SUSHI TRAIN ( 750 Yonge, at Bloor, 416-928-9423) Complete meals for $35 per person, including all taxes, tip and a bottomless mug of green tea. Average main $4. Open for lunch Monday to Saturday 11:30 am to 3 pm, Sunday and holidays noon to 3 pm; dinner Monday to Wednesday 5 to 10:30 pm, Thursday to Saturday 5 to 11 pm, Sunday and holidays 5 to 10 pm. Unlicensed. Access: barrier-free, but bar and booth seating. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
Toronto needs another sushi resto like it needs Stephen LeDrew for mayor, i.e., not in the slightest. But that hasn't stopped first-time restaurateur Tae Yong Lee from launching Sushi Train, his surprisingly elegant midtown spot that foregoes servers for a conveyor belt.
Though he's not the first to introduce the concept locally - Fune on Simcoe has been serving raw fish over rice from water-propelled "boats" since the early 90s, while the recently launched Mochizuki on Bay (see review, page 43) has been mechanically doling out maki for more than a year now - Lee's latest entry is certainly the most lavish. Nearly 60 customers can sit at the centrally positioned bar and half-dozen booths in this sleek, chic space. Another dozen or so tables ring the room for à la carte service.
Here's the drill: the parade of plates is colour-coded for price, ranging from $2 to $5.50 each. Grab whatever you want before it passes. After polishing it off, add the dish to your pile of empties. Repeat. When finished, flag down a staff member, who then tallies up the damage and presents the bill. A word of caution: because everything looks so damned delicious, not to mention ridiculously cute, it's very easy to rack up a considerable tab in a relatively short time, a 45-minute lunch, say.
Ceramic mugs and pre-portioned bags of green tea ride a second conveyor while boiling water gets dispensed from spigots built into the bar. Stylish black chopsticks are found in a drawer in front of each diner along with lacquered, lidded boxes of pink pickled ginger and fiery green wasabi. It's really quite a clever set-up.
Meals begin with complimentary bowls of exceptional miso soup studded with mushroom. From the belt, we follow with crisp shrimp 'n' sweet potato tempura ($5.50), a pair of fresh salmon and fluted squid nigiri sushi, and a threesome of buttery inside-out grilled eel and celery uramaki (both $3.50). There are also several types of California-style futomaki, faux crab salad with avocado dusted with tobiko and tasty deep-fried tempura bits drizzled with sweet Kewpie mayo and garnished with tissue-thin lemon ($2.50 for two), the best of the bunch.
However, not everything that goes around necessarily comes around again. One of the first dishes we initially pass on, golden deep-fried pork gyoza (two for $2.50), never goes by again, so we order some from the card and are glad we did (six for $4.99). Fortunately, a plate of sweet deep-fried tempura-battered banana ($2.50) arrives just as our lunch winds down.
Not everything impresses. Deep-fried potato croquettes ($2 each) come laced with frozen vegetables and doused with a cloying HP-like sauce, while fake crab nigiri ($3.50) seem the antithesis of sushi. Pleasant enough, an innocuous wakame salad, lacklustre skewers of chicken yakitori and bulgogi-style beef short ribs (all $4.50) would be more at home in a west-side Korean cantina.
Open only a month, Sushi Train is already planning its expansion. But unlike myriad other sushi eateries, this is a train most foodies will definitely want to ride more than once.