Simon Sushi (409 Spadina, at College, 416-977-2828) Complete meals for $20 per person ($12 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a Japanese lager. Average main $8. Open Sunday to Thursday 11 am to 11 pm, Friday and Saturday 11 am to midnight. Delivery. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Spadina is an avenue of culinary change.
Thirty years ago the downtown strip's Eastern European delis, beloved institutions like Switzer's, the original Shopsy's and United Bakers Dairy, gave way to inexpensive Cantonese chop suey and barbecue joints. A second wave followed two decades later with the arrival of Vietnamese noodle houses and Saigon sub shops.
Now, it's cheap 'n' cheerful sushi's turn. Open only four months, Simon Sushi has already attracted a loyal following from nearby U of T who fill the remarkably swank space by noon. A surprisingly tasty maki roll of barbecued eel, avocado and Philadelphia cream cheese ($4.95) is called the UT Roll in their honour.
The groovy decor's left over from the storefront's brief stint as Shanghai Lily, the DJ-driven lounge that foolishly tried to introduce fusion tapas to Chinatown last year. Dark chocolate walls still flank a long wooden banquette lined with bare-topped tables and moulded plywood chairs. Overhead, tree branches have been spray-painted white and strung with twinkly fairy lights next to a mirrored disco ball. At the room's rear, owner and chef Simon Au presides over the proceedings with a sharp and skilful knife.
Kimono-clad servers possessing varied levels of English fluency keep the pace brisk, so we're soon ladling out bowls of warming asari clams in miso broth fortified with sake from a large tureen ($4.95). We also make immediate mincemeat of broiled eggplant nasu dengaku lightly brushed with sesame oil and buttery miso paste ($3.45). A third starter a generously portioned wakame salad ($4.45) sees barely pickled Korean-style seaweed thread over a substantial bed of crisp iceberg lettuce and December-ripe tomato.
Some say the test of a sushi chef's mettle is how one handles uni ($4.95 for two), and who are we to argue? Au's nori-wrapped take comes astonishingly iced, its unexpected chill contrasting nicely with the sea urchin's subtle nuttiness. But we're not quite sure what to make of Simon's scallop sushi ($3.45), as it's been finely minced, then reassembled, lending it an unfortunate mushiness.
There's nothing sad or sodden about the house maki, however: the Spadina Roll's bursting with tastes-like-frozen lobster, leaf lettuce and avocado, whereas the soft-shell crab found in the six-pack Spider Roll looks like it was attempting a quick escape just as it met the deep-fryer.
Wrapped in alternating strips of raw tuna, salmon and red snapper, Rainbow Roll (all $7.95) gets a last-minute toss of roe, while Suicide Roll's ($3.95) crunchy tempura bits come liberally dusted with cayenne. Saving the best till last, Cucumber Salad Roll ($6.95) incorporates long lengths of English cuke spooled around avocado and faux crab, the lot dolloped with mellow miso mayo.
Though far from perfunctory, up till now Simon's roster of raw fish and rice hasn't risen above that of Sushi On Bloor and its countless clones. But his set course mains are another story. A huge plate of Yaki Udon Beef ($7.45 with salad) arrives heaped with thick, slippery noodles, tender strips of sesame-studded beef and the odd broccoli floret, all sauced with sweet teriyaki soy.
The house odds 'n' sods chirashi ($11.95 with soup and salad) translated as scattered sushi features a bumper bowlful of thickly cut raw tuna, salmon, red snapper, octopus, shrimp and surf clam. Simon's sushi bento box ($11.45 with soup and salad) is even more plentiful. Beginning with an assortment of hand-formed nigiri, the lacquered box goes on to include an overly battered but grease-free tempura of tail-on butterflied shrimp and sweet potato, a trio of pan-fried gyoza, a stir-fried julienne of carrot and zucchini as well as a sizable slab of teriyaki-glazed salmon, concluding with a massive mound of sticky rice. Orange slices accompany the extremely reasonable check.
Chef Au's kitchen may lack the cachet of Hiro on King East or Kaji of the Queensway. Don't we all? But for straightforward, no-nonsense Japanese grub delivered with considerable skill at unbeatable prices, Simon takes the cake.