Monday, 27 February 2012

An Epic Sushi Dinner

The open kitchen area of Sushi Kaji.
Even though our family celebrated my parents' anniversary with dinner at Allium back in Ottawa, my sister was thinking of truly celebrating their anniversary with a nice dinner in the Toronto area.  With her foodie connections she managed to find Sushi Kaji, a Japanese restaurant located in Etobicoke.  The location was not what I'd consider to be typical for a higher-end restaurant, located in a 1950-1960's era Toronto-suburban strip mall right on a 6-lane thoroughfare.  This place, however, was definitely a diamond in the rough.

Sushi Kaji is more unique of all the Japanese restaurants I'd visited to date as it serves exclusively omakase-style dinners.  "Omakase", or "I'll leave it to you," is an expression, and request, to have the chef present the diner(s) with his or her best shot in the form of a complete meal.  Good sushi restaurants will allow diners to order omakase if they so wish, and in return they offer dishes using the highest-quality ingredients available at the time.  The dishes offered aren't exclusively sushi, but omakase can be a gamble for those who aren't too open to trying a wide variety of foods.  At first my sister and I were slightly concerned about Dad, but after seeing him comfortably enjoy some sushi and even sashimi back at Wasabi on Broadway, and since Sushi Kaji also offers cooked dishes, we felt comfortable enough to take our parents to this place for dinner.

