Chef & Me: turning Japanese (I really think so) at Ematei
Chef is something of a purist when it comes to cuisine. Or so he likes to say when not searing sushi rice patties and reducing coconut milk with karffir lime, star anise, lemon grass and other pan-Asian ingredients for our traditional Sunday roast chicken dinner. Japanese is one of his favourite foods — something we share. And, in the spirit of sharing, I decided, after frequent visits to Guu Izakya with Chef and his friends, to suggest we try a new spot — simply for variety’s sake.
I mention Ematei hoping to sway Chef by telling him that it is the only Japanese restaurant my father (otherwise known as the Mussolini of sashmi) will go to in Toronto. By the 12th mention of the restaurant, I have resigned to my station in Chef's mental kitchen as “the mop girl.” I think of my ranking in terms of the hierarchy traditional sushi chef training dictates, with me as the apprentice; if I show some worth, I can move up to the ranks of pot washer and then onto fanning the rice. I should note that it takes several years to progress to wakiita (the honourable position of standing beside the master, rather than learning from afar).
Chef's friend Luca Stracquadanio, the executive chef at La Bettola di Terroni, on the other hand, had only to say he liked the natsuden gaku (a miso eggplant dish) at Ematei for it to be designated a must-visit. I like to think it was the dexterity/finesse with which Luca handled the udon at Guu. How I long to be a wakiita.
In comparison to Guu, Ematei is a virtual abbey. When we arrive around 9 on a Wednesday night, the restaurant is still and austere; exactly how it has been since I first started going with my family nearly 10 years ago. The core clientele here is a mix of hyper-hip Tokyo 20-somethings and straight-faced Japanese businessmen. We sit down and Chef immediately begins checking off the items that Luca has suggested; miso eggplant is at the top of that list. He then goes on to select a few items from the yakitori portion of the menu. I point to the chawanmushi, my father’s favourite, and what he considers to be the make or break of a traditional izakya. Chef reads the description and shrugs, “sure, whatever you want.” I want to suggest two orders, as each is the size of a bowl from a pre-schooler’s kitchen play set, but something in his indifference tells me he has cold feet about its description as a steamed egg custard with seafood.
The yakitori arrives first. I'm looking forward to this one. I eat a lot of these tasty little skewers while in L.A. for work or when visiting my brother in New York, and I crave them regularly. The yakitori menu on offer here is limited, and not the highlight of the overall menu, but the chicken hearts and beef short ribs we order are delicious. For Chef, it’s all in the quality of meat and the optimal smokey flavour infused from the grill. A bit of a chicken skin fanatic, Chef isn’t ecstatic about the soft state of the chicken skin yakitori. The reason, according to Chef, is that the fat needed to render on low heat before finishing on high to build the crisp texture ideal for this dish.
The eggplant with miso appetizer arrives and thrills just as Luca had promised. Chef is quiet as he contemplates the restraint practiced in the making of this dish. He wants to absorb the simplicity of the two key ingredients — the perfection of the tender eggplant, with its retention of its raw bitterness, matched with the sweetness of the sticky miso.
The chawanmushi provides another lesson in restraint. Despite Chef's refusal to trust my word (typical) regarding this one, it arrives and is quickly inducted into Chef's top ten list. He is impressed as he examines what he thinks might be fresh yuzu (which he has never seen in a Toronto restaurant before), and not the usual yuzu juice used in kitchens. He admits that his hesitation to order the dish was due in large part to my description of it as a warm custard with bits of seafood steamed inside of it. Apparently, foie gras brulee and lobster custards were all the rage a few years ago; Chef didn't join the wave — he went the opposite way — hence his doubt. But, to my own satisfaction, the chawanmushi proves to be anything but the rich custard he was expecting. He hungrily studies the light dish, in awe of its varied flavour and texture from bite to bite, owing to yuzu zest and chunks of seafood, including succulent scallops and shrimp.
The experience was such that chef and I went back to the restaurant for lunch less than a week after our first visit. That day, we went with chawanmushi on our minds but ended up sharing a well-portioned bowl of the Nabeyaki udon, chosen for the similarity in ingredients (shrimp, scallops, chicken) to Chef's new favourite Japanese small bite. He directs whiffs of the aroma steaming from the noodles to his nose, pokes around the contents of the bowl and finally tastes. In a bit of an upset to anyone who knows Chef, he breaks away from his culinary respect for chef David Chang and declares that the broth — an ideal balance of acidity and umami— surpasses that featured in even Momofuku's famed ramen.
Given that Chef has taken to describing Ematei as Guu (still amongst his faves) on steroids to industry friends, I feel safe in assuming that I am one step further from the mop and one leap closer to Chef's chopping board. For now, this aspiring wakiita is on pot washing duty.
Ematei, 30 Saint Patrick Street, 416-340-0472
Toronto-based writer Jennifer Lee is the Editorial Director of FILLER magazine, an online fashion & culture journal. She is also the Co-Editor of Hardly magazine, an arts-centric online teen publication for Canadian girls. Her column, Chef & Me, appears weekly.