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Jan 13, 2009 07:16 AM

Kaiseki Cuisine in the GTA

As seen here:

What is the best representation of kaiseki cuisine to be found in the GTA?

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  1. If by "best" you mean "closest" to what the Japanese define as Kaiseki then I don' t think anyone can debate that Kaiseki-Yuzen Hashimoto is the closest in Ontario if not Canada to Japanese Kaiseki.

    What I think is subject to debate is using the word Kaiseki to describe food plating styles which many restaurants lean against when designing their food.

    1. I don't know how accurate this is but i thought it would be a good place to start to define what Kaiseki is:

      PErsonally I didn't know that it was basically the equivalent of a fine dining multi-course meal. I had just thought it was a multi-course prix-fixe meal similar to an omakase. This is why I didn't know for example that everyone getting the same thing was a point of contention in the other thread.

      I'm only about 2-3 years into learning about Japanese food and find this thread interesting. I'm just afraid that it will basically end at it being Hashimoto!

      Another question
      I saw this on the website and i'm wondering if he basically makes him like the eastern chef equivalent of say Pierre Gagnaire but with Kaiseki cuisine? I mean top 5 in Japan in a country famous for being particular about food and eating?

      In August of 2007, Hashimoto had entered into Japan's first type of culinary arts competition called Japanese Culinary Arts Compeition. There, he had represented Kyoto city and finished in 3rd place putting him into the final competition in February of 2008. With 11 of the top chefs across from Japan gathering to Kyoto city where the final competition is to take place, Hashimoto was in the top 11 finalists. With a black box concept, the chefs did not know what materials were available for their use until the start. Hashimoto had successfully finished the competition as one of the 5 top chefs in Japan, and was awarded with the Technique Prize Award. Using his signature item, the crane carved out of Daikon radish in the competition, you can experience his master piece works for the dinner course.

      4 Replies
      1. re: CoffeeAddict416

        Placing top 5 does sound impressive but it depends who his competition was - I know it says "11 of the top chefs across Japan" but that can be spinned many ways.

        As for the comparison to Pierre Gagnaire. I would say no. Hashimoto doesn't have the global reputation and recognition that PG has. If your comparison is based on how each of them approach their respective cuisines; I still don't think so. PG is extremely creative with his food - playing with colours, shapes, textures, flavours. I think Hashimoto tries to keep things in line with tradition but understands the need for flexibility given that he's catering to western palates. Not that Hashimoto's approach is "wrong", I just don't see a comparison between the two. Anyways I was disappointed with PG based on my Oct visit!

        1. re: Apprentice

          Have you been to Kaiseki Sakura on Church?

          1. re: ChalkBoy

            I have not dined there....yet. Any recommendations?

          2. re: Apprentice

            I can't read japanese but found the website for the competition thanks to blogto

            Not having had PG's food and only having seen it, and never having had Hashimoto-san's food before it was hard to come up with a comparison :) I did forget though in the comparison that tradition is a big part of kaiseki.

            One other thing that I forgot is for the full-on proper Kaiseki experience at Hashimoto would it not be best to go in any season other than winter? Or would a winter kaiseki meal focus more on the THEME of winter than the actual ingredients that are available in winter here?