On that particular evening Sushi Kaji offered just two omakase options: Waza, at $100 with seven courses; and Takumi, at $120 with eight courses.  Both options shared two courses, the Sashimi course and the Sushi and Noodle course.  My sister and mother each ordered Waza, while my father and I each ordered Takumi, ensuring we all got to sample the various dishes.
Waza's first course: Bamboo Shoot Tofu.
First to arrive at our table were the ladies' first course, Bamboo Shoot Tofu.  Served in a warm, almost gelatinous broth, the tofu was mixed with various ingredients and had a firm texture.  This was a light yet flavourful dish.
Takumi's first course: Osechi-ryori.
The first course for me and my father, Osechi-ryori, immediately followed.  With New Year having recently passed, the restaurant opted to make some Japanese New Year treats that are traditionally placed in stacked partitioned boxes, and each of the treats are symbolic in their appearances and/or their homophones.  Here, seven food items were offered in three sections.
Fish cakes and dried fish in Osechi-ryori.
In the left third of the dish were three different items.  Two of them were fish cakes of some sort, one of which clearly included a whole shrimp.  They were both chewy, and while the shrimp one was somewhat savoury, the yellow one behind it was actually mildly sweet.  Nestled beside the fish cakes were some dried small fish cooked in soy sauce, which provided a crispy and definitely more savoury counterpoint to the fish cakes.
Pickled carrot and daikon as well as black soybeans in Osechi-ryori.
In the middle third of the dish were two items.  Nestled in the hollowed kumquat was Kohaku-namasu, thin carrot and daikon strips pickled in sweetened, yuzu-flavoured vinegar, and in front of the kumquat was Kuro-mame, or black soybeans.  I really enjoyed the Kohaku-namasu, and the pickling was mild and refreshing.  The two black soybeans were artistically presented, skewered on pine needles to look like some form of berries.  The soybeans were mildly savoury, and they were initially firm to the bite and slightly starchy in texture.
Konbu and egg roulade pieces in Osechi-ryori.
In the right third of the dish were two other items.  Tied in a knot was Konbu, a type of seaweed.  It was very firm and mildly sweet.  Resting beneath the konbu were two pieces of egg roulade, which I suspect were Sushi Kaji's interpretation of Nishiki Tamago.  I'm still not sure as to how the darker roulade was coloured, but in any case, both pieces were stuffed with seafood and vegetables.  All the items in Osechi-ryori were served at room temperature, and I found all of them quite enjoyable.
Takumi's second course: Simmered Bamboo Shoot with Kinome Sauce.
A close-up of Simmered Bamboo Shoot with Kinome Sauce.
The next course to arrive was the second for me and Dad, Simmered Bamboo Shoot with Kinome Sauce.  Pieces of bamboo shoot, shiitake and chicken were artistically served in a bamboo shoot casing.  All the edible items were tender and had flavour infused throughout.  The kinome sauce added a refreshing "green" counterpoint to the bamboo, shiitake and chicken in terms of colour and flavour.
Waza's second course: Simmered Duck with Winter Melon.
The ladies' second course was Simmered Duck with Winter Melon.  I only heard praise from the ladies as they dined on this dish.
Takumi and Waza's third course: Sashimi.
The third course was the first common course, a selection of sashimi.  The sashimi pieces were arranged with the flavours becoming more intense as one ate from left to right.  Five types of fish and seafood were presented: salmon, hamachi (yellowtail), lobster, octopus and tuna.
Sashimi (L to R): salmon, hamachi (yellowtail), lobster, octopus and tuna.
The lobster was parboiled, and the octopus was cooked, while the fish were served raw.  All of the pieces tasted delightful, and the dish was artfully presented with lobster tail and antenna, shiso leaf and shredded daikon and radish.
Waza's fourth course: Steamed White Fish and Chestnuts.
The fourth course for my mother and sister was Steamed White Fish and Chestnuts.  I managed to try a nibble and appreciated how the chestnut pieces were mixed with the fish, creating contrasting textures and complementary flavours.
Takumi's fourth course: Jyoyomushi - steamed crab and white fish.
My father and I then received our fourth course, Jyoyomushi.  Made with steamed crab and white fish, it was similar to Steamed White Fish and Chestnuts in that it was served in a sauce or broth.  The jyoyomushi had some chewiness reminiscent of fish balls or fish cakes, but it didn't feel as dense and its texture was lighter.  The meat also had a subtle sweet undertone countering the savoury flavour of the meat and the broth.  I also enjoyed this dish a lot.
Takumi's fifth course: Deep-Fried Shrimp Cake.
A close-up of Deep-Fried Shrimp Cake.
As the Takumi meal had one extra dish compared to Waza, only my father and I was served the next dish while my mother and sister had a timeout.  Our fifth dish was Deep-Fried Shrimp Cake; two shrimp cake balls were served with a mild pepper stuffed with shrimp cake.  The shrimp cake balls, coated in some shredded starchy vegetable (I wasn't certain if it was potato or taro), had only a hint of crispiness on the outside, but the flavouring was alright, and I could tell from the taste of the fish cakes that this restaurant didn't skimp on the use of shrimp.
Waza's fifth course: Simmered Scorpion Fish.
A closer look at Simmered Scorpion Fish.
