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A Yasu alum tries something new: great sushi without all the fuss

A Yasu alum tries something new: great sushi without all the fuss

When I was in Tokyo a few years back I ate a couple of unforgettable sushi menus. The first one, at a famous omakase counter called Sushi Dai, came at the end of a three-hour lineup that snaked around the Tsukiji fish market. Though the nigiri there was possibly the best of my life, I doubt I’d ever go back. To visit demanded planning and commitment and a wide-open schedule; the place’s popularity required that you treat a stop there—once in the door, it’s a roughly 25-minute experience—as a semi-significant life event.

A couple of weeks later, on my last night in town, I stopped with my wife at a far more basic sushiya. It was a random choice not far from our apartment; we were too hungry to trek to a destination sushi spot. But the experience of eating there, while almost as good, was nothing like at that Tsukiji market counter. We didn’t wait for a seat. The pace of service was leisurely. The chef was kind and inquisitive; he asked what we liked and then catered to our stomachs. Instead of a pre-destined menu where the house was in charge, he tailored the experience to meet our fish-on-rice desires.

Which is not for a moment to favour one approach over the other—there’s a time and a place for event sushi, certainly, just as there’s a time and place for a more casual, more personal style. But here in Toronto, event sushi has been ascendant for the last few years; there are often hoops to dive through if you want the best stuff. At Yasu, for instance, you’re in for a tough reservation (have your credit card ready when you book), a timed dinner (you may feel you’re being herded in and out), a set menu and a $135 per person (plus) food bill. At Shoushin, it’s at least $185 per person before drinks, tax and tip.

Early in June, Jugemu opened quietly in a basement on Carlton Street, at the edge of Cabbagetown. It’s run under the banner of the Zakkushi group (the izakaya upstairs is excellent) but feels like an independent restaurant. When I first showed up a few weeks ago, the staff seemed surprised to see a stranger—they’d only advertised so far in Japanese media, they said. But that little room and sushi counter melds a level of quality approaching the best places in the city with the uncomplicatedness of a friendly, neighbourhood sushiya. If you’re into great sushi but without the fuss, it’s a place worth getting to know.

Jugemu is the sort of sushi spot where they ask what fish you like best, and where the chef wants feedback about his seasoning. Do you like this much wasabi? Did the shima-aji have enough yuzu? And just as important, they bring in some seriously delicious creatures from the sea.

There have been tiny, glistening white shrimp lately from Japan’s Toyama Prefecture: sweet and mild and piled onto the rice in translucent ivory-pink drifts. There are exquisite, clean-tasting Japanese sardines that arrive scored on their skin and daubed with lifting ginger. There’s mild, fatty barracuda that’s softly smoky from the chef’s butane torch. The ikura are fat and ruby-hued. The chef keeps around 20 different fish and shellfish species on hand at any time. (A bonus: if like me, you’re not into driving bluefin tuna ever-nearer to extinction, they’ve got plenty of other, more interesting options to fill out a meal.)

The uni here, just touched with a few grains of Okinawa salt, is some of the best I’ve had; when I marvelled at its rich, iodine-edged, creamsicle-of-the-sea taste, the chef only shrugged and smiled. “I didn’t do anything,” he told me. I’d argue that he absolutely did.

The chef at Jugemu is named Koji Tashiro; if you ate at JaBistro in its first few years, or more recently, at Yasu, you’re likely to recognize his face. Mr. Tashiro, who is 36, began his sushi apprenticeship in Tokyo at the age of 17. In 2008, he was hired to help open Miku, in Vancouver. After a spell there, he decamped for home, to spend a year selling fish at Tsukiji market, he said. Mr. Tashiro wanted to follow the seafood trade through Japan’s four seasons so he could observe and taste an entire year of fish.

He bounced between Tokyo and Toronto, landing back here to open JaBistro, on Richmond Street West, in 2013.

Last year, he spent six months at the counter at Yasu, not so much to improve his sushi-making, he said, but because he wanted to learn that style of sushi service—one where the nigiri is prepared and presented a single piece at a time.

As plans for Jugemu took shape, though, the chef considered a few things he’d do differently.

“At the beginning, sushi was just a snack,” Mr. Tashiro said. “Kind of like a food truck hot dog.” Sushi’s origins are in casual eating, in other words. It doesn’t have to be an event. And especially at sushi’s higher quality levels, it can be more relaxed and friendly than it often is.

At Jugemu, you can order a 12-piece selection of the chef’s best fish for $70, or smaller quantities if you’d rather. There’s even a $12 option called “Small happiness assorted fish w/ rice.”

