Showing posts with label ebi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ebi. Show all posts

Sushi Masaki Saito (Toronto)

Getting into Sushi Masaki Saito is probably the most frustrating part of the experience. Opened five days a week, the restaurant does two seatings nightly – up to five diners starting at 6pm and up to seven people at 8:30pm. Despite the odd number availability, trying to book for a table of three is impossible, and I had to eventually give up.

So, how did I get my reservation? It took weeks of signing onto Tock on Tuesdays at exactly 11am and searching a table for three (fail) and then quickly switching to a table for two (ding ding ding) before finally securing a reservation after several attempts. Reservations open one month in advance and the Tuesday time frame was when the Friday seatings were released. Good luck and may your patience be with you.

Arriving in front of 88 Avenue Road, a flight of stairs led us to their doorway past a set of navy drapes. As soon as I pushed through the cloth, smiling faces greeted me, beckoning me to come up to the warmth of the dining room. Before we were seated, they led us into a sitting area where we could peruse their sake menu while the chefs finished setting up and we waited for the other guests to arrive.

At $680 per person, dining at Masaki Saito is a special occasion affair where you’re paying a premium for these elements:

  • Their fish is flown in from Japan twice a week on a direct flight for maximum freshness. It’s interesting a direct flight is required given so much of their ingredients are aged before consumption. Presumably, having the fish aged in kelp or hung is very different than sitting packed in ice.
  • Rice, being the cornerstone of sushi, is equally if not more important. Saito buys award winning rice from the Nikka prefecture from a supplier that exclusively sells to them in Canada. You can taste the difference: the rice is sticky but also fluffy so that you can feel each grain as you bite through it.  Mixed with a blend of five red vinegars, the rice takes on a brown hue that’s unlike other sushi I’ve sampled.
  • Condiments are also made in-house, their ginger takes a week to develop and uses bamboo ginger so that it’s really crisp, fresh, and not overly pungent. Even the wasabi is enhanced by having the chef chop to the group wasabi root to make a really smooth paste.
  • You’re paying for the décor, including the sushi counter made from 200-year old Hinoki wood imported from Japan. Sadly, their roof collapsed during COVID, so parts of the bar are damaged, but it still has a lovely, reclaimed wood look. Their wood cabinetry was also made by craftsmen in Japan to make you feel like you’re dining in Edo.
  • Rest assured, despite being over a 2-hour dinner, you’ll be comfortable on the oversized plush bar stools. The design of the sushi bar is well thought out with an under-counter shelf to store purses and a raised marble ledge that acts as a footrest. You don’t even need to reach for the dishes as Chef Saito places them down, a server quickly whisks it from the bar and transfers it in front of you.
  • Ultimately, you’re paying for Masaki Saito who is there the whole time, preparing and serving the courses. No step is below him from grinding the wasabi to mixing the vinegar into the sushi rice (a technique that’s taken him ten years to perfect).

Seven appetizers began the meal before the first nigiri made an appearance. Octopus was slowly simmered allowing the outer layer of the tentacle to become gelatinous, almost like pork belly, while the centre remained meaty and tender. Simmered in a roasted green tea, it’s already flavourful but with a dollop of spicy yuzu it morphed into a vibrant bite. With two pieces, I’d recommend having one solo and another with the spice.

The potential gumminess of the raw Botan ebi was minimized by marinating the sweet shrimp in a fermented rice sauce allowing the seafood to soak in flavours and mellow. At Masaki Saito, there’s certainly no shortage of uni, the first topped the shrimp and created a chewy creamy bite with a refreshing finish from the citrusy sisho flowers.

Even though Chef Saito removed the skin off the saba and the mackerel was seared and paired with grated daikon, I still found it tasted fishier than I’d like. Hello taste buds! Let me grab a sip of sake to chase that away.

Another fantastic uni combo followed paired with deep-fried tile fish and its scales. The meatiness of the fish, crunchiness of the scales, and silkiness of the sea urchin was an amazing combination and one of my favourite bites of the evening. We’re told to eat it in one bite… do yourself a favour and give it a minute to cool down as it’s incredibly hot and I would have scorched my tongue if it weren’t for the cold relief of the uni.

Chef Saito derives inspiration from various Japanese cuisine including shabu shabu, which inspired the luscious sesame sauce he coats slices of wild yellowtail into so that the delicate fish was swathed in a fragrant paste made from three types of sesame, soy, and chili oil.

Soaked in the rich sesame, the yellowtail has a tuna-like finish, and the starter feels like eating salad with the fish topped with fine slivers of ginger, green onion and sisho leaf. Be sure to smell the dish before eating. It’s so aromatic and consequently also why the restaurant recommends not wearing strong perfumes to dinner.

Cue the dreaded shirako, a blubbery fish sperm sack I’ve tried in Japan that’s haunted me. They jokingly describe it as a roasted marshmallow… good luck convincing a kid to put this into a smore! Roasted over glowing hot Japanese oak, the milt roe is simply topped with cool caviar.

The shirako is soft and creamy, akin to a silken tofu, and thankfully didn’t have the gross bitter fishiness I experienced in Japan. While this still isn’t my favourite piece, it was nonetheless a good bite and I loved that it brought out Chef Saito’s cheekiness as he described his thought process of pairing the sperm with eggs.

And the last appetizer was a bowl of pickled Japanese cabbage with orange zest, a nice palette cleanser between the shirako and sushi.

