A Case of Deja Yuzu Involving Sake and Slot Machines

I was in the mood for sushi so I opened up my Zomato app in downtown Toronto. Not surprisingly, a 100 places popped up (including a place I think was called 100 sushi). I was quickly grouping them into a number of categories:

  1. Cheap, no frills places where a California roll runs you $4 and you’re lucky if you find anything fancier than a dynamite roll on the menu.
  2. All you can eat joints where quantity usually beats quality for at least $25.
  3. Omakase, where you hope the chef gives you all you can eat for a good chunk of change.
  4. Moderately priced destinations boasting nice decors, signature rolls and even some uni if it’s in season.
  5. Places were sushi is an afterthought among a number of other bite size delights such as izakaya.
  6. Super expensive (ie. access to expense account, trying to impressive your friends or hoping to get laid) locales.

Before becoming zomato, urbanspoon used to have an app which looked like a slot machine.  You’d identify an area, type of food and price range and voila…it would spit out an option.  It was a brainless and chancy endevour but I kind of miss it, especially considering it now required me to actually ponder my options.

I quickly omitted option one since I have an expense report and my son, whose sushi diet consists solely of California rolls, wasn’t with me.  I also omitted six because my expense account isn’t that big, I was alone and not looking to hook up. Two was off the table because it’s January and my Christmas girth was telling me all you can eat was not on option.  Three would take too long and when your primary objective is sushi five just doesn’t cut it.  This left option three which I further narrowed down to Yuzunohana, the relative longstanding Adelaide street favorite.

At first the service was steallar. It was a chilly and I was quickly offered some green tea as I was seated at the sushi counter.  As I peered over the menu, I was offered a spinach amuse  bouche which was quite fresh and delicate.  I decided on a few of the chef’s sashimi choices including King Salmon and an order of uni.  Both came quickly and were ridiculously fresh and beautifully presented.  I was reminded once again why uni is one of the most unique foods around.  It was silky and naughty.

I also went with my sushi standards; miso soup, gyoza and spicy tuna rolls along with their house specialty yuzu roll . The dumplings were some of the best I’ve had in Toronto. The miso was spot on as well.  The rolls were acceptable but average.  I was a bit disappointed about both the taste and appearance of the spicy rolls.  The yuzu rolls (which was topped with torched salmon and scallop) were nicely presented but were overly sweet for my liking.  With my tea long gone  and my dishes empty, I did need to wait a bit for the bill which seemed to correspond with the surge of online orders from  uber eats, foodie, hurrier and whatever other food delivery services that might exist.  The ground zero of assembly was right beside me and the paper bags were flying out the door as  I was ignored just a little bit.

My Take

As I was sitting there, I had a little deja yuzu.  I’m not sure how long Yuzu No Hana has been around, but I swear I went here with a buddy in the 90s. Throughout the night I felt like the Flash or another tv character who has frequent recollections of past events. I recall we were smashed and decided we were going to drop in for a quick sake. I remember being told that they weren’t a bar and that we needed to get food in order to have a drink.

Although I wasn’t overly thrilled by the sushi rolls the gyoza, sashimi and miso soup were excellent. All in all I enjoyed the experience and it met the aforementioned criteria for a mid-range sushi joint even without the help of the urbanspoon slot machine.

Yuzu No Hana Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Playing Hooky at Japango

When I’m at a week long conference, I take the opportunity to skip out for lunch.  I mean, the daily monotony of chafing dish chicken masked with corn and called Mexican or olives and called Greek gets a bit much.  The icing on the cake is when the next day’s soup looks surprisingly like what was on the buffet table the day before. So, when a colleague suggested we play hooky, I jumped on the opportunity to head out of the hotel for a quick bite.

I hadn’t been here for about 10 years.  The last time I went the team I was on had the whole restaurant booked (which isn’t hard to do since the place only holds 20 people or so). I remember my manager, who is one of the whitest people I have ever met (he was kindly referred to as a bag of milk at the beach once), telling us all to meet at “Jap ‘n Go” at 630 for dinner.  Since then, I haven’t had a chance to get back.  This time, we didn’t have a reservation but arrived before noon so we were able to get promptly squeezed into the corner.

The service was quick.  We ordered a mish-mash of sashimi and sushi rolls.  First to arrive was the typical bowl of miso soup.