        2. I guess it depends how 'authentic' you want it to be.
          My philosphy is to (mostly) disregard 'definitions' in favour of 'experiences' - although sometimes definitions are necessary to avoid confusion.
          I suspect that kaiseki (relatively authentic) is not well understood in Toronto. But that doesn't (or shouldn't) affect anybody's enjoyment of a multi-course meal that doesn't 'strictly' qualify.
          I guess Hashimoto is the best 'model' of Kaiseki - my issue is that I don't find enough variation in the meal to prompt me to return regularly. And, for me, having a well-matched wine (and similar beverages) enhances the experience. That never happens at Hashimoto - typically he has two sakes - one ultra-premium and one modestly priced, and IIRC he also had one wine - a Canadian on offer.
          If I'm spending $300+ on dinner for two (including tax & gratuities) then I want some of these amenities. The low-end Sake was serviceable at best - the ultra premium was well over $100 per bottle - and nobody at the restaurant was able to describe it to me so I could make an informed decision (this is a consistent issue in Toronto regardless of style of Japanese cuisine). It may be prevalent elsewhere too - in Los Angeles I've found the same issue at high-end places (specifically Urasawa - no wine list - they told me which sake I should drink, without knowing anything about my tastes/preferences).
          Kaiseki Sakura does offer a 'set meal' that I would call kaiseki - but purists might not. The meal progresses after a fashion - which doesn't seem (to me) to have any relationship to the tea ceremony - although that doesn't bother me in the slightest. I can order that and also add supplementary dishes. That pleases me (rather than detracting from the more strict kaiseki experience). I also have a substantial choice of beverages - which also pleases me.
          So I find I get a more satisfying overall experience at Kaiseki Sakura for less money and without a 45-minute (or more) drive. I also have the option of a la carte dining, plus can go almost anytime I please, without the week ahead reservation. I can also ask questions about any dish - with a good chance of getting an understandable response. That usually doesn't occur at Hashimoto because of the language barrier (I don't speak Japanese) - unless the young man is there (their son?) which is not predictable - sometimes he's not there; sometimes he arrives 'later' in the evening.
          While I understand the significance of the formality of Kaiseki in a Japanese context, my cultural (?) background doesn't prize such formality. I'm equally critical of 'formal French dining' - which doesn't stop me from enjoying it occasionally, but equally I'm not dismissive of newer techniques and offerings. As a comparison, the Atelier concept of Robuchon is just as valid (for me) as his more formal places. I can enjoy both (Robuchon in Tokyo is much closer to the classic French model) and both have their place (as does Kaiseki and more casual offshoots).
          So - Hashimoto is the 'best' and probably 'only' true Kaiseki in the GTA - but I still prefer Kaiseki Sakura as a dining experience.

          10 Replies
          1. re: estufarian

            Sakura isn't kaiseki; I think they are using the term as a synonym for Japanese "fine dining." I don't think the food there is bad either (I love their chawanmushi, for instance), and I respect your posts on this board. My concern was more along the dismissal of food due to factors that are not really food-related. I can understand what you're saying though.

            Hashimoto displays a much higher level of proficiency in Japanese cuisine in general. The ingredients are higher quality, technique is better, presentation is miles from Sakura, and kaiseki, well, Sakura just isn't kaiseki in any way, other than that they serve Japanese food (if Sakura were kaiseki, Kaji could change his restaurant name to Kaiseki Kaji and receive added benefit from the "K" alliteration)!

            I suppose we have different philosophies about food and restaurants; I personally don't mind a restaurant with no a la carte dishes, and I don't mind being dictated what I will be eating, especially if this is part of what the experience intends. Hashimoto's business is run from an entirely different perspective than Sakura; they are different places, different styles of cuisine, and a different experience. While you may enjoy the experience at Sakura more because of the additional options, I enjoy Hashimoto more because the food is much better.

            I've been to great restaurants that only serve one type of sake with each dish, no substitutions (and they likely don't have anything else in stock). Most Japanese restaurants in Japan don't serve wine. These things aren't a huge concern for me, and don't really prevent me from enjoying the food. I'm not too concerned if no beef, pork or chicken shows up over the course of a kaiseki meal; it isn't what I've come to expect, and personally I don't mind eating an entire meal of seafood. I think there are enough flavours and textures in seafood that the palate won't get bored when served correctly, but kaiseki is also generally very subtle.

            Hashimoto is pretty accomodating. Since it isn't exactly a last minute decision to go there, I assume, you might try calling ahead and asking for specific things. Don't want multiple fish dishes? Ask. Want sake choices more conducive to your budget? Ask. I'm not sure about wine, but you could probably ask about that too. Want an explanation of the dishes he intends to prepare ahead of time? Ask.