We’re advised that Chef Saito prefers to serve his sushi hand-to-hand so that the rice remains at the optimal body temperature and diners can put it directly into their mouth with the fish side down. Consequently, this is why I’m missing some sushi photos and the ones that are shown aren’t the greatest quality … I indulged hand-to-hand prior to sneaking a photo of my neighbour’s bite.

A golden eye snapper that’s aged for a scant four days (compared to some of the other seafood that follows) begins the sushi procession. Having been aged in kelp, the seaweed gives the fish another level of umami creating a lovely taste that lingered on the tongue.

After the first piece, we’re advised that Chef Saito can customize the bites to our tastes, whether we want more or less rice or wasabi. Indeed, this level of precision is certainly a factor that likely helped Sushi Masaki Saito earn a second star.

Another dish that was a miss for me was the ark shell clam. Perhaps it was because I was already traumatized after a staff member told me it was alive as the chef scored it - realizing a living creature was suffering was certainly something I didn’t need to hear. It also doesn’t look the greatest spread out on the cutting board… it looks awfully like it could be part of a women’s anatomy. Ultimately, it just didn’t taste good: the clam needed a stronger glaze or condiment to cover the gaminess of the seafood. In the end, if the clam was dropped from the menu, it wouldn’t be missed.

Chef Saito then takes the skirt of the ark shell clam and creates a maki wrapping it with spices and sisho leaf. Having been marinated and well rinsed, the gaminess of the clam was subdued. Still, the crunchy texture of the mollusk is still an acquired taste.

Luckily, it was followed by a stronger hay-seared Spanish mackerel, which had a lovely meaty smokiness. Unlike the prior mackerel, this was not fishy, despite only being garnished with a rich soy sauce.

As soon the blubbery bits of fish liver were presented, I knew we were in for a treat. Chef Saito sandwiched the liver between a slice a file fish and rice to create an incredible texture combination: as you bite through the fish’s soft flesh, you’re greeted with the silky liver filling.

We’re told not many chefs create this sushi as it takes skill to ensure it all holds together. I love how they are using different parts of the fish, perhaps topping this with a couple of crunchy fish scales would make for an even more fulsome presentation.

Next, a seven-day dry aged toro was served and the blue fin tuna was of course an explosion of flavour. At Saito, theirs was less greasy and the flavour lingered longer on the tongue.

If you like stir-fried ginger and onion lobster, the following needle fish has a flavour reminiscent of the dish thanks to the finely chopped scallion paste topping the fish and the ginger paste inside. It’s a bit surprising these stronger flavours were used on the needle fish, which seems like a more neutral fish. While delicious, this should have been paired with the ark shell clam to mask its gaminess better.

The meaty piece of lightly grilled sea perch would be great on its own. But then, it’s hardly luxurious. Chef Saito amped up the luxe factor by serving the fish on top of whipped uni sushi rice - the combination of sea urchin, spices, and rice created a decadent over-the-top risotto. Dried four-year old fish eggs topped the perch creating a plethora of flavours and textures that made me wish I could sample each separately. It should be eaten all together, the chef says, so I listened and devoured it in two incredible bites.

A pale fish that looked like needle fish followed, except it was actually slow poached sea eel. Chef Saito slathered a thick molasses-like sauce on top and added hint of spice with Sandro pepper. The unagi was unlike others I’ve had; it melted into the rice and tongue flooding my mouth with a sweet umami essence.

On the left of the sushi bar, you’ll notice a trio of brand name chests on display. Chef Saito pulled out the LV one and joked it’s his tuna chest (the others house caviar and truffle as well as a rare whisky). Within the tuna chest, we were treated to a toro and pickled daikon paste. Nori was toasted piece-by-piece and presented to Chef Saito who quickly added rice, spices, and the tuna paste before handed it to me, so the seaweed was still hot and crispy. Yum!

As the tomago arrived, I got ready for the meal to end. And while we had sampled so much, like all great meals, I was still yearning for more. Saito’s egg cake was mixed with Japanese mountain potato and sweet shrimp so while there was a sweetness to the tomago, it also had a rich savouriness.

After the sushi, Chef Saito thanked us and left to clean up before the second seating. There’s a bit of confusion as we thought it was time to settle the bill. No, not quite yet. A bowl of miso soup arrives, made with different types of miso and a broth developed with several fish.

Of course, Saito doesn’t simply boil the broth the day of, it was cooked over seven days to concentrate the flavours. In the end, the miso soup was rich but not overly salty and while I did need to stir the miso into the broth, it also didn’t separate much either. As a finish, pieces of finely chopped seaweed and scallions were added to make the soup more substantial.

Surprisingly, dessert was not a slice of musk melon - this is reserved for birthdays and anniversaries - but rather an actual sweet treat. The matcha blancmange consisted of a silky coconut milk base, topped with smooth thickened matcha and a single red bean that’s oh so creamy. A heavenly way to end the meal.

The meal was exquisite and being in such close proximity to Chef Saito we were able to converse with him. He’s certainly happy with the Michelin recognition but is quick to point out the earning the accolade was a group effort. Still, he will not rest of his laurels and knows he will continue to develop and improve his craft. The life of a true chef.

Note to diners: Tipping isn’t the easiest affair as the pay terminal doesn’t have a % calculation option and you need to add back the prepaid portion when doing your own calculation. Hopefully, Sushi Masaki Saito will eventually just charge the entire meal experience up front on Tock with taxes and gratuities (a practice many other restaurants follow). That way, guests only need to settle the drinks on the day of, making it an easier calculation for all. 

Overall mark - 8 out of 10

How To Find Them
 Location: Toronto, Canada
 Address: 88 Avenue Road

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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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