeling boring. The thrill was gone.

And now it’s back! JaBistro is new, and save for the crazy expensive places, it’s the best Japanese resto in Toronto. Forget sushi fatigue, these people have rescued raw fish from the doldrums.

Much of the sushi is in the aburi style of blow-torched sushi and the oshizushi style of pressed sushi. Aburi means very lightly blow-torched fish, and oshizushi is sushi that’s been pressed into a rectilinear plastic mold to compress it slightly.

They re-fold your napkin when you go to the washroom. They tell you — in marvellous detail — the lineage of the various sakes and why the Akita sake, served in splendid tiny glass cups, tastes so fruity and clean.

The tables are stylin’ brown leather and they serve sushi on slabs of slate. Service this good recalls the days of brocade tablecloths.

Oshizushi, the splendid server tells us, is one of the original types of sushi, from when travellers pressed rice and fish into small wooden molds for transport. Today the molds are plastic and the motivation gastronomic rather than convenient. Pressing the sushi ever so slightly — and briefly — renders it somewhat denser and hence its flavours are more intense, oh joy!

The pressed, cured mackerel sushi is heaven on a rice cube: impeccably fresh, ungreasy mackerel, lightly cured with delicate sauce and topped with either a dab of daikon miso or fried onion threads. Best mackerel ever!

Aburi, torched sushi, has never turned my crank. But chef Koji Tashiro, who learned to cut fish at the fabulous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, adds a little (secret) sauce to the fish, torches it to seal the sauce, and the fish becomes so tender it’s creamy, its savour enhanced by warming. The graceful little dabs of topping on the mackerel reappear on sashimi, which looks like a grand floral bouquet on a long slate platter. Curls of daikon, batons of cucumber and shavings of carrot decorate the freshest possible fish garnished with little dabs of delights like daikon purée scented with dried fish.

The house special JaBistroll is uni, real crab and salmon rolled in rice studded with crunchy flying fish roe in sauce that’s a cross between hollandaise and light mayo. As if that were not enough, Ja has a good dessert (not so common in Japanese restaurants): matcha puff, green tea–inflected choux pastry layers filled with creamed custard scented with sesame. Fabulous!

Ja’s owner is James Hyunsoo Kim, who brought Vancouver’s Guu to Toronto, and more recently Kinton Ramen. This is the guy who is rescuing Toronto from tasteless sushi.

JaBistro, 222 Richmond St. W., $130 Dinner for two

Joanne Kates trained at the Ecole Cordon Bleu de Cuisine in Paris. She has written articles for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Maclean’s and Chatelaine, and she was the Globe and Mail’s restaurant critic for 38 years.

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