Robin Dreams of Sushi: Japango

Some restaurants presenting a foreign cuisine are more evocative than others: at Japango, you feel like you have instantly travelled to Japan because as soon as you walk in the door, the staff simultaneously look up from what they were doing and cry out “Irasshimase!” (please come in). In Japan, this is an accepted, completely natural process. In Toronto, you are far more likely to receive a wordless grunt.

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Japango is a little, wooden room with as many tables crammed in as physically possible. Accessing the seats along the outer walls is easy, if you’ve lost count of how many times someone has mistaken you for Kate Moss or Twiggy, as the tables are literally about five inches apart.

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Come anywhere close to lunch time and every one of these tables will be occupied, with an impatient line of people clicking intensely away on their phones often stretching out onto the sidewalk. They do take reservations but get understandably testy if you are (a) late, or (b) any of your party are late or worse, MIA. In a place as small and popular as this, it’s remarkable that they take reservations at all and more of a service to their guests than themselves.

Above the sushi bar, there are hundreds of slender wooden boxes stuck up on the wall, with different names on them:
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these are the chopsticks ( or hashi) of the inner circle of Japango clientele – big spenders or the most faithful of regulars. The honour is by invitation only and bestowed at the discretion of the management. Japango’s modest amount of wall space is also decorated with signed photographs left by the famous and infamous (viz. Nickelback).

Also in pride of place is a small shrine to one of Japango’s most beloved retainers: a shelf contains a framed portrait of Jack Layton, a statue of a lucky cat with one paw raised, a candle, and Jack’s officially retired pair of hashi.

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Someone with a keener eye on municipal politics than mine would be assured of spotting various movers and shakers on any given day, as Japango is on a little street that runs straight north from the back of City Hall, through the ghost of Toronto’s original Chinatown. There always seems to be plenty of wheeling and dealing going on, which makes for interesting eavesdropping (not that you have a choice considering the proximity of your fellow diners: Japango is not a great venue for that sensitive discussion with a close friend on the topic of an impending messy divorce, gender re-assignment surgery or how close you are to bankruptcy). On a beautiful spring Friday afternoon, the place is densely packed, and the good natured crowd of diners are shouting at each other to make themselves heard over a funky jazz soundtrack.

At first pass, Japango’s menu seems pretty standard. There are a variety of different sets and bento boxes, structured around sashimi, sushi or other things like teriyaki or tempura, along with a few individual specialty items, such as an oyster shooter. They never list the fish you can expect, because they prefer to control that from behind the sushi bar, although the classics are generally accounted for: salmon, mackerel, hamachi and the like.

Tea and miso soup were delivered immediately as we sat down.

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We ordered the sushi nigiri bento, the sashimi bento, gyoza, the tempura appetizer, and one oyster shooter. The bentos came first, the starters came afterward: according to my lunch companion who was a resident of Japan for a few years, this often happens in actual Japanese restaurants and was not simply North American cack-handedness. By the time I was finished taking pictures, everything else had arrived and it was a tricky spatial Tetris problem making it all fit on the table.

I started with the shooter:
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a small, freshly shucked mini oyster, with a little rice wine vinegar, some mentaiko roe (dark red, from Pollock fish), a small piece of uni, with a raw quail egg cracked over top, and a razor thin slice of green onion. They used to make it with yuzu juice, a fruit from Japan that’s somewhere between a lemon, a lime and an orange. It was better with the yuzu tang, but still an interesting combination of slippery-ness with a bit of crunch from the roe and some resistance from the oyster (but not much).

The bentos had a simple selection of fish: for the sashimi, there was salmon, toro tuna (the pale pink fatty kind), hamachi, mackerel and a velvety white fish I couldn’t identify but liked all the same.

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Roughly the same fish appeared on the sushi nigiri bento, only there was maguro tuna instead of toro. There was also a spread of tiny side dishes in the individual compartments of the bento box that are never the same.

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On this day there was a little wakame salad, some cold cooked lotus root, a bright yellow pickle of some kind, a classic iceberg salad with thick, house made dressing heavy on the freshly shaved ginger. The pickled ginger that accompanies the fish is most distinctly not pink in colour and does not come from a plastic jar. There was also a small bowl of carrot/daikon salad, and a half slice of tamago layered with something (red pepper flecks?) laid on top of a frilly little leaf I didn’t recognize (not shiso, which was also present…this looked more like a cedar frond but wasn’t).