            If I want kaiseki in Toronto, I will go to Hashimoto. If I want upscale Japanese food, I can go to Sakura (or, more likely, Kaji). If I had a choice between Hashimoto and Sakura, and my decision was based on the quality of the food alone, I would choose Hashimoto without reservation.

            While I agree on the Robuchon point, I don't think the analogy works as well for Hashimoto and Sakura. There are several forms of kaiseki, with some less formal, and many other variations. Sakura is more the Westernized image of what Japanese non-sushi fine dining should be, whereas Hashimoto is definitely something that (while Westernized at some points), judging by your notes (and I have friends of the same opinion), is not of the same design.

            Which is a better Japanese restaurant? That would depend on your opinion, and if you enjoy the dining experience at Sakura more, so be it. I just wouldn't dismiss Hashimoto's food (or the quality of his food compared to Sakura) based on factors that are unrelated (or, to add an example, I'm not concerned about the wine selection or server's English skills at an expensive Chinese dinner either -- I don't understand Chinese dining etiquette, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying an expensive meal without the "amenities").

            1. re: tjr

              I don't think we're too far apart in understanding - maybe a bit further apart in our preferences (which suggests we should take care with each others recommendations!).
              I just don't 'get' (never have) Sushi. I appreciate Sashimi a little more. Consequently I freely (and regularly) admit to not really understanding these dishes. In particular, sushi consiststs of a significant proportion of rice - identical for each dish (in most establishments) with identical condiments - often the same 'glaze' brushed on. Of course each fish (more expansively - main ingredient) can have different flavours and textures - but still 70% (my estimate) of each sushi 'piece' is consistent from piece to piece. Thus, after a few pieces my palate is bored with sushi.
              I find this tendency to apply to a larger proportion of Japanese restaurants than most other cuisines. Hence my strong criticism on this board of, in particular, Indian (generic term) Restaurants that use a 'mother' sauce that is changed 'slightly' for each dish - rather than creating more defined tastes by preparing multiple sauces. It's the same issue - I want 'sufficient' variation to hold my interest throughout a meal.
              On a slight tangent - my wine preferences also emphasize complexity - I don't desire an 'easy-drinking' wine with a consistent profile - I want complexity in my wine (including sake). In more poetic language - I enjoy the 'dance across the palate' that I get from well made wine (or well spiced food). And in food, texture is extremely important as an integral part of the experience (again raw fish is limited in this component although obviously there are significant variations possible).
              My guess is that people who enjoy sashimi/sushi will be far happier with Hashimoto than most other restaurants in GTA. For my palate, I'm happy with Ayoama - I can distinguish dishes there and it's cheaper than many of the more-touted places on ths board. So it's worth it (for me). Kaji and the like - just can't justify the additional cost (out of my pocket) for the incremental quality.
              And of course, for me - it's only my opinion that counts - so I hope I'm tolerant of other peoples preferences. I like to think that I crticize (or praise) supplemented by reasons for that point-of-view.
              Another example (to support the point) is you'll never see a posting from me on Southern Italian cooking/restaurants - I just don't like it, so can't contribute meaningfully.
              I was just trying to balance some exorbitant praise for Hashimoto - with some underwhelming comments on Kaiseki Sakura. I would happily recommend both to people whose tastes I know - but the recommendation would probably change depending on their food preferences.
              And as for all-you-can eat buffets (I know; not part of the thread, but I'm making a point), whether they be sushi, Indian (or almost anything else) - they have their place, but I can't think of a single one I'd recommend and there are several that are really nasty.
              I've mentioned Aoyama as my place of choice in Toronto. For completeness, in North America, my best 'Japanese' meal was at Mashiko (in Seattle) and worldwide at Ryugin (in Tokyo - I would class this as 'reinvented' kaiseki). Nevertheless, I enjoyed the food at Robuchon (Chateau - Tokyo) more and have good (but not life-changing) memories of Kikunoi (Kyoto) - perhaps the finest Kaiseki place in the world (by reputation) - again this was spoiled (for me) by having the same fish prepared 5 different ways as part of the Kaiseki meal - almost certainly traditional and 'correct' but by the fifth time some boredom had set in.

