May 27, 2006. 01:00 AM
I've travelled pretty far to get good sushi — Tokyo, Osaka, that unassuming little restaurant along the roadside in Japan's Izu Peninsula.
To the list of far-flung destinations for impeccably fresh fish, add this one: Newmarket. I kid you not. There, far north of the city at the end of Highway 404, awaits Solo Sushi-ya. Solo is as near a piece of Japan as one can get in Canada, from its cedar sushi bar and homemade soy sauce to its cooked seasonal menu items such as oden, a winter stew. It's where Japanese businessmen and language students congregate for food they can relate to, and where bilingual staff warmly welcome the rest of us. Presiding over Solo is Jyo Gao, an excitable master sushi chef from Yokohama (think Hamilton to Toronto's Tokyo). He opened his 32-seat restaurant five years ago, bringing with him loyal customers from his earlier jobs at Takesushi on Front St. W. and Akane-ya in the Beach. You may have eaten his sushi without knowing it: Solo is the secret subcontractor to some of the city's best party venues.
Gao is a man of strong opinions. He'll share with you his views on his clientele (good), his competition (bad) and the city's biggest fish wholesaler (worse). He goes twice a week to buy his own fish from private warehouses, preferring ocean-caught to farmed product. Back at the restaurant, he shows customers a big Japanese book illustrating different species and chats about their inherent qualities. His obvious expertise leads you to instantly trust him when he says the salmon neck is fresh but the sea urchin isn't. It's in this vein that I allow him to dictate my order on my first visit. I've arrived at his door with two recommendations from Japanese students, but the weather seems too cold for sushi. I really want donburi, a comforting bowl of steamed rice with warm toppings, but Gao is dismissive. "Donburi is for field workers. You're a lady, you should eat sushi. Don't waste my talent," he exclaims. Gao swiftly and gracefully carves blushing petals of yellowfin tuna for a sunomono salad ($5) with lightly poached shrimp; no fake crab here. He drapes fingers of rice with B.C. salmon ($3.50) so smooth it's like coral satin. He shucks sweet California oysters for a taste of the ocean, then rolls a pickled plum in a crisp nori cone ($4.95) for a taste of Japan. Ending the meal is a covered bowl of miso soup, just as it should be.
Letting the master call the shots is the best plan at Solo. He will happily prepare cucumber maki and California rolls but, as the man says, don't waste his talent.
I return to order omakase ($35 to $45), chef's choice in Japanese. After a brief consultation — Gao also recommends a bottle of Californian sake I later find out is $80 — the seven-course meal begins with a selection of small dishes that is a masterwork of texture, colour and seasonality. There is a study in bamboo, spring vs. winter. I could spend all night comparing the two, the thick and woody slices of winter bamboo funky with dried tuna flakes in marked contrast to the sweet, tender spring shoots. But that would mean ignoring smoky shaved beef wrapped around ginseng root, or a morsel of plump house-smoked norwegian mackerel that is to kipper what couture is to The Gap. Next comes white tuna that has been briefly seared (tataki in Japanese) and lavishly dusted with fresh cracked black pepper to balance the mildness of the fish. It's almost unfair to serve this next to plain salmon sashimi. But the outstanding element in this course is the tuna tataki showered with crisp fried garlic. Blending cooked elements with raw is stunning, a testament to Gao's skill behind the stoves and the sushi counter.
Then there is the small bowl of glass noodles in an exceptionally delicate fish stock plumped up with gossamer egg whites, colourful seaweed and more than a hint of hot pepper to chase away the spring night's chill. Following this is an oyster shell layered with moist cooked fish and what looks like hollandaise but turns out to be broiled mayo. Authentic, but not everyone's cup of green tea. Solo continues to show off the cooked side of its kitchen to perfection with a fat potato croquette. Shatteringly crisp tempura shrimp and chunks of avocado in mayonnaise enhance the creamy-crunchy croquette; the homemade tonkatsu sauce shows a hint of clove. Then it's back to the sushi counter for a trio of salmon, tuna and snapper sushi, the rice firm but loose and the fish odour-free as always. The meal ends with ho-hum green tea ice cream. Citing an uncertain economy and high parking costs downtown, Gao plans to continue plying his craft in Newmarket. This makes him part of the coterie of devoted Japanese chefs operating on the city's fringes, joining Masaki Hashimoto (Hashimoto in Mississauga) and Mitsuhiro Kaji (Sushi Kaji in Etobicoke). What is it about Toronto that pushes such talent down the highways? Still, it's a lot closer than Japan.