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I’ve heard it said before that the true mark of a great sushi restaurant isn’t the fish, but the tamago: the technique is simple but according to one of the apprentices in the fascinating documentary Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, takes something like 3,000 repetitions to do absolutely correctly.

The nigiri are much smaller than one has come to expect in North America: the size is about what they are in Japan, perhaps even smaller. As a consequence, the fish to rice ratio is a bit higher than normal, and you also come away without the unpleasant feeling of being stuffed which inevitably seems to kick in about 15 minutes after your last piece of regular-sized sushi, when the rice has finished expanding inside you.

The tuna is the better quality stuff: you don’t get much of it, but what you will get is a blood red, jewel like slice of very fresh maguro tuna.

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I love sushi and eat it quite regularly at various places around town, usually the cheaper ones…let’s just say the tuna at Japango agrees with me much better than tuna anywhere else, with the exception of such topflight establishments as Hashimoto. Most likely this is due to a combination of a more exacting level of freshness and quality overall (for example, not attempting to impersonate tuna with much cheaper butterfish, a common practice in less reputable establishments), which is reflected in Japango’s higher, but not stratospherically higher prices.

Something a bit unusual about Japango is a fried garlic dressing they put on top of some white fish. It tastes like garlic has been very finely minced, then slowly fried until the shreds of garlic are reduced to dark golden grains of garlicky sand, and then this mixture is stroked lightly over the surface of the nigiri so that some of the oil helps the grains stick to the surface of the fish. This smacks somewhat of a technique to cover up fish that might not be the freshest, but it’s so tasty I don’t care.

The gyoza are golden, the bubbles from the dough after being plunged into hot oil very obvious and giving a lighter texture to the crisp exterior. The dumplings are plump with good meat filling.

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The tempura is lacy, delicate, crunchy with no lingering taste of the fryer: the oil is both clean and kept at the proper temperature, and the batter is the right consistency, i.e. not too thick. Cauliflower is an unusual inclusion and has been steamed very lightly in advance so that it’s not undercooked in the final product. This is something I respect in a Japanese restaurant: a small thing that is so simple and relatively cheap to do properly, and yet so many places just can’t be bothered.

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This was the point about Jiro’s restaurant: it stands out as a legendary place because of maniacal dedication to not just getting it right, whatever it is, but getting it right hundreds of thousands of times in a row. And nothing, nothing is overlooked: Jiro’s own son, the heir-apparent to the restaurant, is charged with the solemn duty of toasting the nori. What eventually rests in front of you if you are fortunate enough to get a seat in Jiro’s restaurant (I think there are 12 people every night, reservations are made up to a year in advance) is the culmination of a lifetime of experimentation, the best possible ingredients purchased through a network of relationships with vendors that was built over that same lifetime, and the work involved in not only getting every tiny contributing step perfect, but training an entire kitchen to do the same thing and produce identical perfect results every day.

Japango may not reach those same dizzy heights (although my husband and I did head straight there like zombie homing pigeons after watching Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, but oddly it was closed because a Japanese monster movie was being shot on the street that day – sometimes, just sometimes Toronto can be cool without even trying), and it’s likely not the very best sushi in Toronto: I’ve still failed to eat at some important institutions such as Kaji, so I’m really in no position to judge. But it’s clear that they care about their food, they pour enthusiasm and intensity into it, and I do know that Japango will charm and satisfy me at some intangible, deep level, every time I go. It will put a wrong day to rights and make a good day even better, and it’s an unexpectedly refined place for a night out, too, because they’ll put together an extremely enjoyable omakase for about $70 if you make arrangements in advance. The extra $3.00-$5.00 on an average lunch tab which is vigorously complained about by some online reviewers is richly repaid in consistency, freshness, and the opportunity to one day earn your own personal pair of hashi.

Japango, 122 Elizabeth Street (NOT the one in the Beaches, which is supposed to be very different and I hear, not nearly as good). I think they have a website but I could not find it, for the life of me.

$65.00 for two, including tax, tip, oyster shooter and bottomless green tea.

Japango on Urbanspoon

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