After that the ladies had their next dish, Simmered Scorpion Fish.  Scorpion fish may be ugly, but they apparently still have a delicate texture and flavour.  Served with bamboo shoots and baby choy sum, the ladies definitely enjoyed this dish.
Takumi's sixth course: Grilled Black Cod and Shrimp.
As for the gentlemen's next dish, it was Grilled Black Cod and Shrimp.  I fell in love with black cod and its close relatives ever since I had Murray cod in Sydney.  Black cod has moist flesh that flakes easily and has that melt-in-your mouth texture.  I definitely enjoyed the black cod more than the shrimp, though, mainly because the shrimp was not shelled.  Though that ensured the shrimp better retained its flavour, it made eating it a bit more cumbersome as the shell clung onto the meat inside the shrimp fairly strongly.  I did enjoy the sliced lotus root and dried apricot respectively providing a crunchy and sweet foil to the black cod and shrimp.
Homemade udon noodles in broth.
Next up for all of us was our second common course, Sushi and Udon.  The udon was homemade, and the noodles were considerably thinner than I expected.  Nonetheless it was delicious overall.  The noodles were slightly softer than al dente, and the broth was refreshing before we started tackling the sushi.  Sushi... it was the key part of this restaurant's meals, and it was the part of the meal where the restaurant spoiled us silly!  After seeing how many varieties of sushi we were offered, I instantly was thankful that the previous courses I had eaten were served in small portions.
Cooked eel sushi.
Close-up of cooked eel sushi.
The first sushi to arrive was cooked eel, made in nigiri (hand-formed) form like most of the sushi served that evening..  Drizzled with a sauce reminiscent of terriyaki, this was definitely a pleasant start to the sushi flight.
Semi-fatty tuna sushi.
Close-up of semi-fatty tuna sushi.
Next to arrive was semi-fatty tuna.  I unfortunately didn't remember which type of tuna was used here, but it was definitely one of the more flavourful sushi experienced that evening as tuna fat melts at human body temperature, allowing the flavour to spread throughout one's mouth.
Cooked shrimp sushi.
Close-up of shrimp sushi; note the sprinkle of yuzu-flavoured pepper on the shrimp.
Next was cooked shrimp.  The shrimp were given a sprinkle of yuzu-flavoured pepper, adding a subtly zingy dimension to this sushi.
Salmon sushi (middle) and yellowfin tuna sushi (bottom).
Close-up of yellowfin tuna sushi.
Close-up of salmon sushi.
We were then handed another helping of tuna, this time a leaner cut of yellowfin tuna, as well as salmon.  I definitely appreciated how this restaurant added some salmon roe on top of each piece of salmon.
Miniature sushi served three ways for each person.  L to R: uni, lobster, and chopped tuna.
Close-up of uni miniature sushi.
Close-up of lobster miniature sushi.
Close-up of chopped tuna miniature sushi.
Next to arrive were individual serving plates of three miniature pieces of sushi.  These were definitely more artistically presented compared to the nigiri sushi pieces.  The uni was alright, but it still wasn't as sweet as the one I've had at Japango Sushi and Noodle during a previous winter with my sister.  The lobster was a delightful biteful, and the chopped tuna was smooth and tasty.
Scallop sushi (middle).
Close-up of scallop sushi, with each scallop treated with yuzu-flavoured pepper and olive oil.
The last plate of sushi we got was scallop.  Served raw, the scallop sushi was given a sprinkle of yuzu-flavoured pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.  The olive oil was added sparingly, ensuring that it didn't overpower the mild sweetness of the scallop.  It took us quite a while for us to finish all the pieces of sushi, but it was certainly worth the time and effort to take this particular culinary journey.  I honestly was unable to pick a specific favourite, but, partly due to their more unique preparation compared to the sushi I've had so far in my liftetime, I would place the lobster mini-sushi, the chopped tuna mini-sushi and the scallop sushi as my top three choices of the evening.
Takumi's dessert: pear granita with green tea macaron.
At last, it was time for dessert.  My father and I were served pear granita with a green tea macaron.  The granita had a gentle level of sweetness and tasted quite refreshing.  I also loved that green tea macaron, though it was comparatively sweeter than the granita, resulting in my unable to savour the granita as much immediately after I nibbled on the macaron.
Waza's dessert: almond tofu and chopped fruit with yuzu macaron.
For dessert, my mother and sister had almond tofu and chopped fruit with a yuzu macaron.  They also found their dessert refreshing, and the almond tofu served here definitely had a different texture than the Chinese version.  I managed to get a nibble of the yuzu macaron, and it was about as sweet as the green tea macaron but with the wonderful additional distinct sourness of yuzu.

Sushi Kaji was definitely one of the most mind-blowing sushi-dining experiences I've had to date, and overall I was very impressed with what I was offered that evening.  Dining at Sushi Kaji was not just about enjoying a meal, it was about taking a journey led by the chef, and this journey was eye-opening, delicious, and truly a path through a culinary art form.  Reservations are highly recommended for this place, and this restaurant is open only for dinner.

Name: Sushi Kaji
Address: 860 The Queensway, Toronto, ON
Cuisine: Japanese
Price Range: $80-$120
Accessible: No

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