Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sushi Kaji - 04/12/2009

860 The Queensway
Etobicoke, Ontario M8Z 1N7
(416) 252-2166

For a city with no direct access to an ocean, Toronto had some pretty promising Japanese restaurant. I spent a long time trying to decide between Kaiseki Sakura, Kaiseki Yu-zen Hashimoto, or Sushi Kaji. Kaji eventually won out based on the strength of reviews both from professionals and from food bloggers.

The restaurant is located in the suburb of Etobicoke in a somewhat barren and run down part of town. The interior of the restaurant isn't much better, cramped with small tables, uncomfortable chairs and an interior that is showing its age. The sushi bar almost feels out of place as it is much cleaner and more comfortable than the rest of the place.

When we arrived the restaurant was empty except for one other couple. Our hostess promptly seated us at the sushi bar right in front of Kaji's assistant. A few moments later Kaji-san came out exuding an aura of seriousness that immediately reminded me of Keizo-san from Sushi Zo. This was further reinforced by his tersely barked orders and his occasional use of the word "Baka" when talking to his assistant. Despite the facade Kaji-san is actually quite friendly with the regulars, swapping jokes and occasionally threatening them with his large knives.

The restaurant serves omakase only and has three levels: Iki (5-courses for $80), Waza (7-courses for $100) and Takumi (9-courses for $120). Aside from the sushi and sashimi, which are identical for all 3 menus, there isn't any overlap among the dishes on each menu.

Iki 01: Duck and Spinach Salad
I expected the duck to be a bit lighter allowing for more complex interplay between it and the spinach. Instead the duck came seasoned with a thick sweet sauce that masked everything else.

Takumi 01: Sesame Tofu
The tofu was served in a bath of wasabi-bonito broth. Texturally the tofu was very delicate, with almost a pasty consistency. Taken with the broth there was a surprising savory-spicy flash. A very light and soothing start to the meal

Takumi 02: Steamed Snow Crab
Technically this was the third course on my menu but for some reason they served it second. The snow crab was presented in two ways: shredded crab meat wrapped in yuba (dried beancurd) and second a slender crab leg. The yuba and crab had a dry rubbery texture and the beancurd masked what little flavor the crab had. The leg was a bit better but there wasn't very much meat in there to enjoy.

Takumi 03: Grilled Calamari & Chicken Cake in a Seaweed Boat
I found it hard to enjoy any aspect of this dish. The bland mealy chicken cake dominated the other elements to the point I couldn't even detect any calamari. I don't understand the purpose of the seaweed boat at all, as tough as shoe leather and utterly flavorless.

Supplement: Shirako
This wasn't on any of the menus, but I noticed all diners receiving it regardless of the menu ordered. The couple next to me asked what it was and I had a hard time keeping a straight face as the chef tried to dodge the question. The shirako itself was a bit creamier than I remember though it had the same mildly fishy/salty flavor that I remember from Go's Mart.

Early in the meal Kaji-san and his assistant were preparing a large number of identical courses (more than there were diners at the time) which turned out to be a trio of sashimi courses. I do question the need to prepare the courses in advance which inevitably results in a couple of them sitting out a bit before being served.

Sashimi 01: Tai, Tako, Ocean Trout
The standout of the first trio was the ocean trout, which I intially mistook for salmon. The trout had a nice slickness feel and slight fattiness, resulting in a very pleasing textural sensation. The tai was solid, though the texture could have been a bit firmer, and the zest was a bit sweet for my liking. The octopus had a pleasing sweetness but the texture was dense and meaty, a bit off-putting for something that is usually chewier.

Sashimi 02: Kanpachi & Lobster
What we had here was a fairly prototypical kanpachi, the heat from the fresh wasabi was a welcome accompaniment to the clean flavor of the fish. The lobster was a nice change, sweet and mild, I think it would have been better served ever so slightly colder.

Sashimi 03: Maguro with Yamaimo and Quail Egg Yolk
The diced tuna came coated with a sticky layer of mountain potato paste which reminded me very much of lotus root. The watery blandness of the mountain potato meant that soy was a necessity. I think this course would have been much better without the potato which would have allowed the egg and tuna to come to the fore.

Takumi 05: Sea bream Wrapped with Cherry Leaf
The use of sticky rice and the nutty sweetness of the dish reminded me of Chinese Zong Zi. Too bad the sea bream was totally lost in the mix.

Iki 03: Simmered Tofu Puff Stuffed with Vegetable & Quail Egg
There was no way to enjoy this course properly. The tofu vegetable and quail egg, all fairly light flavors were well balanced albeit a bit bland. The base was a large piece of deep fried sweet potato which had an intense sweetness but overpowered everything else.

