Sushi is one of the more polar cuisines in Toronto. One can opt for one of the hundreds of cheapish hole in the wall places which line the streets or Toronto or splurge on a handful of the more luxurious and expensive spots which are becoming more prevelant especially within the highly competitive downtown scene.
JaBistro has a mysterious store front highlighted by blackened windows and a picture of “An-Chan the footballfish” greeting you at the door. I wasn’t surprised to open it and find a pristine and well decorated sushi bar…brightly lit and accented with modern wooden panels. As expected, there is bar seating and a slew of tables lined up along the long but narrow confines. A little less expected was the hostess, who was warm and friendly and had a strong resemblance to Gwen Stefani. We were seated along the wall and quickly greeted by our waiter who startled me a bit as he appeared out of nowhere about an inch from my face. He provided a very nice explanation of the types of sake available which ranged from junmai to junmai ginjo to junmai daijingo (which reflect the degree the rice is polished resulting in different flavors and cleanliness). Since I was just finishing a conversation about scotch, the ryozeki yamahai ($36 for 10 oz), described as having a smoky flavour seemed the most appropriate.
I was told in advance to go for the tasting menu. With 24 hrs notice, they will set you up with some of the best sashimi and sushi they have to offer and were more than happy to accomodate the garlic and onion restriction of my guest. Four courses are offered for $77 which left me thinking this better be hella good.
Course one was an array of sashimi. Tuna cuts such as belly, roe, Japanese octopus, sweet shrimp, urchin and sea bream graced the plate. The sashimi was of excellent quality and variety and the presentation was extraordinary. Both a traditional and housemade soy sauce was offered, the latter a sweet escape from the traditional tang and saltiness of regular sauces.
Course one and a half was a lobster miso soup, complete with a large claw. The addition of a hunk of lobster meat is never a bad thing so it was rather delicious. The broth itself was delicate like spiderwebs, lacking the intense saltiness characteristic and fermented taste of the more generic soups served at other places. That said, some might argue that underneath it all the broth lacked the expected intensity resulting in something more bland than complex.
Course two was a fried hamachi cheek coupled with strips of tender angus beef. The cheek was an adventure, offering everything from crispy skin (although a bit crispier would have been better) to tender meat nestled between the jawbone. The beef was yummy, cooked to a perfect medium rare and seasoned nicely. The fact the two were served together was rather appealing as the contrasting tastes and textures made for an enjoyable course.
My interm review was “So far, so pleased”. The third course was a quintet of regular and blowtorched sushi including the one of the signature JaBistrolls. Personally, I would have enjoyed a few more rolls instead of the sushi but that said, like the sashimi, it was fresh and delicious.
The fourth course was dessert. . My one criticism of Japanese cuisine is the lacklustre desserts, so I was quite excited to experience the pastry chef’s daily choice, hoping for more than a couple of frozen grapes or an orange slice. A duo of vanilla ice cream (complete with corn flakes) and a panna cotta type dessert were offered, both odd choices for an early winter night. Sigh. Neither was memorable. In fact, my colleague did not even finish the panna cotta, citing an off taste she wasn’t fond of.
JaBistro entered the higher end sushi market a year ago to no doubt throw come competition at the likes of Blowfish and Ki. It has had a chance to settle down and become competitive. It offers a bright, clean and non-pretentious envioronment (although I had to chuckle when the guy beside me asked for soy sauce for one of the dishes and the waiter tried to politely tell him the dish was good the way it was). The sashimi and sushi was fresh and the variety was exciting. The hamachi cheek/angus beef combination was ingenous. Don’t speak of the dessert however. The service was prompt and courteous and the meal flowed well. The biggest question is whether the whole experience was worth the $77. When you add the 10 oz sake and a couple of $4 green teas, it’s a hefty bill. For that price, I’m hope at least Gwen would at least show up with the Harajuku girls.