Monday, November 10, 2014

Omakase at Yasu Sushi Bar

Opened merely just six months ago on 81 Harbord St. at Spadina, Yasu has already received a slew of positive write-ups and reviews from food bloggers and food critics in the city. So what makes this place so special? For $80 per person excluding taxes and gratuities, Yasu serves each guest 18 pieces of nigiri and a dessert. And no, you don't get to choose what sushi you want in this tiny 12-seat restaurant, it's omakase, which means you simply sit down and give full control to the chef - he is the one deciding what you'll eat. 

There are two seating times available at Yasu (Twitter: @yasutoronto, Facebook: Yasuevery evening at 6:00PM and 8:30PM (they don't accommodate for walk-ins). Don't be overly diligent and arrive early because they will literally lock the door and force you to wait outside until it's 6:00 PM / 8:30PM on the dot (I really hope they'll do something about this "policy" come winter time). Lastly, a credit card is needed to when you make your reservation. Any cancellations, no shows or reduction in the number of parties made less than 24 hours will be charged the full price of the dinner plus HST unless they are able to fill your seats. 

There are 10 seats at the bar and a two-top by the window.

Taped on the wall behind the chef is a list of fish and where they are from. It's safe to say that most, if not all, of the fish you'll be having that evening will be on that list.

Two chefs work behind the counter and they hardly talk to one another (or to guests for that matter) and if they do talk, they talk in very hushed tones. Generally speaking, the atmosphere at Yasu is very quiet, subdued and borderline sterile...similar to an art gallery.

The one thing you do get to decide on at Yasu is your choice of beverage.

A couple of action shots of the chef who served me. 

A third chef came out to prepare the sea eel.

Here are two collages of the 18 sushi pieces I had at Yasu. Please keep in mind that the fish selection changes constantly and the nigiri is not served with soy sauce; the chef brushes nikiri on the fish before serving it ("nikiri" is a sauce with a umami sweetness that enhances the flavour of the fish). From left to right:

1. Shima aji (Japan)
2. Fluke (Boston)
3. Bonito (Japan)
4. Ocean trout (New Zealand)
5. Greater amberjack (Japan)
6. Aburi scallop (Boston)
7. Monkfish liver (Iceland)
8. Sea bass (Greece)
9. Sea urchin (Vancouver)

10. Salmon roe (Alaska)
11. Scorpion fish (Portugal)
12. Sea bream (Greece)
13. Snow crab (East Coast)
14. Mackerel (Norway)
15. Toro (Nova Scotia)
16. Toro hand roll
17. Sea eel (Peru)
18. Tamago / Egg

Before dessert, the chefs asked if anybody wanted extra nigiri. It’s typically a $7 or $8 charge per piece.

Dessert: Black sesame ice cream

Green tea panna cotta

I was underwhelmed by my experience at Yasu. I admit that I went in with higher expectations than normal (mainly because everybody who went to Yasu told me they loved it) but even if I was oblivious to what everyone said, my dinner still fell short of what I would expect from a restaurant charging $80 per person. There were aspects that I enjoyed about my dining experience, such as its pristine, simplistic decor, the vast variety of fish flown in from around the world, the perfect timing and pace between each piece of sushi served, and the overall quality of the fish (which was excellent). However, there were a few things that irked me:

- I know I'm not eating at a teppanyaki restaurant so I don't expect a show but seriously, I would appreciate it if the chef would crack a smile once in awhile. Not only did the chef who served me did not smile once nor made any sort of eye contact, he mumbled all the sushi names - I had to ask him to repeat it on several occasions just so I know what I was going to have. I wish I had the other chef instead because he was all smiles and had the occasional banter with dinner guests. I started listening to him for sushi names instead of my own chef.
- After 18 pieces and dessert, I was still not full. Very small nigiri portions in general. Feeling hungry after a pricey dinner is never cool. Pho or instant noodle came to mind when I was waiting for the bill, but then I do have a big appetite and can eat a lot so maybe it's just me.
- The sushi rice needed better seasoning; it was bland and lacked flavour. 
- The rice was nicely warmed and loose, but perhaps a bit too loose which resulted in a couple of sushi pieces falling apart before it even reached my mouth.
- They were really cheap with the ginger, or just slow...or both. At JaBistro, for example, when I sit at the sushi bar and order their nigiri a.k.a "kyukyoku", the chef is generous and always on the ball when it comes to topping up my ginger. At Yasu, however, it was never a quick ordeal and when he does top it up it's only a few pieces.
- One other aspect where JaBistro outshines Yasu is the following: at JaBistro, the chef wipes your plate if he notices leftover nikiri on it. Even if it is just a thin smear of sauce, he will wipe it away before serving the next piece. My plate was never wiped at Yasu, and I specifically remember the chef placing a new piece of nigiri on the plate, right on top of excess nikiri from the previous piece. I'm not saying this is a big deal but attention to detail matters.
- Last, and definitely not least, is the bone I found in my Scorpion fish. Again, I know mishaps happen and trust me, I wouldn't even care of it was a thin flimy piece of bone that I can easily break apart and/or swallow. Although not big in size, the particular piece of fish bone I bit on was thick and hard; there was no way it was going to go down easy. I told my server about the bone. He quickly apologized and proceeded behind the counter to tell the chef, who took a quick look at the bone on my plate and apologized as well. I want to emphasize one more time that finding a bone is not the end of the world and shit happens but I expected more at that level of dining, and "more" does not mean a complimentary fish bone. To be honest I don't even remember the last time I found bone in my fish at a sushi restaurant.

Yasu is worth a try if you are curious about it or has never been but based on my personal experience, I would not be in a rush to go back.

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