Miso Soup
                                                                            Miso Soup

Next to arrive was the famous Japango roll ($13) and crunchy spicy tuna roll ($9).  The former signature roll is a California roll with torched salmon and scallop on top.  The fish was noticeably fresh and the mix of sweet and heat plus the slight char of the delicate scallop and fat of the salmon was a delightful mouthful.  The crunchy roll exuded the same freshness but the heat was a little lacking.

Japango Roll ($13) and Crunchy Spicy Tuna Roll ($9)
                                             Japango Roll ($13) and Crunchy Spicy Tuna Roll ($9)

The sashimi 2 platter ($25) arrived shortly after served with a bowl of rice.  It was a diverse mix of the standards including salmon and tuna and some pleasant surprises including some sort of seared whitefish (I’m not going to pretend I know but it had the taste and texture of halibut . Once again, the freshness was evident and the presentation was simple but impressive, although it was a little tight at the table.

Sashimi 2 $25
                                  Sashimi 2 $25

The final arrival was the dragon roll ($12) which is shrimp topped with eel and avocado. Once again, fresh was the word. The avocado was nicely ripened and the eel was umamic bliss.

Dragon Roll $12
                                Dragon Roll $12

My Take

Japango has all the makings of a great hooky destination.  You can sneak in between class, have a decent lunch and get back in less than 45 minutes.  While there, you are treated to fresh sushi with friendly and efficient service in small, modest quarters all at a price that I would deem “reasonable”.  When I mentioned “hooky” to my daughter, she shook her head and told me to “urban dictionary it fam”. I answered I use urbanspoon, not urban dictionary.  She rolled her eyes.  I guess in her eyes I’m as lame as someone who calls it “Jap ‘n Go”. At least we both like sushi.

Japango on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Entertainment District:JaBistro

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.

First Course- Sashimi
First Course- Sashimi

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.

Lobster Miso Soup
Lobster Miso Soup

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.

Course 2- Hamachi Cheek  and Angus Beef
Course 2- Hamachi Cheek and Angus Beef

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.

Thrid Course- Sushi Platter
Third Course- Sushi Platter

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.

Course 4- Dessert
Course 4- Dessert

My Take

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.

JaBistro on Urbanspoon

Review:Vancouver:Fairview:Tojo’s

Tojo’s often comes to mind first when one considers fine Japanese cuisine in Vancouver.  Not your hole-in-the-wall sushi joint, Tojo’s focuses on high end sushi at high end prices. Some  hardcore sushi traditionalists call it overrated while others have appointed it the gold standard of Japanese cuisine.  On a recent trip, I went with a large (and rather excited) group to indulge on the famed omakase tasting menu.  The premise of this menu is to offer the freshest ingredients to be served hot and cold in 5 or more courses, preferably with copious amounts of sake and/or Sapporo,  starting at $80.

Must

The sablefish was by far the best course served throughout the evening.  A generous portion of this naturally sweet and buttery fish  was perfectly cooked and  balanced with a slightly tart and salty glaze which graced  the entire tongue to wonderful flavours .  The bed  of slivered, well seasoned vegetables added both texture and colour to complete this well-rounded mid-omakase dish.

Tojo's Sablefish
Tojo’s Sablefish

Maybe

Both the sashimi and sushi platters were “cute”; the former garnished with a fish head, wasabi purses and very Canadian maple leaves.  The latter had a number of delicate rolls  presented nicely beside a cooked lobster shell. The sashimi was fresh and expertly cut so there wasn’t a lot to complain about. The variety of sushi was innovative and  impressive, highlighted by generous amounts of fresh fish topping most of the options.  Despite the server raving  about the signature golden roll (see far right of sushi platter),  I found it the weakest of the offerings despite the fact I’m a huge fan of eggs in any way, shape, form and species.

Sashimi Platter
Sashimi Platter
Sushi Platter
Sushi Platter

Mundane

The tempura vegetables were very average and didn’t add a lot to the overall experience.  Perhaps the hype around the omakaze experience heightened my expectations beyond a greasy, battered sweet potato I could make at home.

Tempura Vegetables
Tempura Vegetables

One of the important aspects of a tasting menu is the need to keep it flowing. Long gaps between courses can disrupt the flow of a good meal and there were some disruptions during the rather long service which was a bit aggravating  considering the restaurant was at about 50% to capacity.