              1. re: estufarian

                Having lived most of my life in Japan, my preferences on Japanese food lie more towards authenticity, quality and technique. What I expect, because of my experience, is different than what you have come to expect. What you are saying is not by any means new to me; many of my friends here feel the same way. I understand your perspective entirely. Reading your other posts, and seeing what you enjoy, I don't think our tastes in other cuisines are too dissimilar, just in Japanese (I know nothing about Indian food -- and don't really enjoy much of it -- so I will bow to your wisdom on that subject, haha!) :-)

                I personally am not a big fan of Aoyama; I find their rice to be awful, though I can do okay ordering the sashimi there. Zen I find is better, with Kaji being the best for sushi and sashimi, imo. I can see why you wouldn't want to spend the extra money though! It is the same as people buying incredibly expensive bottles of wine when they would enjoy a $15 bottle just as much.

                While I have never eaten at Mashiko, I do think Ryugin is an excellent restaurant. Quite unique in Japan, and I have had nothing but excellent meals there. Kikunoi is also excellent, as is Robuchon.

                The quintessential disappointing meal (other than an interesting anecdote) for most westerners in Japan is fugu. It is probably everything you describe: one main ingredient used throughout the courses, sashimi is incredibly subtle, and it is fairly expensive! I don't have enough fingers to count the number of times I've found people to be disappointed with fugu (though they inevitably talk about the experience afterwards). I'm glad we are able to understand each other! :-)

                1. re: tjr

                  Thanks for the response.
                  If we all liked exactly the same thing (and restaurants) I don't think I would be able to afford to go there! Vive la difference.

                  Fugu! OK have to admit it wasn't my favourite food. But what I did appreciate were the different textures. The flavour is certainly subtle, but the difference between the sashimi version and the 'hotpot' style (sorry - don't know the technical decription, as nobody in the restaurant spoke English) provided contrasts that I found interesting - certainly (for me) a wider difference than I perceive with different species of raw fish (as a generalization, obviously there are exceptions).
                  But I probably wouldn't go back.
                  But whale - there's an entirely different story - by far exceeded my expectations - but off-topic for this thread!

                  And your point on wine is well-made. I'm still looking for that great bottle of $15 wine. Especially one to serve with whale (that's an obscure reference to another thread I initiated last summer - I'll link if I can re-locate it.

              2. re: tjr

                But you have to also look at price, correct me if Im wrong but is not Hashimoto al lot more expensive then Sakura?

                And to belabour the point a bit further even in Japan there are differing "types' of kaiseki ( see the wiki) Hashimoto does one more traditional style BUT Sakura still is kaiseki.

                1. re: OnDaGo

                  Yes, Hashimoto is more expensive, especially since Sakura offers a la carte options. Sakura is NOT kaiseki though. If Sakura is kaiseki, that makes Kaji kaiseki, and it would even make Omi kaiseki!

                  They are an upscale Japanese restaurant offering a variety of dishes a la carte, as well as an omakase. Could you explain why you feel this way?

              3. re: estufarian

                I'm with you, est. My experience at Sakura was so wonderful especially the wonderful drinks they serve (cucumber sake cocktail) and the shochu was so good we had another round. service impeccable, too. and i love the decor. it's my most fav rest in TO (well, after my own, of course).

                1. Hashimoto used to be just a carpenter in Japan, and when he came to Toronto, he started to work as a sushi chef in Japanese restaurants.
                  The competition he won the 3rd place last year was for the bigginers...
                  almost all the competiters were around 30..... he is like 60??

                  On the other hand, Izutsu, Sakura's chef has been focused on kaiseki only since he started his cooking career.

                  I prefer Sakura over Hashimoto. Hashimoto is just pretending to be a kaiseki chef, and does only old-fashioned kaiseki style. Izutsu knows all the basics and techniques so that he is able to play with unique ingredients based on the traditional kaiseki.

                  Kaji is the best but you cannot call that it's kaiseki. He is a sushi chef, but Okada (who is in the kitchen in Kaji) is a kaiseki chef. He another real kaiseki master.

