Japango (122 Elizabeth, at Dundas, 416-599-5557) Complete meals for $50 per person ($25 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and an imported beer or sake. Average main $16/$10. Open Monday to Saturday 11:30 am to 10:30 pm. Closed Sunday and holidays. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Due south of the bus terminal, hidden away on a side street behind City Hall, Japango would be just as much at home in Tokyo's trendy Harajuku district as it is in downtown Toronto. Like the tiny back-alley sushi bars and yakitori stands it emulates, this diminutive diner attracts a steady clientele of pescophiles who regularly drop by after work to knock back sake and raw fish while humming along karaoke-style to the oldies playing on the 16-seat eatery's boom box before trundling home to bed.
While there are plenty of similar seafood spots around, Japango is a cut above; for the money, the frugal sushi set swear there's no better fish in town. I've visited Japango in the past and couldn't see what the fuss was about. Yes, the chirashi-zushi - a selection of cleverly cut fillets over sweet rice sprinkled with powdered seaweed ($15.99 dinner/$11.99) - stands head and shoulders above its competitors along Bloor and Yonge Streets, but the house's bento combos and deep-fried starters are strictly par for the course. Pricier, too.
Until the other blustery night, though, I'd never done owner Bruce Bu and co-chef Osaamu Fukushigo's omakase. Consider me converted.
We skip very average miso soup served in plastic bowls ($1) and tuck into the good stuff right off the top. Chef's initial offering, barely seared cross-sections of cod marinated in sweet miso and dressed with a few artful strands of slivered red onion, rides a festive sprig of cedar that we learn is strictly for show after naively inquiring if it's meant to be eaten. To get their full delicious effect, we're instructed to slurp our oysters on the half-shell layered with fabulous uni, and end up swallowing half of them before realizing we're supposed to let the combo's subtle flavours linger on our tongues before guzzling them.
Next up are steaming cups of chowan mushi, frothy egg custard laced with butterflied shrimp, chicken, dainty honshimeji mushrooms and carrot that's been sculpted to resemble tiny tiaras.
They're followed by thick ribbons of flaky pink albacore, rocketed into the stratosphere by freshly ground wasabi. Cooked on a miniature hibachi at table, seafood stew finds more shrimp swimming in pale miso next to salmon, whitefish, lengths of grilled tofu and Chinese broccoli, enoki 'shrooms and a final flourish of buttery raw scallop.
By now, we're approaching the wall and signal that this will be our last round. Plated with pickled gari free of food colouring, Chef's finale features a sampling of the day's freshest nigiri: fatty toro, briny mackerel, rich yellowtail, red snapper, delicate fluke and squid, all separated by aromatic shiso leaf. Complimentary fruit cocktail served in martini glasses completes the meal.
With a couple of hot sakes ($6.95) and tall-boys of Sapporo ($8.50) and a more than respectable gratuity, the damage comes to 250 bucks, our omakase alone ringing in at $70 per person.
It's worth it, too. But if your budget only extends to cheap California rolls and inexpensive tempura sets, maybe you'd better bypass sleepy Japango and stick to those uptown all-you-can-eat sushi buffets.