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The Great Torontoist Challenge: Sushi Bar Edition

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Photo by ethervision from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
We wanted to start off this challenge with a proclamation, in Japanese, of our deep love of sushi. Unfortunately, all the online translators we tried just came up with a bunch of squares. We’re pretty sure the Japanese language has evolved past this, so we’re going to have to blame it on our inferior translator-finding skills and move on.
Invented as an early form of fast food—early like start of the 19th century—by a crafty fellow from Edo named Hanaya Yohei, sushi has become a staple of the modern North American diet. While some may say that you can’t get good sushi if you don’t live by the ocean, we think that Toronto has proven this to be untrue. With hundreds of places to visit in the downtown area alone, sushi is the perfect sharing meal. Add sake and enjoy!

The Contestants

There are many fabulous sushi bars in this city, and though we wish we could have gone to more, we think we have made a good and diverse selection.

  • Sushi D. Located on College in Little Italy, Sushi D occupies the space that once belonged to Tavola Calda. Having received relatively mixed reviews, Sushi D continues to bring people in for their all-you-can-eat menu that includes lower prices for kids under “1.2 MC.” Hmm.
  • New Generation Sushi. A definite diet staple of U of T students and at least one Torontoist staff member, New Generation was voted Best Japanese Restaurant by NOW in 2004. New Generation has also opened up a Korean Grill location across the street, which, in an odd twist, serves sausage.
  • Ichiban Sushi House. The word Ichiban apparently means “best and leading,” and by the number of locations they boast, they may be spot on. While many restaurants lose on quality when they expand into franchise land, Ichiban continues to garner almost exclusively positive customer reviews. In fact, the only negative customer review we found was based on the fact that they serve too much fish. Sort of missing the point there, chum.
  • Hiro Sushi. You know you’re “big time” on the Toronto foodie scene when you’ve earned yourself a review, even if it isn’t exactly glowing, in Toronto Life. Hiro Sushi is definitely the upper crust of our contestants with its claim to fame, as far as we’re concerned, being that its soya sauce is made in-house.

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Photo of Sushi D exterior by experttorontogirl; photo of tempura at Sushi D by Julie Reitsma.

The Criteria

  • Atmosphere. Friendliness of staff, cleanliness, décor, lighting and the mood it provides.
  • Japaneseyness. Do they yell WELCOMETOTHESUSHIBAR when you walk in? Is there some biwa intermingled with hichiriki rocking over the speakers?
  • Extras. Do they serve free tea without having to ask? Free amuse-bouches? Free dessert?
  • Sushi. Presentation, quality of ingredients, skill level (rolling and trickiness), flavour, freshness.
  • Tempura. Presentation, quality of ingredients, freshness (soggy or crispy?), flavour. Quality of tentsuyu sauce.

Results

We did not give even weight to each of the criteria for this challenge. We felt that since we weren’t just judging sushi itself, but the whole sushi bar dining experience, we needed to take a lot of factors into account and ergo the entire operation needed to be broken down a bit differently.

  • Atmosphere. Hiro Sushi—5/5. We arrived at Hiro a bit before the dinner hour officially started, but were welcomed in and a table was quickly arranged for us. The décor is a bit on the eccentric side (more on that to follow), but the vibe was cool and cozy.
  • Japaneseyness. Ichiban Sushi—2/2.5. Japo-outfit? Check. Authentic greetings? Check. Rice paper booth dividers? Check. Beethoven? Check. Well, they almost had it down.
  • Extras. Ichiban Sushi—2/2.5. Ichiban served up a free delicious noodle soup and some lovely post-meal toothpicked fruit. Tea, though not offered unsolicited, was provided gratis when requested.
  • Sushi. TIE: Ichiban Sushi and Hiro Sushi—7.5/10. The poisson at Hiro was nothing short of divine, though they are perhaps not the most adventurous when it comes to the maki. In contrast, Ichiban’s maki offering of a spicy tuna roll was very well received for its great flavourings, presentation, and good portion, though due to the “mix-up” style of the maki filling, it was difficult to gauge the quality of the actual piece of fish.
  • Tempura. New Generation Sushi—8/10. New Generation’s yam tempura was yummy, yammy, and fresh.

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Photo of the spicy tuna roll and yam tempura at New Generation Sushi by Alicia Fraser.

