BLUE ZEN (2561 Yonge, at Sherwood, 416-481-3355) Complete dinners for $40 per person ($25 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $15/$10. Open for lunch Monday to Friday 11 am to 3 pm, Saturday and Sunday noon to 3 pm; dinner Sunday to Thursday till 10 pm, Friday and Saturday till 11 pm. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Susur Lee has his trademark ponytail, Marc Thuet his botched bleach job and Greg Couillard a balding pate. But among Toronto chefs, it's Marco Tam of Blue Zen who wins the prize for the most extraordinary topknot in town.
But while the sushi-meister's out-there hair - a neo new wave do dyed fire-engine red - is the first thing you notice when entering Blue Zen, the uptown Japanese joint he launched four months back, it's the room's minimalist design you remember.
Off-white vinyl banquettes extend down opposite sides of the white-on-white space and face rows of bare white tables and boxy white-upholstered chairs. Above them, turquoise glass vases holding scrawny twigs add to the Zen elegance, an effect amplified by a recessed light box of glittering azure stones set into the floor that runs the length of the stylish storefront and creates an undulating, luminescent blue wave.
Tam's responsible for that, too. The former George Brown instructor - Sushi 101, what else? - has also devised a card that ventures far beyond California Rolls and veggie tempura, a style he describes as Japanese fusion, or, in chef's words, "traditional Japanese with Chinese, American and Italian elements."
We encounter it right off the top in BZ's Spicy Miso Soup ($2.95). Instead of the complimentary dishwater served elsewhere, the rich soy broth here swims with fresh spinach leaf, slivered scallion and glistening droplets of smoky chili oil on its surface that induce a coughing fit. We like.
But though it's brimming with all manner of fishy things - green New Zealand mussels on the shell, a shrimp or two, an articulated crab leg - as well as crunchy recipe-correct bamboo shoot, carrot and onion, there's little that's incendiary about sugary Seafood Hot & Sour Soup ($4.95). Sweet 'n' sour, more like.
Tam's one not-too-miss dish is Tuna Basil Wrap ($8.95), a beautifully plated starter of thinly sliced raw tuna wrapped around cut scallops and tobiko smeared with mayo, and layered with whole Italian basil leaf, the lot artfully drizzled with sweet teriyaki-style sauce. The house roll - six maki spirals of raw salmon, tuna, faux crab, avocado and cucumber ($7.95) - verges on edible sculpture, the outer emerald-green seaweed shells painted with pink wasabi mayo for an ingenious tiger stripe effect.
While quite tasty, Salmon Nuta Salad ($6.95) - chopped seafood mixed with fresh garden peas and scallion in lemony miso mayo - looks like something the cat upchucked on the carpet.
Lobster Tempura ($15.95) finds five lengths of fabulous flesh dipped in panko before being lightly battered, the end result being some of the most skillfully executed fried fish I've ever encountered.
But served in a white room on a white table on a white plate sided with a prefab mound of plain rice, it's relentlessly white. A few colourful veggies would not be amiss.
Here's that same clump of rice with another main of brilliantly green steamed asparagus stalks wrapped in a DNA helix of butterflied shrimp, alongside some diced carrot and potato. Delicious on their own - as a starter, perhaps? - they get no favours from the bottled-tasting sauce that blankets them.
We're a bit surprised to see Filet Mignon Stuffed with Goose Liver Pâté ($23.95) on the menu (later, Tam informs us he's ditching it because "Nobody orders it anyway") but decide on Blue Zen Lemon Chicken ($12.95) instead. The card promises "stir-fried boneless chicken breast pieces topped with zesty lemon sauce" but what's delivered is deep-fried Chicken McNuggets in phlegmy gloop, sided with more of that cardboard rice, a blue-plate special that wouldn't be out of place in a Canadian Chinese restaurant in Calgary circa 1956.
There's much to admire at Blue Zen, especially when owner-chef Tam breaks with tradition. Keep that focus and he'll be known for more than an unusual haircut.