Stand-up sushi in the Financial District? A great idea is done in by details
Precisely every 30 minutes, a server at Tachi, the six-month-old standing sushi bar on Richmond Street West, draws a Japanese shoji screen closed behind the restaurant’s customers and clangs a pair of hanging bells. Those two acts mark the start of service at one of Canada’s most novel new sushi spots, as well as the point when Tachi’s clock starts counting down.
That little room, which seats—or rather, doesn’t seat—eight patrons around two fleet-fingered chefs for every service, is the country’s first standing-room-only sushi counter. It’s also the first I’ve encountered here that promises a high-end omakase-style sushi service in 30 minutes or less.
The last time I visited, I ate my lunch as slowly as possible, ordered an extra piece of nigiri, nursed a can of Perrier (they don’t bother with glasses here) and was the last to pay my bill. I still got in and out in 23 minutes. The sushi was even pretty good, depending what your standards are.
Tachi, which is tucked into the Assembly Chefs Hall, is run by the people behind Shoushin, the lauded, big-money sushi spot in midtown. At Shoushin, the omakase menus go for $185, $285 and “$400 + (Chef’s discretion).”
Tachi is the Shoushin company’s low to mid-market volume play. The chefs are often junior. You get the sense it’s been designed with multi-location expansion at top of mind. A meal here comes to just less than $51 per person, tax and tip in, a little more if you have one of the single-serving, made-for-glugging sake bottles, or order a “feature nigiri piece to enhance your omakase experience” as the company’s website says.
The standard omakase experience might include a nicely creamy scallop, some lightly vinegared Spanish mackerel, a piece each of amberjack (crisp-textured, clean-tasting), smoked bonito (thickly-cut, smoky, lovely), fluke (fine), sea eel (heated in a toaster oven; flabby tasting and bland the last time I tried it) and grouper (forgettable), as well as some excellent salmon roe and several slices of bluefin tuna. The last time I ate there I also enhanced my omakase experience with an ivory piece of giant squid. It tasted sweet and indistinct and chewed like a slice of backfat.
The rice is sweet and rich and toasty-flavoured; it’s more assertive than at a lot of sushi places. You’ll also get a bluefin-based hand roll at the end of your meal, which, like a lot of what they serve here, you’ll struggle to remember eating even 20 minutes after leaving the place.
Tachi’s very novelty—its speed of service and value-for-dollar—is also to my mind its weakness. Sure, it’s fast and it’s cheap, but the experience of eating here strips away much of what makes great sushi great.
Like the fish selection. The fish at Tachi doesn’t seem “selected” so much as simply ordered from a list. When you go to a great sushi spot, and even many pretty good ones, they serve you whatever’s in season and at its peak that day and that week—whatever the chef is most excited about.
At Yasu on Harbord Street (which is in another league entirely than Tachi), and at Skippa (where the sushi is to my taste over-garnished, but very good), you never quite know what you’re going to eat. At Tachi, the menu’s posted online, and it’s barely changed in the six months I’ve been going.
Instead of bringing in BC prawns or top-quality urchin, excellent sardines or needlefish, flying fish, geoduck or other less common species, Tachi leans hard of late on your standard sushi-joint selections (fluke, amberjack, bonito, etc.), as well as mountains of “premium,” but dubiously sourced bluefin tuna. You get four courses of bluefin when you visit here: lean, medium, fatty and chopped up in a hand roll. Don’t bother trying, as I did on one visit, to abstain from the bluefin. They don’t have a backup that’s worth your time.
Where that tuna is from, the sushi chefs don’t say. Tachi’s chefs don’t, as a rule, offer any information about what they serve here, apart from species.
(It’s sourced from Mexico, chef and partner Jackie Lin acknowledged on a fact-checking call. He’d rather serve East Coast Atlantic or Japanese bluefin, as they do at Shoushin, he said. Some conservation researchers argue those stocks are marginally less threatened by overfishing, but as the chef put it, “there’s a price to that.”)
If you’re at all like me, you can’t help wondering what other, tastier, less predictable, less on-the-cusp-of-extinction fish all those bluefin dollars could buy.
The chefs at Tachi also don’t cut much of it to order; most of the fish is already sliced when the guests show up. How else would they keep up feeding it to you as quickly as you can bear?
The fish comes so fast at times that it can feel as though the chefs here are paid a bonus for their pace. If you like to savour your sushi, to discern the character and nuances of what you’re eating—to me, at least, this is omakase sushi’s entire point—Tachi is likely to leave you cold.
What troubles me most about the place is how much better it could be. The concept—of quick, made-to-order, top-flight sushi at a reasonable price—works well in Japan. Just such a lunch in the Tsukiji market, for roughly the same price Tachi charges—remains the best sushi experience of my life.
And Mr. Lin knows better too. I’ve been following his work for a decade, since he was an apprentice at Zen Japanese Restaurant, in Scarborough. His sushi doesn’t usually taste like phoning it in.
I’ve been to Tachi three times now; the first (full disclosure here) was for a pre-opening lunch in January, before I’d returned to restaurant criticism full-time. On that visit, I wasn’t given a bill.
Each time I go, it seems a little less special. It’s perfectly fine. By Toronto standards, it’s easily in the city’s top 10 or 15 sushi spots. But if you measure by care and ambition and, most important, by consciousness-hijacking deliciousness, it’s also just a couple of steps better than a high-end, grab-and-go sushi box. And at least with the sushi box you don’t have to eat in such a rush.
Atmosphere: An eight-patron, stand-up sushi counter tucked into a small and well-appointed room at Assembly Chefs Hall.
Prices: Fourteen pieces of sushi for $45 plus tax.
Drinks: There’s hot tea, canned and bottled drinks, Asahi beer and gluggable single-serve sake.
What to eat: The menu is prix fixe
What the symbols mean:
Vegetarian options available
Dining and restrooms are wheelchair accessible
Critic’s Pick. Our recommendation for a restaurant that doesn’t offer full service.
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.