Omi owner/chef John Lee has opened a spectacular room where you can chow down on his signature sushi.
OMI (243 Carlton, at Parliament, 416-920-8991) Complete omakase dinners for $90 per person (à la carte lunches $30), including all taxes, tip and a can of Japanese beer. Average main $20/$12. Open for lunch Monday to Friday noon to 2:30 pm, dinner Monday to Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 pm. Closed Sunday, holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
Other than an occasional face-plant in front of the Beer Store, the sidewalks of Cabbagetown see little action. But virtually all who pass sushi-meister John Lee's newly re-launched Omi stop in their tracks for a double-take when they spot his remarkably luxe boîte on Carlton for the first time.
It's really quite something. A floor-to-ceiling glass facade gives way to a long, narrow shotgun space, all exposed brick walls, white Parisian floor tiles and industrial light fixtures overhead. A row of two-tops flanked by a leather banquette runs down one wall, a counter bar down the other, the best seats in the house a pair of tables at the resto's rear directly opposite Lee's sushi station. The soundtrack shuffles from snoozy cocktail jazz to classic 60s Motown.
Lee's kept a low profile since selling the original Omi on Church some 18 months ago. If a recent dinner and lunch are any indication, the revamped Omi should be seeing Libretto-like lineups once word gets out that he's back in the game.
The old 12-seat Omi was a one-man operation, but its latest incarnation finds Lee assisted by a team of servers and kitchen staff, allowing him to concentrate on what he does best: taking a knife to seafood.
He's also expanded his raw repertoire to include cooked dishes, a number of them Korean. The best way to experience both is by going omakase (seven courses $65), which, to quote Pat Benatar, asks Lee to "hit me with your best shot."
He hits it out of the park on the first pitch with an astonishingly ambrosial cream of miso soup ($5.95 à la carte). The following sunomo-style salad of organic mesclun and mirin-marinated mushrooms in apple cider vinaigrette topped with a large butterflied shrimp and a shelled crab leg is a one-base hit in comparison.
Next up, six crisply deep-fried house-made gyoza dumplings ($7.95) get stuffed with minced bacon and Berkshire pork offset with a tart ponzu dip and licorice-like shiso leaf. Four would be plenty. Described on the menu as "beautifully seared," thick slices of pricey Berkshire belly ($10.95) in a sugary black bean sauce thickened with potato generates the words "overcooked and fatty roast pork" in our score book, a definite strikeout.
Lee bats back with simple wasabi-kicked tuna nigiri, half-slices of lean raw ruby-red mebachi big-eye over rice, the others fabulously buttery white albacore barely seared tataki-style and splashed with roasted garlic oil.
Horse mackerel aji sashimi ($14.95) gets points for presentation - chef removes the oily flesh from the fish and serves it mixed with slivered scallion and ginger on a bed of crushed ice next to the carved-up carcass executing a backflip out of a second bowl of ice - but the minimal payoff seems steep for 15 bucks.
As Gladys Knight and her Pips board that midnight train to Georgia one more time, we conclude with Lee's signature take on sushi pizza.
He starts with a quartet of plump Hokkaido scallops, then blackens their edges with a blowtorch before plating each on a mini panko-crusted rice cake dolloped with wasabi mayo and explosive tobiko roe.
Lunch at the former Town Grill is still very much a work in progress, consisting of a short card of set meals (all $11.99). As elsewhere, they start with steaming mugs of green tea and bowls of miso soup - alas, not the spectacularly creamy version offered at dinner.
Along with strips of broccoli, sweet potato and butternut squash, tiger shrimp tempura show up crisply battered and grease-free. Chicken comes glazed in a pleasant teriyaki-esque reduction and paired with a mound of plain white rice and house greens, while Lee's bi bim bap - shaved beef, sweetly pickled seaweed and steamed baby bok choy topped with a fried quail egg over cold rice - comes across as room-temperature leftovers and not the crunchy hot dolsot version I expect.
Picking up the tab, I notice it trumpets the fact that Omi has been "making gangster sushi since 1996." Explain, please.
"I stick to my guns," laughs Lee. "And I do everything on my own terms. I sell sushi but I've never claimed it was Japanese. It's just good food made with a lot of fish."