FEW TORONTO RESTAURANT OPENINGS have generated anything close to the feverish level of anticipatory interest that swirled around Sushi Masaki Saito in the spring. I mean, complete strangers came up to me while I was dining out elsewhere to ask if I’d been yet, and—a little breathlessly— was it worth it?
Well yes. And yes.
But there’s no need to take my word for it. Our 100-plus judges have spoken. And in its inaugural year they voted Sushi Masaki Saito into 10th place overall—higher than any other new restaurant. And that makes Sushi Masaki Saito our Best New Restaurant for 2020. A remarkable achievement made a whole lot more so because the odds were stacked against it.
The reason why comes down to simple numbers. Here’s an inside tip from me, editor-in-chief, gratis: if you want to improve your chances of winning this award, you’ll want to open your fabulous new restaurant early in the year to give our judges maximum time to dine at your place before voting closes the following January. You’ll want to have space for walk-ins, so judges can drop in on a whim instead of being turned away. And you’ll want to be priced no higher than the upper reaches of reasonable, so people can book a table for two without, well, feeling a little queasy.
But Saito opened midway through voting season, in June, serving only eight people a night (eventually they built up to 16). The wait was instantly months long. And for those who could get in, well, the price of admission was $500 per.
So predictably not many of our judges got in. How then did Sushi Masaki Saito get enough votes to be catapulted into 10th place? Because with only one exception every judge who ate there voted the sushiya their number 1 restaurant experience of the year. Perfect 10s all around.
That’s how good it is. Part of it has to do with the convincingly rarefied Japanese aesthetic that takes over the moment you enter, from the wall and ceiling panels of flawless Japanese cedar, the handwoven tatami mat in the tea room and that beautiful hinoki bar, its matte surface sanded clean every night. But all that’s just a stage for the jovial sushi master behind it. Masaki Saito brings such extraordinary skill and craft in tailoring his curing arsenal of salt, kelp, shoyu and time to each different piece of prime Japanese fish he sources. When he’s done, and deems it ready to be placed in front of you on that bar, the texture is apotheotic, the umami-rich flavour off the charts—and if it doesn’t bring a smile to your face, sushi never will.
Thanks for that, Masaki Saito. Thank you to owner William Cheng, for taking up the challenge of coaxing you here from New York. Hoping to sit at your bar again soon.