                  This is a well-known fact in Japanese community in Toronto.

                  Just wanted to share with everyone.

                  19 Replies
                  1. re: kumakuma

                    Thanks for adding some insight into that competition kumakuma

                    And just to add some fuel to the fire I thought I'd point out that on Kaiseki Sakura's about us page and on their menu they make no mention of Kaiseki dining. They actually call their multi-course dinner an Omakase

                    1. re: CoffeeAddict416

                      When they first opened they did a seasonal kaiseki. For $80 or so and the amount of work and detail, it must not have been cost-effective. Or the public would rather have tempura and sushi.

                    2. re: kumakuma

                      So he didn't actually train in Japan? Odd, I was under the impression that he did. Stranger things have happened though, which really makes me wonder: if a carpenter with no experience other than working in Toronto sushi restaurants can have a restaurant that serves what is among the best Japanese food (in general) in Toronto, with higher quality, better technique, and greater authenticity in both ingredient and flavour profiles, why can barely anyone else do it?

                      Sakura does not serve a kaiseki meal (unless you have to know someone or special order it or something). Hashimoto does not serve a true kaiseki either, but it is much closer than anything at Izutsu. Whether he is "playing" or it is "old-fashioned," the ingredients, presentation and technique displayed by Hashimoto is better. Isn't that interesting? Sakura, on the other hand, musters up some great food, none of it unique, most of it an upscale version of the tempura-teriyaki-sushi restaurant fare (pretty strange, considering the skill levels of the chefs involved, but it is probably more successful to fully tailor your food to the palates of westerners). Their chawanmushi is the best I've had in Toronto, but other dishes, like the black cod, are boring and uninventive (and not even that good compared to the black cod at Nobu). Kaji, I find, serves much better food than Sakura as well, plus there's an interesting French-Japanese fusion angle in the cooked dishes. The 5-course menu at Kaji is the same price as the 5-course menu at Sakura.

                      1. re: tjr

                        The first time I encountered Hashimoto's cooking was at Nami before they changed owners. Before that, I can't really confirm his training. That however was a long, long time ago. Probably after Furisato and Kaji had parted ways and maybe even after Kaji's Honjin closed down in the village by the grange. Maybe around the time Kaji opened Ematei which would have been maybe 15 years ago? Anyways, maybe Hashimoto didn't train in Japan way back then but he's certainly had training in Japan since then and apparently still goes back to train. Maybe Hashimoto didn't start off as a Kaiseki chef but that's no reason to write him off totally.

                        tjr, comparing the black cod at Sakura to the black cod at Nobu? Overkill. I would say that Sakura's black cod is not even up to Ematei's black cod. :)

                        1. re: Notorious P.I.G.

                          Thanks for a heads up on the lineage.

                          Also, I think you're right. The black cod at Nobu was about $20, I think (it has been a long time). Sakura's is $18, which makes for an interesting comparison (though definitely unfair in terms of flavour)! I've never had the one at Ematei, maybe I should try it; I find it simple enough to make at home that I don't bother ordering it at restaurants. I tried a friend's at Sakura and wasn't impressed.

                          It was more a nod to how mainstream that dish has become; it's a pretty ubiquitous menu item at Japanese restaurants now (and many non-Japanese restaurants play on the idea as well).

                          1. re: tjr

                            Haha, true enough. The black cod at Nobu is pretty much what they're known for. I've never had it, but I've had Morimoto's Black Cod which is the exact same thing with sesame seeds sprinkled on top. I think he poached the recipe while he was at Nobu. I think Ematei, like most things does black cod really well. Good carmelization. I've had a piece here and there that was maybe a bit fishy smelling but other than that I've had no problems and get it everytime.

                            You're definitely right on the price comparison though, I definitely felt like it lacked something for what they charged. It's not a hard dish to bugger up either.

                            1. re: Notorious P.I.G.

