Ja Bistro (Toronto)

Location: Toronto, Canada
Address: 222 Richmond Street West
Website: www.jabistro.com
Type of Meal: Dinner

Even standing outside you start to get a feel of what JaBistro is about. The whimsical cute fish character, just outside the door, brings a smile to your face as you walk into the establishment.

The interior décor is a combination of light wood (similar to traditional Japanese restaurants) and exposed brick. Unlike others, they are open concept, well-lit and has a clean and modern feeling.  As you enter and leave, there are cheerful greetings from the entire staff, much like Guu.  In fact, this combination sums up my description of JaBistro’s food – good traditional dishes with a highlight of modern twists, all served in a simple and unpretentious manner.

I requested to sit at the bar in order to better understand how their sushi was made.  Both young chefs playfully worked together and made you feel like they actually loved what they were doing.  Yet, they worked lightning fast and we received dish after dish without much of a wait.

The sencha (green) tea ($3) thankfully arrives in large mug complete with handle – too often I burn my fingers on the traditional cups.  A tea bag loaded with a generous amount of tea leaves is clipped to the side of the cup and served with a dish so that you can control the tea’s intensity.  Although I’m not a tea connoisseur, it was clearly high quality; strong in its green tea taste but has a very mellow and smooth finish.   

A great starter is the sashimi sampler ($30), where they split the dish into equal portions ensuring we both received a taste of everything available. All the fish was fresh and cut to a reasonable thickness so it didn't become fleshy.

I especially like the tuna and blue-fin tuna which were tender, delicate and as melt-in-your-mouth as fish can get. JaBistro also worked into the dish various fish parts that you normally wouldn’t think of eating, such as:
  • A pile of crispy salty white flecks that were great to munch on between each piece of fish; these turned out to be fish scales;
  • A piece of fish liver that had the creamy texture of foie gras, yet had a calmer taste and hopefully was cultivated without the cruelty of foie gras; and
  • A soy-sauce gelatin cube infused with small pieces of fish skin.  At first, this may not sound appetizing but was actually an interesting concoction. 
The sashimi platter is something you should definitely try. It’s a great mix of ingenuity and level of detail that sets it apart from competing establishments. Even the soy sauce that accompanies the sashimi is house-made and presented as salty and sweet options and the wasabi is freshly ground from wasabi root. 

The kani ($15) followed and consisted of pieces of deep fried soft-shell crab served on a mixed bean ragout.  I was surprised by the amount of crab you receive – two and a half crabs in total.  It was fresh and juicy and wasn’t overly battered so that you could enjoy its subtle flavour.  Pieces of baked tortilla separated each piece and you could use these to scoop up the bean mixture that my husband loved.  I only wished the crab was spicier as the menu described it as “chili crab” and I couldn’t get a hint of the spiciness at all.

Next we received the aburi ($27) seven pieces of delicious blow-torched sushi.  There are four pieces in the classic nigiri (rice on top of fish) and three pieces oshi (pressed) sushi. 

Sitting at the bar we were able to see the chef make the pressed sushi.  Essentially, there is a white plastic mould that the chef lays pieces of fish/shrimp into and then packs with rice. After hitting it against the bar a few times, the mould is then inverted, a piece drops off and voila a bar of sushi remains and can now be cut into rectangular pieces.  

The oshi sushi is much denser is better for those who aren’t delicate at handling chop sticks as it can withstand more squeezing without falling apart.

Aburi is another example of the traditional/modern twist that JaBistro offers.  It’s traditional as the chef controls how it should be flavoured – the dish is not served with any wasabi or sauces.  But, the modern aspects of the dish are the mix of ingredients (adding a slice of jalapeno on the salmon and dollop of hollandaise on the shrimp) and blow-torching the tops to create a wonderful smoky flavour.  I especially liked the result on fattier fishes like salmon as the heat started to melt its fat so that the sushi’s flavour is enhanced.

I’m sure the ingredients used will change depending on what’s fresh, but that night we received pieces of blue-fin tuna (akami; loin), yellowtail, ocean trout, spotted prawn, salmon, cured mackerel and tiger shrimp.  A deep fried shrimp head accompanies the dish and is edible.  It was crispy and fresh but needed to be seasoned as was a bit bland.

Our final dish was the aburicious ($20) which contained six pieces of oshi sushi and two pieces of the JaBistroll.  We originally wanted an entire order of the JaBistroll, but were advised they didn’t have enough of the ingredients – salmon, snow crab, uni (urchin) and tobiko (fish roe).  So, we ordered the aburicious just so we could have a taste of it.  Our waiter did warn us that the aburi and aburicious were very similar (both consists of the oshi sushi), but we wanted to try both anyways so we could see how the blow-torched nigiri would taste.  My suggestion would be to just go with the aburicious.

The JaBistroll was the highlight of the dish and was just a flavour and texture explosion in your mouth.  There was the sweetness of the sauce, smokiness from the scorching, saltiness of the fish roe that also added some crunch and creaminess from the salmon and urchin.  I only wish we could have had another piece!

Despite being stuffed, we were in the mood for something sweet so ended with the matcha puff ($10).  It’s essentially JaBistro’s take on the cream puff.  The puff’s pastry is flavoured with green tea powder and is stuffed with whipped cream and a lovely sesame paste that added such a great taste.  Served with a scoop of green tea ice cream (nothing special and a bit icy for my taste), drizzles of black honey (tastes like a more intensified honey), pieces of toasted chestnut and speckles of gold leaf the matcha puff was great.

Aside from the great food, the service was impeccable.  Our waiter, Jin, was extremely attentive and checked in with each dish to make sure we enjoyed it and answered my many questions.  I was asked on many occasions if I’d like more hot water for my tea and on the last time when I didn’t need anymore, Jin brought me a glass of water without being asked.  Even the utensils that accompanied our desserts were polished and spotless. Most of all, I love how they actually accept reservations (unlike their other restaurants Guu and Kinton) so you do not have to wait in line!  JaBistro was great and I will definitely be returning to try more of their bistro dishes.

And I did return to try some of their bistro dishes, please go here to read about my second visit.

Overall mark - 9 out of 10

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Gastro World's Grading System
  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!

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