Takumi 06: Sautéed Scallop with Crab Sauce
The crab sauce infused the dish with the rich essence of crab while the spring vegetables added a refreshing lightness. The scallop was a bit overcooked but aside from that, a very well crafted dish.

Takumi 07: Grilled Black Cod & Simmered Eggplant with Miso Sauce
Black cod with miso has been so played out in sushi restaurants but I still enjoyed this presentation. The fish was wonderfully cooked and the simmered eggplant complimented it surprisingly well. The lotus root and shrimp paste provided a bold contrast to the refined fish and the floral white miso was an excellent sauce for the fish.

Sushi & Noodle 01: Udon
I have had soup served with sushi before but this is the first time I have seen Udon served with sushi. The noodles were thinner and didn't have the same chewy texture that I typically associate with udon, but the lightness of this dish served as an effective palate cleanser between the cooked dishes and the nigiri.

Sushi & Noodle 02: Toro Tartare - Fatty Tuna Tartare
After having toro tartare nigiri at Sushi Wasabi, I assumed it was a way to serve gristly low quality toro, but this was a totally different experience. The fish has been chopped to such a degree that rolling it around in your mouth coats the tongue in a layer of rich fatty goodness with a hint of crispness from the scallion.

Sushi & Noodle 03: Uni - Sea Urchin
After I told my girlfriend good uni is supposed to look like a cat's tongue she was kind enough to give me her's for a photograph. The uni was a bit denser but still very creamy and possessed a lingering sweetness. Magnificent.

Sushi & Noodle 04: Kazunoko - Herring Roe
This was the first time I have had herring roe nigiri. The roe itself is densely packed and chewing it felt like chewing on small mustard seeds. Very light in flavor, the smoky bonito flakes were a welcome addition.

Sushi & Noodle 05: Seared Toro - Seared Fatty Tuna
The seared toro was just as phenomenal as the chopped version, saturated with fatty oil, there is no gristle or tendon to mar the experience. In fact the only thing wrong was the overreliance on the sauce. The creamy garlic aioli wasn't bad but totally unnecessary with fish of this caliber.

Sushi & Noodle 06: Seared Hotatagai - Seared Scallop
The scallop came lightly blowtorched and drizzled with olive oil and chili. The natural sweetness of the scallop is accented a light floral aroma from the oil an finishes with a bit of heat from the chili.

Sushi & Noodle 07: Tai - Sea Breem
The tai felt even softer than it did during the sashimi course, there was a sweetness to the flesh that was complimented nicely by the shiso.

Sushi & Noodle 08: Amaebi - Sweet Shrimp
As is typical for this type of smaller amaebi, the flesh creaminess to it, I still prefer the crispness of their larger cousins.

Sushi & Noodle 09: Ocean Trout
The trout was even better taken with some rice. The fish had the same richness and texture but felt a bit more hearty and satisfying served as nigiri.

Sushi & Noodle 10: Kani - Crab
Much better than the snow crab earlier, this preparation came seasoned with citrus mildly reminiscent of a ceviche.

Sushi & Noodle 11: Unagi - Freshwater Eel
Textbook unagi, soft fatty and sweet.

Iki 05: Custard & Grape Jelly
The top layer reminded me of a panna cotta and lurking underneath was a rich grape jelly that had a strong sweetness similar to that of Japanese bubblegum. Very light and refreshing despite the sweetness.

Takumi 09: Green Tea Custard
The green tea custard had a wonderful contrast between the fragrance of the green tea and the sweetness of the custard. Texturally, this was a bit coarser than the previous dessert but went nicely with the toasted sesame cookie giving this dish a satisfying homey feel.

Dining at Sushi Kaji almost felt like eating at two separate restaurants; you have the superb sushi and decidedly mediocre cooked dishes from the kitchen. Indeed there are actually two chefs: sushi chef Mitsuhiro Kaji and kitchen chef Takeshi Okada. The menu is supposedly improvised nightly, and it could be that we just went on an off night, but if I were ever to go again I'd opt for the $80 option and focus on the sushi. Better yet the restaurant should offer an all sushi omakase option.


Charlie Fu said...

i've had that thin noodle from japanese markets before. I enjoy them, they just aren't the typical udon I've ever been used to. I was as surprised as you were even tho I cooked it myself haha!

Tangbro1 said...

I enjoyed them as well just wasn't expecting it.

Did you intentionally buy the thin noodles or did you buy a package labeled udon and later find out the noodles were thin?

ilikejane said...

hi ryan, dang! that uni pic was crazy - i've never seen it that amber-brown color before. did your gf eat it or just allow you to photograph it? sounds like a great meal overall! - jane

Tangbro1 said...

Hey Jane,

It was a bit dark but some of that might have been due to the sauce.

My girlfriend traded with me so she ate mine instead. I think she loves uni more than she loves me so no way I was getting both.