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Off The Beaten Track Restaurants

It is not every day that one might stumble off the beaten track, only to walk into some of Canada’s top restaurants.

The voting guidelines that we send out to our judges at the start of their annual eating season include a reminder that, so far as Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants is concerned, a high-quality restaurant should represent the complete package. That begins with great food, but it should also extend to lovely decor, agreeable service and ambience, and an excellent cellar.

Imagine, for example, a cramped and plain 13-seat room on, say, a shabby stretch of Vancouver’s Denman Street. A restaurant with no cellar, offering only a rudimentary level of service (unless you’re Japanese or, like James Bond, took a first in Oriental languages at Cambridge).

You are sitting there at the three-stool (three!) bar, wedged in beside a chalkboard listing some daily specials, when in front of you appears a small, charcoal grey rectangular plate holding one small piece of cuttlefish. This is topped with shiso leaf chiffonade (no, not the Japanese term) sliced so finely that it falls in a tiny clump, like a cluster of dried strands of saffron.

Now, imagine that that same disciplined knife-work has also been applied to the raw cuttlefish—in a process that began two hours ago, when one surface of your little fillet of cephalopod was treated to more than two dozen evenly spaced parallel cuts. And that just now, right before it was delivered to you across the counter, chef Satoshi Makise treated it to a couple dozen more incisions.

Pop it into your mouth and the customarily chewy little thing has been transformed. Its mouthfeel is unrecognizable; it has become something new. The side with the nearly microscopic striations has acquired an exquisite creaminess, while the opposite side still has a firmness that resists the tooth. The textures combine for an unusually blissful mouthful.

And then there’s the rest of that evening’s omakase, all of it built on delicious, big-carbon-footprint imports from the waters off Japan. The easy pace, the range of preparations, the great knife-work and that perfect, room-temperature rice with its mild hint of vinegared tang and firm, sticky but distinguishable grains—that made for a great meal.

Folded sheets of madai, dabbed with the paste of fermented green chilli; a translucently thin disk of raw octopus on a bed of seaweed and dashi; seasonal mako garei— or marbled sole—its surface grooved and brushed with soy; Hokkaido uni dabbed with wasabi; Spanish mackerel with ginger and grated daikon. When chef Makise brought out the blackthroat sea perch from the Tsukiji fish market, well, naturally, I had to take a photo and rub it in to a sushi-loving friend of mine from B.C., stuck on the pass at his gastropub in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood.

“Masayoshi?” Derek Dammann texted back, almost instantaneously. “Lucky!”

I was not at Masayoshi. I was at Tetsu Sushi Bar, to which I was introduced by my old friend Alexandra Gill (thank you, Alex). Masayoshi did peak at number 48 on our list last year, but it dipped this year, so far as I can tell for no other reason than its diminished lustre of being one year older than it was last year. Tetsu has never made the list. Maybe next year more judges will see it my way.

Whatever happens then, I can tell you now that I do my very best to never visit Vancouver without paying a leisurely visit to either Tetsu or Masayoshi. When my schedule does not permit that, I leave town sad, verging on depressed, and return home badly in need of a fix.

Fortunately, Toronto has Japanese offerings of the same exceptional quality. Some of them complement an amazing sushi offering with a much greater culinary range, not just in what’s turned out from the hot kitchen but also in admirably fulfilling your dream list of Japanese delicacies (bluefin chutoro and otoro, sure, and A5 Wagyu, and even some coveted Japanese muskmelon to send you on your way). Actually, Jackie Lin’s Shoushin, deep in the wilds of North York, was almost certainly the site of the best Japanese meal I enjoyed last year.

 

So if Shoushin has it all, why does it not place higher on our list? Well, I think one judge who voted for the place summed it up tidily. “Omakase in Jackie’s hands is as sublime as dining gets in this country,” Robert Lantos wrote in the comments section of his ballot, going on to coin a new term. “It’s triple E: Extravagant, Exquisite, Expensive. Best to have no limit on your credit card.

 
Speaking of new restaurants unexpectedly improving the lot of neighbourhoods that formerly were culinarily deprived, none has done so quite so dramatically as McKiernan Luncheonette, on the second floor of a converted industrial building by the Lachine canal in the west end of Montreal. This new collaboration from the aforementioned Derek Dammann and the team from Joe Beef is a massive open room, with a Ping-Pong table at one end, a cafeteria-style order counter at the other, and a slew of German beer- hall tables set up in between. Its massive windows afford a magnificent view of the canal, and a few old wooden canoes and other Canadiana elements fill in the stylish picture. More than that, there is something intangible and deeply engaging about the place that makes it sing.

 

Aspiring restaurateurs should visit this place for a fact-finding mission on how rules and conventions don’t matter when you have a personality and you know what you’re doing in the kitchen. Me, I just go to bring my cholesterol level back up after eating too much lean Japanese food. One clam-chowder poutine, a steak tartare-and-pommes-allumettes sandwich, whatever delightful natural wine they’re pushing that day, and a cream-filled beignet, and everything feels like it’s back to normal again.

 

There is, however, a caveat: if the food is genuinely exceptional—as in consistently dazzling—that can make up for any other failing.

McKiernan Luncheonette
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