And Mr. Tashiro wants to be able to answer questions and talk to his customers, he told me. That’s a simple desire, but one that’s also increasingly rare.

This past Saturday at Jugemu’s counter was a study in getting to know your customers. A middle-aged man who said he’s an executive with Honda had come into the restaurant for the second time. He parked himself dead-centre in front of Mr. Tashiro, a few spaces north of where I was seated. He ordered sashimi first, and then nigiri, but piece by piece, bite by bite, gauging his own hunger as he went.

He talked with the chef, and then with me; it felt refreshingly like a neighbourhood spot, instead of like one of the stern, perfection-is-impossible temples where junior chefs weep when their eight thousandth tamago is finally deemed fit for human mouths. As Mr. Tashiro cut Hokkaido scallops and fluke, then horse mackerel, sardines and ocean trout, the chef kept talking with the tables around the room. He made jokes, took orders and asked his customers for their preferences.

And he did that while managing the finer points of sushi making. The faults that I saw at JaBistro in the restaurant’s early days (sloppy cutting, over-reliance on the blowtorch) are nowhere in evidence at Jugemu. The cutting is precise; the temperatures are nicely calibrated. The rice at Jugemu is more of a background element than at many other places; where at Shoushin it can compete with the taste of the fish, here it plays a quieter role.

The nori is good, but it doesn’t seem to riffle with deliciousness the way it can at Yasu; as with the rice, it’s a background element. The torching here, when it’s used, adds warmth and sweetness without overpowering the fish. The saucing is always kept in balance.

If I have doubts about the place, they concern what might change when Jugemu gets busy, as it surely will. It’s easier to bang out top-flight sushi—and to take the time to talk with your customers—in a near-empty restaurant than in one with a lineup out the door. In any case, Mr. Tashiro has plenty of experience, so I’m hopeful that being busy won’t change very much.

If you’re worried, maybe get there in the short-term. And don’t neglect the appetizers when you go. The simplest of these is a basic bowl of potato salad with potato chips (it’s unabashed drinking food); you can get a bowl of tsukemono pickles (tasty, though less complexly fermented and flavoured than you’ll find in much of Japan; the longest ferment here is just a week), or superb sliced sea bass brushed with yuzu-forward ponzu. The straw-smoked bonito is excellent; if you like head-on shrimp (be sure to suck the good stuff from the upper carapace), the ones here nicely do the job.

And Jugemu’s $5 house miso soup—a phoned-in filler of a dish at many city sushi spots—is a bowl of exquisiteness. It’s made from red miso and fish stock and is simmered with fish maw, so you slurp from the bowl (they don’t send out a spoon) and tweeze up the bones with your chopsticks to suck out the bits of tastiness. Sure it’s a bit of work and it’s messy, but it’s also surprisingly meditative. The eyeball in my bowl was far firmer than I’d expected, for instance; chew it delicately, avoiding its gobstopper of a core, much the way you’d chew a tiny, all-seeing lychee fruit. That miso soup is wildly delicious, one of the very best bowls of soup in town.

 

Update, Sept. 6/2018: We’ve begun to hear that the sushi counter is booking out; some walk-in customers have been directed to tables, where the sushi service is less personalized. Best to book a seat at the counter when possible. CN-S

Jugemu

Cuisine: Japanese

Atmosphere: A simple, 30-seat neighbourhood sushiya with counter and table seating, friendly service and Tokyo hotel -style lounge music that plays in too short a loop.

Sound: Quiet to reasonable.

Prices: Appetizers, $5 to $14; nigiri from $4 to $18 per piece; sushi menus from $12 to $70.

Drinks: There’s Sapporo beer, a handful of sakes, as well as Suntory whisky, shoju, a cheap Spanish white and red wine, and tea.

What the symbols mean:

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Vegetarian options available

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Dining and restrooms are wheelchair accessible

Critic's Pick

Critic’s Pick. Our recommendation for a restaurant that doesn’t offer full service.

1 star

One star (out of four). A good restaurant. Recommended.

Two stars (out of four). A very good restaurant.

Three stars (out of four). An excellent restaurant.

Four stars (out of four). An extraordinary restaurant.

Chris Nuttall-Smith is The Taster’s editor-in-chief and founder. He’s worked as food editor, chief critic and dining columnist at Toronto Life, restaurant critic for enRoute (he wrote the magazine’s celebrated Canada’s Best New Restaurant list in 2009), and more recently, national food reporter and Toronto restaurants columnist for The Globe and Mail. Nuttall-Smith’s writing on food, drink and other subjects has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, New York magazine, Toro and Lucky Peach. He’s also a resident judge on Top Chef Canada.