Kaiseki-Sakura (556 Church, at Wellesley, 416-923-1010) Complete meals for $85 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of sake. Average main $18. Open nightly 5:30 pm to midnight, bar till close. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Sadly, no one else appears to know this either; Monday evening the staff of four outnumber the customers, all three of us. And given that Kaiseki-Sakura is at the corner of Church and Wellesley, a party zone not regarded as a dining destination unless one's tastes run to best chest contests, will the self-effacing couple ever find success?
The answer's a definite yes. Once Toronto foodies discover this remarkable spot, one of the stylish room's dozen or so tables will be as difficult to snare as the sling at Zelda's Sunday leather brunch.
As its name suggests, Kaiseki-Sakura specializes in kaiseki, the high-end Japanese tasting menu that evolved from the traditional dishes served as accompaniment to Zen Buddhist tea ceremonies. Besides Sakura, only pricey Hashimoto in the nether regions of Mississauga offers it as well. And it's expensive. If it's $7.95 all-inclusive meal deals you're after, try Bloor.
How expensive is Kaiseki-Sakura? Here's what you get when you order a starter modestly described on the card as an Assortment of Daily Small Appetizers ($16). After an intriguing amuse of dashimaki tamago a pair of postage-stamp-sized rolls of custardy omelette daintily garnished with a speck of grated pickled ginger and a single delicate leaf of fragrant Japanese parsley, and otherwise $9 á la carte by themselves a small black-lacquered tray arrives at table.
At its centre, a short, chilled sake glass contains a teaspoon at most of shredded daikon, one cherry tomato and a single pale Muscadet grape, both peeled and doused in chef's sweet vinegar. Next to it, find a lone fresh fig in feathery tempura batter, decorated with wispy threads of red winter radish. Two (woo-hoo!) onion-like orbs the size of ping-pong balls skewered with deep-fried soba noodle turn out to be constructed from alternating layers of tender yellowtail and daikon braised in sake.
This spectacular plate continues with two diminutive squares of pressed oshi-zushi topped with smoky grilled eel, a handful of sea-salted edamame pods I count five and a solitary sphere of mashed yam that's meant to represent a roasted chestnut. (It's been boiled in syrup, baked, then lightly fried before getting partially blackened by a torch.) A toss of tissue-thin sweet potato chips shaped like falling autumn leaves completes this impressive first course.
As visually stunning as it is on the tongue, a labour-intensive salad of sweet, slow-roasted organic tomato two of 'em gets coupled with slices of Asian eggplant that have been briefly deep-fried before being plunged into ice water and peeled, the lot piled around a microscopic puddle of nutty sesame dressing ($12).
Five thin, pink slices of marvellously marbled house-smoked salmon come marinated in beet juice and dressed with puréed capers ($15), while a coffee-mug's-worth of earthy BC-grown matsutake (pine mushroom) soup ($18) comes with a fork-sized cube of buttery conger, a cocktail-sized shrimp and exactly three ginkgo nuts, and is served in a cast iron teapot.
The parade of deliciously decorated tapas continues. More grilled eel here coupled with shreds of rehydrated bean curd and diced snow peas gets wrapped in fibrous spaghetti squash and sauced with slippery shark fin. Another play on contrasting textures, a trio of manju dumplings lily root with chrysanthemum sauce, lotus root with citrusy yuzu sauce, and pumpkin with shark fin sauce dance on the palate.
But don't visit Kaiseki-Sakura without sampling chef Izutsu's genre-defying fried salmon (all $15), a crisp panko-crusted fillet stuffed with a seemingly disparate mix of crumbly bacon, sautéed onion, cream cheese and sour cream. This awe-inspiring dish also comes sided with a slow-roasted tomato spread with red sendai miso paste, three macaroni spirals cleverly carved from daikon, and a final molten drizzle of bittersweet chocolate.
Served with seared green-onion miso, ochazuke ($10) turns out to be a scoop of baked sticky rice crowned with strips of toasted seaweed swimming in a broth of wasabi-fortified green tea.
We finish with an Assortment of Petite Sweets three microscopic rice-flour cookies dusted with sweet soybean powder, followed by a halved ripe papaya filled with black sesame ice cream and adorned with sections of slightly sour mangosteen (both $8).
Since we've purposefully avoided Kaiseki-Sakura's relatively more conventional prix fixe omakase six courses with four sake or specialty cocktail pairings ($80), eight courses with six pairings ($105) to maximize the bang for our buck, we still end up spending over 60 bucks a head with only complimentary cups of fabulous first-pick green tea to drink.
Izutsu's tapas-style plates are astonishing. They are also very small and cost three times what the Church and Wellesley bar crowd are used to paying for a cruise and a graze.
How this pleasantly adult space tall-backed banquettes around linen-topped tables, inoffensive jazz on the sound system will cope with its inevitable success has yet to be determined. Monday night with one table in the house is one thing, but a fully booked room and a lineup out the door expecting the culinary experience of a lifetime is an entirely different kettle of bouillaibaise.
Still,chef Izutsu who just spent a year under Marc Thuet at the eponymous King West bistro after a five-year stint as chef to the Japanese consul-general should be up to the task. Respectful servers under the watchful eye of Yumi Izutsu are a bit reticent and need to bone up on the menu's contents. Half of our questions are answered with, "radish." And I'd advise first-timers to pack a Swiss Army knife and a pair of tweezers. They'll come in handy de-constructing the card's edible art.
Why open a serious restaurant in a neighbourhood that thinks fine dining is done by the light of a mirrored disco ball?
"My husband and I like to go to Zelda's," says Yumi Izutsu. "If you're drinking beer, it's okay. Everyone seems happy and likes to try new things."