                              I think most restaurant uses same Black Cod. There is a school of thought that larger fish has higher fat content .The difference may be the miso, sake and mirin used.For example the miso used is 5 times the ones used for soup. Even Susur used Black Cod at Susur. I use for hotpot in winter.

                              1. re: katana750

                                Yeah, definitely has to do with the recipe as opposed to the fish.

                                1. re: katana750

                                  Yes, the cod is often poached prior to broiling (in mirin). Most restaurants in the GTA use what is likely the same quality of fish. The quality of miso, sake and mirin, especially in Toronto, varies greatly, so I can imagine that (when using the cheapest ingredients possible) it isn't really that wonderful. I didn't realize that the pricing between Nobu and Sakura was actually similar until I looked up what Sakura was charging for the dish. I agree, of course, that Nobu's is much better (and his signature dish, which I'm sure many people believe he invented, though it isn't an uncommon recipe), but for the price you should really be getting something that is better quality. I will try Ematei's next time I'm there.

                                  I often make gin dara saikyou yaki at home; it's not difficult to make in the least, and it is just as good as you'd get in a restaurant, and, more often better. I haven't tried it in hot pot, though.

                                  1. re: tjr

                                    Nobu's cod is $25 on their menu which is over $31 canadian compared to $18 at Sakura. so almost half the price..

                                    1. re: OnDaGo

                                      Like I said, last time I had it was a long time ago.

                                  2. re: katana750

                                    we use black cod at my place because it is sustainably fished and the population is not endangered.

                            2. re: tjr

                              I interviewed Hashimoto and his son a few years back for some research I was doing. He is a trained sushi chef and has formal training in kaiseki. It is true that he switched career paths around the age of 20 but he started from the bottom and worked his way up. Many of the Japanese born sushi chefs that I interviewed were impatient with the hierarichal system in japanese restaurants and saw an opportunity to fulfill their dream of owning their own restaurant in Canada. Hashimoto himself concedes that his cuisine is not authentic kaiseki and that is why he has added the yu-zen in the name of his restaurant.

                              1. re: professor plum

                                That sounds more like the story I heard. Yes, Hashimoto has given his cuisine a change from authentic kaiseki to appeal more to Westerners. This is why I say that his food is that which "approximates" kaiseki, or is the best representation of the cuisine.

                                Thanks for the information!

                            3. re: kumakuma

                              Great post kumakuma!. Would you have experience with / comments on some of the chefs at the more mid-range Japanese restaurants? Aoyama, Michi, Zen, Nami, Hiro, etc

                              1. re: T Long

                                Kashiwabara (Zen), Mori (Toshi Sushi), and I forgot his name, but
                                930 Sushi on King, they are all great Sushi chefs!

                                1. re: kumakuma

                                  Thx....appreciate the info. Hope I can get to Toshi and/or 930 soon as I have not been to either as yet.

                                  1. re: kumakuma

                                    .Tomo, 930 King W. Never been there but a friend told me.

                                  2. re: T Long

                                    Oh, I totally forgot.... Shinobu is an excellent place to go.
                                    It's not a fancy place, but you can feel that the chef and staff
                                    welcome you, and want you to have a good time.

                                    3403 Yonge Street, Toronto, On
                                    (North of Lawrence, East side on Yonge.)
                                    Tue-Sun. 17:30~22:30

                                2. Kaiseki Sakura is more like a modern Izayaka to me with its environment, sake, wine, a la carte option, etc.. There are modern Izayaka in Japan which also serves some kinds of kaiseki meal. However, KS' food is a thumb down to me. Hashimoto on the other hand serves kyo kaiseki meal, for sure not in a authentic kaiseki restaurant setting as in Japan, its food, ingradient, combination, etc are also more simple, standard (or brand) when compared to those in Japan. Well, yes, there are variation of kaiseki, some very traditional, some less traditional ... but the progress and flow of a meal at Hashimoto is familiar to a traditional kaiseki restaurant in Japan. It gives a feel of what a traditional kaiseki is like, the food at Hashimoto is nice, but of course cannot be match with the good ones in Japan, in terms of all aspects.