My Take

Every big city has a shortlist of “must see” eateries that every tourist and foodie alike flock to in search of the ultimate dining experience.  Tojo’s fits the bill..but the bill may not fit you.  It was an expensive and lengthy venture into a rich history of West Coast cuisine highlighted by fresh, local fare including hearty sushi rolls and delicious Canadian sablefish prepared by the  iconic Hidekazu Tojo. I was hoping he would come and chat a little, especially since the restaurant was not to capacity and we probably dropped over $1200 on the final bill. Anybody who knows or reads me knows how much I relish speaking to “celebrity chefs” and  to be honest, I was hoping for  a brief discussion instead of listening to him sing a strange karaoke version of “Happy Birthday” to a small group a few tables down. Maybe I’m overreacting a bit but come on..how often can you say you spoke to a man who cooked for Martha Stewart AND invented the California roll.

Mulling Moment- Please Comment!

 

Tojo's on Urbanspoon

Review: Ottawa: Sidedoor

I consider it another sign of synchronicity when I had a chance meeting with Top Chef competitor  Jonathan Korecki on a random Ottawa street mere minutes before I went to his restaurant, Sidedoor. After convincing myself  (and him) that I wasn’t a stalker, I took the opportunity to ask him the one thing on the menu I should try. His priceless answer was “One thing?” Good point.

When I arrived, no fewer than 4 employees greeted me and I was seated quickly and Cameron took over for the rest of the night. He reaffirmed my theory that in Ottawa, the service often matches  the food. He spent at least 2 minutes explaining the ins and outs of the asian-influenced menu, notably the fact that in each section the dishes go from lightest to heaviest.

There is a good selection of cocktails and draught beer. I opted for the bourbon-based SIDEDOOR cocktail which was crisp and satisfying.

Must

On Jonathan’s recommendation,  I ordered the tuna sashimi which was one of the best dishes I’ve had in a while.  The tuna was sliced thin and presented beautifully.  The fragrant yuzu marmalade  was delicate with a complexity which smacked my  taste buds  in all kinds  of directions.  I was tempted to lick the plate when the tuna was gone.

Tuna Sashimi with Yuzu Marmalade

In a previous blog, I questioned hawker bar’s son-in-law eggs, particularly the prik nam pla sauce.  Sidedoor’s version (another suggestion from Jonathan) blew my mind.  Tearing into the soft yolk and watching it saturate the surrounding rice and salad made me feel like a MasterChef  judge. The taste matched the visual appeal and the sauce was not overpowering.

Son-in-law eggs

I love pickles and I’m known to ask for a sample whenever they are homemade.  I noticed a mention on the menu so  I pitched the idea at Cameron.  Instead of a small ramekin filled with 2 or 3 gherkins,  he returned with a plate of pickled vegetables that surpassed all expectations.  It contained pickled beets, jalapenos, carrots, daikon radish, Jerusalem artichoke, melon rind and sea asparagus adorned with mustard seed pickled in a bread and butter style .

Pickle Variety

Jonathan’s third suggestion was the donuts.  In this case, who can turn down the chef’s creation, a peanut butter stuffed donut topped with a cocoa glaze and banana.   Better yet, they were served warm.  All I can say is…they taste how they look although a tad bit more filling would of been even better.

Chef’s Feature Donuts

Maybe

I tried the spicy beef and Bajan crispy fish tacos.  They are a bit small for $9 but the shells were delicate and tasty.  The spicy beef was hardly spicy but a bit of the homemade chili oil at the table helped. The Bajan tacos had a bit too much of the sauce which drown out the taste and texture of the fish a bit.   I agree with  their slogan, “Make Tacos, Not War” but can’t quite get to the state of “Make Tacos and then Make Love”.

Spicy Beef and Bajan Fish Tacos

Mundane

I was looking forward to the “Peking style” chicken but I was a bit disappointed.  Big in size but modest in flavour, the texture and interior pinkish colour almost made it look underdone.  I found the surrounding broth a bit curious. The fish sauce was overwhelming which I didn’t think complemented the rest of the dish.

Peking Style Chicken

My Take

I wouldn’t hesitate to sneak in the sidedoor again.  Bold  flavours seem to lace every dish and there is enough diversity to visit a few times and get a very different experience.  The tuna sashimi is a must and I can’t speak highly enough of the service.  The staff is energetic, knowledgable and not phased by a large table of what seemed like the  offspring of the “Real Housewives of Ottawa” partying it up a few tables down.

I was once told I should always listen to my mother and not talk to strangers.  Based on this meal, I’ve learned I should always listen to chefs as well, even if I don’t know them.

Sidedoor Contemporary Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon