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Shoushin and Miku do sushi in Toronto: Only one of them is a sure thing

A nigiri sushi set with uni, shime saba with kelp and sesame, akaebi with sweet shrimp paste, kohada and buri is served at Shoushin.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

Shoushin

3 stars

3328 Yonge St. (at Snowdon Avenue), 416-488-9400, shoushin.ca

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Miku

1 star

10 Bay St. (at Queens Quay West, in RBC Waterpark Place), 647-347-7347 mikutoronto.com

"Hai!"

The chef spoke crisply, answering a question from a server as he scanned the room beyond his sushi counter. A moment later, one of his customers asked for a second piece of mackerel nigiri. "Hai!" the chef said again, but this time a little less with the tone of the stern, traditionalist sushi master. There was a hint of warmth underlying Jackie Lin's voice, and a subtle, youthful smile formed where previously only seriousness and intensity had been.

Mr. Lin, whose excellent omakase sushi spot, called Shoushin, opened last fall on Yonge Street near Bedford Park, has always been a serious chef. At 31, he's held a sushi knife for much of his life. While still in high school, he became an apprentice at Toronto's Zen Japanese Restaurant, under the no-nonsense master Seiichi Kashiwabara. Mr. Lin, who had moved with his family from Guangzhou, China, as a teenager, learned to speak Japanese, and travelled to Tokyo for his holidays. His entire life seemed to revolve around his chosen craft.

He was also clearly a serious talent. A dinner I ate at Zen in 2012, with the young chef at the counter, remains one of the best sushi experiences I've had in this city. His rice was perfect, his fish selection not merely pristine (that should be expected, shouldn't it?) but far more varied than the usual, and his seasonings – tart umeboshi plum paste, fresh wasabi, summery squalls of yuzu zest and sweet-savoury house-blended nikiri-shoyu among them – were applied with rare sensitivity, to underscore and amplify the personality of the seafood, rather than to overwhelm it. Mr. Lin got a lot of practice out of that high-school work placement. In an era when many cooks list two-week stints washing herbs in famous kitchens as major life accomplishments, the young chef's apprenticeship at Zen lasted a dozen years.

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See the chef, the room and the food at Shoushin

Shoushin is his first restaurant, built with financing from a silent and, by all indications, deep-pocketed partner. Its blond wood sushi bar, with seating for 14 (there is also a private dining room, and table seating for 10), is made from the native Japanese cypress species called hinoki. "The hinoki tree we used was 187 years old when it was felled 15 years ago," the restaurant's website says. It has to be sanded down by hand several times each week.

The entire place has been built with exactly that sort of obsessiveness. The feel of it all is cool but serene: a modern temple, but without too much of the quiet reverence business, and with vintage bossa nova playing softly overhead.

Each of the three menu options – Shoushin offers omakase dinners for $80, $120 and $250 per person – brings a procession of tiny hot appetizers and little bowls of soup and fish in broth, as well as sashimi at the two more expensive levels, and sushi, which Mr. Lin and a sous chef prepare and serve one piece at a time. (The $250 menu also includes slabs of grilled wagyu beef.)

The hot appetizers might include tufts of richly mineral Japanese seaweed that crunch alongside warming ginger and mountain potato, or miniaturist compositions of deep-fried tofu, white onions and blushing pink flowers made from mochi rice cake. You might get hunks of scallop and lobster wrapped in tender tofu skins, bobbing with snow peas and wild mushrooms in bonito-based broth.

The sashimi was very good the night I tried it, particularly the sweet, creamy B.C. spot prawns and the mild, slippery-textured scallops from Hokkaido. But nothing gets me more excited than nigiri – fish and seasonings on gently sweet and starchy vinegar-seasoned rice. It's one of the simplest things in all of cooking, and one of its most difficult, as well.

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Mr. Lin's specialty is classic, Tokyo-style sushi, with each species cut or scored, seasoned and in some cases marinated or smoked to highlight its best attributes. He serves each piece at its ideal temperature, so the fish begins to melt the instant it hits your tongue. The standouts here include salt-and-vinegar-marinated gizzard shad, kingfish smoked over wheat straw and clean and mild-tasting sayori needlefish that Mr. Lin folds in a U over his excellent rice. Another highlight: the B.C. geoduck that gently crunches as you bite it, a rush of tidal-flats twang.

Is it worth the $80? To my mind, absolutely. And the $120 menu also offers decent value (these things being relative) if you have a thing for sashimi – which, a confession, I often find redundant when there's nigiri coming next. (If you're a purist, as I am, the $80 no-filler, all-killer nigiri menu at Yasu, on Harbord Street, is still the one to beat.)

As for Shoushin's $250 menu, I didn't try it, though the couple next to me seemed to love their experience. If you're into sizzling fatty beef with your sushi, and bowls of chopped bluefin belly (enjoy it before they're fished to extinction, I guess) mounded with Venetian sturgeon caviar, you'll probably think it's great.

I'd rather focus on far less vaunted preparations, like Mr. Lin's sublimely flavourful mackerel nigiri: The chef tops each fat slice with a clear, vellum-thin rectangle of marinated kelp, and then with a pinch of yuzu gratings. "It's edible art," the man with the bluefin and caviar said. I nodded and closed my eyes a little to let the flavours reverberate.

***

You can easily spend $80 per person at Miku, an enormous new Vancouver transplant south of the Gardiner Expressway, at the lakefront tip of Bay Street, in RBC WaterPark Place. Miku specializes in blowtorched aburi-style sushi, as well as in cold, mayonnaise-laden sushi rolls, among other mediocrities. Naturally, a lot of people seem to love it. It mostly tastes to me as though it just came off an assembly line.

The company's DNA issues from a single shop that opened in Japan in 1953, but more recently the multibranch empire has specialized in "gourmet rotating sushi," or as perhaps it's better known, conveyor-belt food. The first North American outlet, called Miku, opened in Vancouver in 2008. The place was a break from that past. Miku pitched itself as a high-end and innovative à la carte sushi palace. It was only a matter of time until a satellite turned up here.

The room is the first sign that maybe you're not in for the stellar sushi dinner you were promised: It's cut into two distinct halves, the first, near the kitchen, is quieter and slightly more formal, and the rear a madhouse of middle-management office parties and puffy-jacketed tourists. No matter where you sit, the space is enormous, with seating for a couple of hundred customers. (Also, it is depressingly generic. With half a day's notice, it could easily be converted into an expense-account gourmet-vegan taco spot, or a well-appointed Gap factory store.) You're never going to get fine sushi in a place that big.

The sashimi platter I tried one night included mussels that had been smothered in wasabi chimichurri, an oyster shooter that wouldn't shoot (the oyster had stuck to the glass), a wad of bluefin tuna that had been stuffed with quinoa and then sauced with "wasabi sweet onion vinegar sauce," so that it could just as easily have been made with freezer-aisle tilapia. And we should all assume there's a cook in Miku's kitchen whose job is to stand next to the microwave all night, defrosting frozen Compliments-brand cocktail-shrimp rings, because that sashimi platter also included an impressively bouncy-textured but flavourless jumbo prawn.

The menu, thankfully, is large enough that you needn't bother with sashimi. If it's a "Nutrigreens farm tofu salad" you're after, Miku has got it. If you'd rather a garden roll, Miku's version comes sauced with two words that should never, ever appear adjacent to each other: "kale coulis."

The company's "famous" aburi sushi (it's not famous; you can get aburi sushi almost everywhere) is a hunk of rice, a too-thin slab of fish, and maybe a wheeze of miso or soy sauce, all of it sizzled under a blowtorch flame. I have nothing at all against aburi sushi – it's a fine way to eat mackerel, for instance; the searing sweetens the fat. If my Miku experiences were typical, however, the chief benefit of the aburi technique as it's wielded here is that it allows the company's cooks to yank premade, airport-grade sushi straight from the fridge and then to render it passably warm.

Very little about the food here is awful, to its great credit. (Double that if you do not order the soft-shell-crab fritter roll. "Awful" is too kind a word.) And the hot food, particularly the more North American dishes like the prime rib with nori butter, or the pork belly and sweetbreads combination, are very good.

(A side note: The so-called "kaiseki" dinners here, which include a choice of that prime rib or that pork belly and sweetbreads, share about as much in common with genuine kaiseki cooking – that's Japan's most revered temple-style cuisine – as KFC's Dip'ems Bucket feasts share with Périgord truffle-stuffed poulet de Bresse en vessie. Consider yourself informed.)

The star of Miku's menu isn't fish or meat or even one of its kale abominations, but the exquisite green-tea opera cake, made from layers of green-tea sponge, chocolate ganache, hazelnut wafer, matcha buttercream and adzuki cream. It tastes like it comes from a much better place very far away.

Soushin

  • Atmosphere: A modern, high-end Japanese sushi counter and restaurant at the edge of Bedford Park. Kind service.
  • Wine and drinks: Excellent sake selection, and a handful of beers, including terrific Echigo craft lager from Japan.
  • Prices: Omakase menus for $80, $120 and $250.
  • NB: Wheelchair-accessible, with 30 minutes’ notice to set up ramp.

Miku

  • Atmosphere: A generic, high-ceilinged, big-box room, with frequently befuddled service and plenty of my-credit-card’s-bigger-than-your-credit-card action around the tables.
  • Wine and drinks: Everything you might think to ask for, including excellent sake flights for $21.
  • Best bets: The prime rib and the pork belly with sweetbreads are excellent, as is the opera cake for dessert. The sushi’s mediocre, but you didn’t come here for the food.
  • Prices: Appetizers, $7 to $26; mains $28 to $64; sushi from around $3.50 per piece.
  • NB: Vegetarian-friendly and wheelchair-accessible.
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Chris More

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