Conclusions

Sushi D, though as busy as the day is long when we visited, fell short quite spectacularly in two of our five categories—extras and tempura. The easiest way to lose out on extras is by offering none at all, and Sushi D managed this well. Granted, we are uncertain what would have happened if we had requested tea. Torontoist made its visit to Sushi D during the dinner hour and henceforth decided to enjoy an Asahi that came, as though in an attempt to show us what to do with a glass, only minimally poured. The tempura at Sushi D was sizeable enough that we didn’t actually manage to finish it all. Sushi D didn’t skimp on how many pieces of tempura they gave us, and unfortunately they also don’t skimp on the oil; fresh out of the fryer though it may be, this was the oiliest tempura we’d ever encountered. Add to that some unfortunate over-battering, and the experience was not exactly pleasant. The maki at Sushi D had mixed results. The presentation was quite nice, with lots of textures and colours at play, and the spicy tuna roll actually garnered a “fuck, that’s fresh” from a more enthusiastic judge. Unfortunately, the spider roll did not inspire any such exclamations. The crab was an untrustworthy colour and alternated between chewy and tough. Though Sushi D only uses minimal rice in their rolls, some of their ingredients shouldn’t be on such proud display due to the apparent lack of quality. The general atmosphere of Sushi D is the same as many sushi bars in Toronto—bustling, loud and crowded—but the lower levels of lighting and the warm décor make up for the feeling that the other patrons are basically two centimetres from sitting on your lap.
In second or third place, depending on how you want to read this, is New Generation Sushi. New Generation is almost always busy, and our visit was no exception. Unfortunately, this meant that the first half of our visit was dismal service-wise. We were ignored when we first came in, though we were the only ones not seated, and once we were seated, in a rather isolated-ated corner, we had to actually get up to ask a waitress if we could place our order. Once the ball was rolling, however, the situation got better. Tea, with free refills, arrived in pottery tubes and a request for extra tempura sauce was promptly gratified. The sushi at New Generation was at first a bit disconcerting due to the irregular colour of the tuna. Despite the palour, the maki had a solid flavour with a nice spice level and some festive tempura bits closed the experience with a crunch. Continuing on with words that start with “c,” let’s move on to “crispy.” New Generation needs no pointers when it comes to their tempura. The yams were cut to the perfect thickness, battered just enough so the orangeness was able to shine through, and then cooked to just that right balance of crispy outside and smooshy inside. All for under four dollars!
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Photo of the spicy tuna roll and complimentary noodle soup at Ichiban Sushi by Julie Reitsma.
Our judging panel could not decide on one clear winner for our sushi bar challenge. The top two contestants—Ichiban Sushi and Hiro Sushi—really offer different things. To wit, you wouldn’t go to Ichiban Sushi for the same experience as you would get at Hiro Sushi and vice versa. We’ll start, in the spirit of non-alphabetization, with Ichiban. Of our contestants, this was the first that openly and rather loudly welcomed us. Our waitress, in faux-imono, showed us to a nice booth that allowed for us to scribble away at our score sheets mostly undetected. As previously stated, Ichiban won out for Japaneseyness in this challenge, and though it was all a bit cliché—like a Canadiana restaurant being full of toque-wearing lumberjacks and mounted moose heads—it fit the bill for us. We do need to mention, though, that the sudden and unexplained blaring of the Star Wars theme song detracted from the Japa-digm that the other components of the restaurant had worked so hard to create. The spicy tuna roll was very tasty, fresh, and had a real zing to it. When we say zing, we mean it really was spicy and it had a nice barbecueness that pleased our palate to no end. The tempura, arranged in a campfire style (we’re noting a theme), was also quite fresh, came with individual dipping bowls, but was unfortunately a bit oily and not as generous a serving as we had previously enjoyed at other establishments. Torontoist has always enjoyed visiting Ichiban, and this was no exception. Despite the strange musical choices—one judge suggested that perhaps they were attempting to evoke samurai à la jedi—Ichiban has such a great atmosphere and extremely friendly staff. When you couple that with consistently good sushi and freebies, well, you have a winner. Or at least a co-winner. Onwards to Hiro!
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Photo of the interior of Hiro Sushi by SiFu Renka; photo of assorted sushi at Hiro Sushi by newyork808.
We promised we’d go into more detail about the décor at Hiro Sushi, and we didn’t lie. As mentioned above, we arrived a wee bit earlier than the official opening time and so had an opportunity, while our glass patio table was being set up, to peruse the various knick-knacks and art pieces that make up the look of this fine boîte. We noted the following items—two prints of bunnies caught in “the act”; one sumo figurine; one large Maui poster in the men’s room; one glass wall trap; one Monchhichi doll in a sailor costume; one sock monkey hugging a ficus. Well, maybe not a ficus. We just like the word ficus. Other items of note included a clock with sushi pieces instead of numbers as well as a wide variety of jazz posters. We recommend that when you visit, you find new things to add to our list. Back to the heart of the matter, let’s discuss the food. The other thing that hits you upon entering Hiro, other than the quirky decorative features, is the warm smell of soya sauce. Hiro is famous for brewing its own, and it does not disappoint. Brought out in a small pottery pot with matching wooden ladle, this soya is obviously something special and brings out the best in the sushi. While the maki is not the big draw here, the nigiri is fantastic. We sampled marinated tuna, yellowtail, and butterfish, and each was wonderful. The fish quality here is extremely high and each morsel melted in our mouths. The tempura portion was quite small, but with some unexpected veg selections, such a green beans, we were still impressed. It is obvious when dining at Hiro that sushi is not the be all and and all of the food selections. The mains, described on hand written menus, sound divine, and we got the feeling that the sushi was meant to whet the appetite, but not satiate it. Though more expensive, Hiro Sushi is a great place to go for a more complete Japanese dining experience.

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