A Tale of Two Palates: Sara Waxman and Adam Waxman dine-out in Toronto’s restaurant scene and share their views.
Kaiseki-ryori is about as far from fast food as is possible to stray. A number of courses in seductive, pretty morsels are presented in sequence. Historically, this Zen-inspired experience was a preamble to the formal tea ceremony, but in the 18th century, it began to appear in the fashionable Geisha houses of Kyoto. Kaiseki is like foreplay to the palate. Today, it is the most expensive haute cuisine of Japan, and considered the height of luxury. So when a restaurant in Toronto offers kaiseki, which differs from omakase –the chef’s choice–Japanophile foodies can tend to be a bit skeptical. The emphasis is on balance—of colour, texture and taste—as well as having a theme based on seasonality and region. Presentation is essential not just in plating, but also in plate ware. It is not only a reflection of what a chef can do, but also of his interpretation of the surrounding nature. Miku Restaurant, part of the Vancouver-based Aburi Restaurants Group, has launched in Toronto to create a new dining niche with its own kaiseki menu.
SW: Room after room of balanced, clean design, with the focal point being amazing wall murals. This is a cut above the expected Japanese restaurant style hereabouts. The menu makes eloquent promises based on tradition, and looking around at dishes going past me to other tables, I feel certain they will be fulfilled.
AW: The modern interior, sleek and white, is chic and appeals to a cosmopolitan vibe. Initially, it seems anachronistic to a traditional kaiseki experience—feeling more New York than Kyoto. However, we are in downtown Toronto, so this setting and ambience is exactly appropriate and without pretense.
Looking at the menu, I immediately notice some very clear differences from other Toronto Japanese restaurants. Namely, there are three distinct styles of sushi incorporated here: temarizushi (hand balls), ohizushi (pressed sushi), and aburi style (torched sushi). Temari are decorative embroidered balls given to girls on Hinamatsuri (Girl’s Day) in Japan, and the corresponding sushi is made to look like them. Ohizushi comes from Kansai, and is most popular in Osaka. It involves pressing the sushi in wooden blocks. The fish is cooked—not raw—and is flattened against the rice. Aburi style of torching the fish releases oils that enhance the distinct flavour profile of each piece of sushi, and add to it a grilled essence. More importantly though, I am happy to notice that this is an Oceanwise menu. That means the seafood served here is in season and sustainably caught. The value of this in today’s world of over-fishing cannot be overstated.
The Main Event
SW: I usually look at a sake menu and think, well, I don’t know, and just order a martini. Here, I have faith in the sake recommendations, and to my delight, each small glass marries perfectly with the discreet flavours of the food.
AW: Our first course is presented in a pink porcelain box, inside of which are thickly cut sashimi of fatty tuna, mackerel and shrimp, along with pretty temarizushi of shrimp with spicy roe, white tuna with blended wasabi, soy and sesame, and flounder with pickled ginger. They look like edible jewelry. Pan-seared foie-gras with sweet miso and fresh fig, and oyster topped with uni and a splash of yuzu mignonette are luxurious palate-pleasing mouthfuls. We pair this course with a light saké from Niigata that subtly supports the array of flavours presented, and washes away any doubts. I am instantly impressed that we are being treated to a genuinely privileged culinary experience.
Our next courses follow and we are served plump scallops elevated with miso bacon marmalade, shallot puree, red shiso and chanterelles. I leave not one crumb of this harmonious medley of flavours behind. Sablefish in yuzu miso reduction with tomato relish and a charred eggplant puree is so richly flavoured and tender. Seared crisp, it is a generous portion and deftly flaunts the range of skills from within this kitchen.
SW: Each chef who plans a kaiseki meal walks his own path, and plucks ingredients as one would choose flowers to create a bouquet. Clearly, Chef Kazuki Uchigoshi (shown at left) is a brilliant artist whose medium is Japanese cuisine. Plates and dishes have been designed to hold and show off each delicacy to its best advantage. First I appreciate with my eyes, then I savour and smile. I always have a hard time picking up sushi with chopsticks, and I am delighted that these folks eat Edo style, (picking up each piece with your fingers.)
AW: Everything up to this point seems to be opening acts for head sushi chef, Kazuki Uchigoshi’s artful presentation of torched sushi. Staged like a vintage set of miniature Japanese tea ceremony figurines, each individual piece is placed on its own platform—and deserves its own pedestal. There is a rich creamy quality to each crafted morsel that I have never experienced before. Salmon, layered and pressed is crowned with jalapeno; fatty tuna, lightly torched, is topped with truffle salt; shrimp is lavished with plum sauce and lime zest; and Kagoshima-brand wagyu is enlivened by a delicate ravagote. Each one is a dreamy bite of decadence. The Miku roll of sockeye salmon, snow crab, uni and cucumber, wrapped in tobiko and Miku sauce has a smooth and rich consistency that is mouthwatering. I want to devour at least one hundred more of these, but this is kaiseki; it is just an alluring taste of perfection.
SW: Again, I usually look at the dessert menu and think, well, I don’t know, and just enjoy my tea. Here, the dreamy creations of French/Japanese pastry of Aiko Uchigoshi are unique. You won’t need my urging to eat every lovely morsel.
AW: There is seamless simpatico between French technique and Japanese attention to detail and respect for process that is most readily evident in confectionery. The talent and precision of award winning head pastry chef, Aiko Uchigoshi is remarkable. She is a star, and she has imagined and assembled ingredients in a heavenly confluence that we admire and applaud. Green tea opera cake of green tea genoise, matcha butter cream, dark chocolate ganache, adzuki bean cream and hazelnut wafer is so refined. Each delicate layer combines in operatic beauty. Warm matcha chocolate fondant brings out the kid in me as I tap it open to reveal a gush of molten dark chocolate ganache. Roasted berries, matcha powder and jasmine tea ice cream round out the range of influences in this poetically designed palette. I could return even just for dessert.
The Last Word
SW: This culinary power-couple of Kazuki and Aiko Uchigoshi and the team at Miku will be turning the Japanese food scene on its ear. Miku ranks in the top three Japanese restaurants in the city.
AW: A delicious addition to the Toronto dining scene. I think Miku is a great place to bring a date for a unique experience. Each dish is a conversation piece with wow factor, the recommended sake pairings are spot on, and the dessert is ambrosial.
~Miku Restaurant, 105-10 Bay Street (at Queen’s Quay), 647-347-7347~
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Associate Publisher and Executive Editor of DINE and Destinations magazine.