Firing up a sushi revolution in Hogtown
Toronto, there’s a new Japanese resto in town. No, it’s not adorned with folding rice paper screens and Japanese lanterns. There are no Kikkoman soy sauce bottles and disposable chopsticks on the table. Nor will the staff scream to welcome you when you enter and leave (your ears will thank you). In fact, the new kid in on the block doesn’t serve Japanese food per se, but Aburi style concept food. “Our cuisine is not Canadian; it’s not Japanese. It is our innovative style gathered from different influences. It’s our Aburi style brand,” explains Seigo Nakamura, owner of the highly anticipated Miku Restaurant located inside the RBC Waterpark Place (10 Bay Street), an oyster shell throw from the downtown Toronto waterfront.
With three acclaimed restaurants in Vancouver (Miku, Minami and Gyoza Bar), Nakamura, the visionary behind Aburi Restaurants Canada, will be bringing the Aburi flavor to Canada’s “Far East.” Nakamura (aka “Boss” – an endearing term that his employees call him) adopts the philosophy of Ningenmi to his business. Translated as “the human flavour,” the ideology revolves around how to treat guests, coworkers and oneself. Nakamura explains, “success can only be achieved by finding passion and pride in your life and bringing joy to others.” It may sound like “touchy-feely HR” talk, but I do notice the difference. There is an electric current of cheerful energy among the passionate staff.
Nakamura wasn’t always passionate about his business. At the age of 22, he took over his ailing father’s small sushi restaurant in southern Japan. When he was 30, Nakamura had eight kaiten sushi (conveyor belt) restaurants under his belt. He was bored with the business and lost his passion. However, after a trip to Vancouver he rediscovered his love for his business. Through a translator, Nakamura explains, “ it was my first trip to Canada, and I fell in love with the multi-ethnic society and the diverse food culture of the country. It was the best timing to bring the innovation of Aburi sushi to one of the world’s most competitive sushi markets. Everyone in Vancouver knows what sushi is, and they have an image of sushi. I wanted to make something that is already good (sushi) into something even better.”
He may not speak much English, but when it comes to the language of innovation, culture and food, Nakamura needs no translation. Bringing a distinct style to Canadian shores with his two hi-end restaurants Miku and Minami (both named after his two daughters), Nakamura revolutionized the sushi scene in Vancouver. Now he wants to do the same in Toronto. You won’t find tempura or California rolls at Miku. Instead, you will find lightly flamed-seared sushi, sashimi and carpaccio on the menu (many of the offerings are Ocean Wise certified). Wait…sushi that’s cooked (perfect for those squeamish about raw fish)? Yes, that’s what Aburi-style sushi is. Nakamura explains that a hand-held blowtorch is fired through a piece of bamboo charcoal to filter the butane flavour, infusing a subtle smoky taste in the fish without compromising its freshness.
Miku’s signature dish, Aburi salmon oshi sushi, is a fusion of Japanese and Canadian cuisines. BC wild sockeye salmon is pressed on a bed of sushi rice. “Miku” sauce, an aioli-like buttery dressing is then spread over the fish and garnished with a slice of jalapeno and freshly cracked black pepper. The pressed sushi is then lightly torched. Paired with Miku’s clean and ever so smooth (dangerously so) house sake, Aburi Ginjo (brewed by the oldest brewery in Japan exclusively for Nakamura’s restaurant), the combination is simply divine. The rich, savoury, and buttery salmon is complex, with two levels of spice coming to the palate, the black pepper and the crunchy jalapeño. Every layer of the sushi can be tasted, including the subtle charcoal flavour of the fish and the lightly vinegary sushi rice. The acidity of the Aburi Ginjo cut through the creamy, indulgent “Miku” sauce, cleansing my palate between bites. The sushi was well seasoned on its own and didn’t need the “typical” condiments of soy sauce and wasabi. “Aburi style sushi doesn’t require soy sauce or wasabi. Eat as is.” Nakamura advises.
Miku offers 28 Sake varieties (from all over Japan), and even hired a Sake Sommelier to recommend pairings for its unique a la carte offerings, such as soba pepperoncino (a Japanese – Italian fusion dish that is a favorite of Nakamura’s), Saikyo miso baked sablefish and lobster tail with togarashi spiced chicken skin, AAA sterling silver beef tenderloin with wasabi veal jus, and green tea opera (a seven-layer cake that takes pastry chef Aiko Uchigoshi three days to prepare). For the adventurous and uninhibited, Miku also offers a multi-course kaiseki menu.
In the hands of Miku’s Corporate Executive Chef Kazuya Matsuoka, the kaiseki menu gives diners the purest expression of the chef’s art, through both the food and the Zekkei style of plating. Translated as a “superb view,” each course is stunningly presented on handcrafted Japanese Arita (named after the town where they are made) porcelain plates that were selected by Nakamura himself. Chef Matsuoka’s culinary skill devoted to each course is a feast for both the eyes and palate. The Arita plates serve as a canvas for the beautiful presentation, complementing each dish with their asymmetrical design and bold colors. The adage of “eating with your eyes” is certainly true at Miku. Each dish was presented beautifully, like a work of art, almost too pretty to eat. Almost.
In addition to the masterpieces coming out of Chef Matsuoka’s kitchen and onto your table, diners will be mesmerized by the showpiece murals painted by internationally renowned Kyoto painter, Hideki Kimura. His stunning and whimsical paintings of a salmon flowing through a river and maple leafs blowing in the wind can be felt through the organic and fluid nature of the hand painted imagery.
Although the innovative yet unconventional concept of eating “cooked” sushi without soy sauce or wasabi is seen on more menus across the city, Miku is considered the pioneer for popularizing “Aburi” style sushi. By creating speciality sauces using non-traditional Japanese ingredients to go with each different type of fish, he has introduced flavours beyond diners expectations. From the signature Aburi salmon oshi fused with jalapeño to Aburi hamachi (yellowtail) with avocado sauce, to Aburi hotate (scallop) with cod roe mayo. Nakamura’s Aburi Sushi brand has garnered cult-like status among Vancouverites, and I can see why. Welcome to Hogtown Miku! Jiro might dream of sushi, but Miku’s Aburi-style sushi will have Torontonians spend their waking hours craving it.