Lesley Chesterman’s Fine Dining
MONTREAL Full disclosure: I know Shinji Nagai, the chef of this week’s restaurant, Shinji. In fact, Nagai has prepared sushi in my home kitchen. I was writing a Sushi 101 story in 2010 when Nagai was working at the private club, Le Club 357C, and he was kind enough to give me a lesson on sushi dos and don’ts.
I bombarded him with questions: How does one eat sushi? With your hands and flipped over so that the fish, and not the rice, touches the soy sauce. How many fish are on a sashimi plate? Always an odd number, the average being nine pieces per person. Do we mix wasabi into the soy sauce? Never. And what did he think about sushi pizza? Never made it, he answered. When I asked him to describe Montreal sushi, the Japanese born chef thought hard before answering, "unique."
In a city bursting with sushi chefs, many of whom have taken sushi in some pretty far out directions, I was happy to meet a purist. Don’t look for mayonnaise, crab stick or blueberry stuffed maki rolls in Nagai’s lineup. "That sushi, invented very much by Vietnamese chefs, is quite genius," Nagai said, "but those ideas could never come out of my head. Japanese sushi chefs are guided by too many rules."
Born in the Gunma Prefecture near Tokyo, Nagai, 47, began cooking in Japan 27 years ago, specializing in Japanese cuisine. He then went to work for four years in Vancouver, where he first learned to make sushi. Nagai moved to Montreal in 1996 and worked as a sushi chef at Sakura restaurant. Disappointed in the quality of Montreal sushi, he returned to Japan to learn from a top sushi master, Matsuoka, in the Okayama Prefecture near Hiroshima.
After two years, he returned to Montreal, taking on posts as sushi chef at Sakura, Zen Ya and MB: Mange Boire, before becoming the sushi chef at Le Club 357C in 2008 how great for the club’s members but less so for sushi lovers outside that ivory tower. When the news came last winter that restaurateur/lead guitarist for the band Simple Plan Jeff Stinco would be backing Nagai in a restaurant, I was thrilled to hear we could all enjoy Nagai’s sublime sushi once again.
Shinji is in the heart of Griffintown, the city’s latest restaurant row. A neon sign above the door is about as elaborate as it gets on
oakley sunglasses replica the outside, but the inside is quite something. With a sushi bar downstairs (whose six seats, I’m told, are booked in a flash), most of the seating is upstairs, where there are two long tables.
There’s a communal feel to it, yet the chairs are spread wide enough apart that you won’t catch the intimate conversation going on next to you unless, of course, that is your intention. I like the buzz this odd shaped room generates; it’s noisy, but conversation flows. The crowd is very cool Montreal, and yet the seating arrangement quashes the see and be seen norm at most hot spots.
To begin, you could jump right in with cold sake or a bottle of wine from the French heavy wine list, which is both well
fake oakley sunglasses priced and loaded with sushi friendly selections. But I’d recommend a house cocktail to accustom your palate to some exotic flavours.
I second our wonderful waiter’s recommendations: the Kaju En, a mix of pear pure with sake, tea and lime, and the Shiro Kosumoporitan, a riff on the classic Cosmopolitan made with white cranberry juice and
fake oakleys cheap spiked with basil and ginger. I’m not the biggest cocktail fan, but these two were well balanced, not too sweet, and boozy enough to enhance not obliterate the delicate flavours.
For appetizers, we opted for a mix of traditional and nouvelle Japanese dishes. I can never resist tempura as a way to assess a Japanese restaurant. Shinji’s tempura classic sweet potato, peppers, mushroom slices and a shiso leaf, as well as jumbo shrimp was as light, lacy and as piping hot as I hoped it would be. Nothing to get overly excited about, but lovely nonetheless.
The gyoza dumplings were more substantial. Heavy on the lightly spiced Wagyu beef filling with the requisite golden fried crust on the side, these dumplings were scarfable and could easily make a meal on their own.
We were told the tuna tartare that night was made with sustainable bluefin, which is making an appearance at many of the city’s better sushi establishments and restaurants. The tartare was kept quite plain smart move as the meticulously cubed fish needed nothing more than a bit of wasabi, tobiko and spicy miso to shine. Scooping it on to the whisper thin flour chips, I wondered why so many chefs tart up their tartares beyond recognition. This one was textbook.
My favourite of the starters was an even simpler dish, a sort of new style sashimi featuring thin slices of Kampachi topped with shallots, green onions and a mizuma salad. A warm ponzu sauce was poured over the mix right before serving, transforming this mix of fish, citrus, and especially the potent shallots, into a luscious blend of sexy textures and feisty flavours.
The main event at Shinji is the sushi. We opted for the $70 sushi and sashimi selection for two, which fed three of us heartily. We cleared the table to make space for the platter and sat there wide eyed, admiring the surgically precise slices of pristine sashimi, the exquisite fingers of nigiri sushi, the pretty maki rolls, and the artistic arrangement of it all.
That said, head
fake oakleys to most any sushi restaurant and you can easily be served such an eye popping platter. And yet
cheap oakley sunglasses when you begin tasting your way through Shinji’s sushi, you just can’t hold back, seduced by the exciting mouth feel and fresh taste of every morsel. I’m often skeptical when it comes to flashy sushi, as so much of it is made with sub par fish along with an excess of add ins to distract from that fact. Here, though, every piece is an experience unto itself.
Take, for instance, the little lobster roll, sitting there innocently on the edge of the platter wrapped in its pastel green soy paper. Pick it up, dip it in a little soy or ponzu sauce (or not!), pop it in your mouth and you’re hit with this great mix of sweet lobster meat, bitter shiso leaf, tangy orange confit and exotic star anise. Wow! That tiny package packs more thrills than many main course plates around town.
The thrills continued with the classic bluefin tuna,
cheap oakleys Kampachi, wild sockeye salmon, fluke and turbot nigiri sushi, whose fish was expertly sliced and whose rice base was well balanced. Other favourite bites included the rice paper wrapped tuna tartare roll with tuna, tempura, masago (capelin roe), avocado
cheap fake oakleys and mizuma, and the delectable "chop chop," little mounds of scallop tartare set on a round of black sesame studded rice. Yum!
As much as I adored the sushi selection, the one meat main course ordered fell flat. For the non sushi eater at the table, we chose the duck "Arima," which turned out to be an overcooked duck breast served with a peppery sauce and dull sugar snap peas and Romanesco broccoli florets.
Where was the sous vide cooked leg listed as an element on this dish on the menu? Turns out we were served the appetizer portion of the duck instead of the main course, which might explain the missing meat. Reduced portion aside, this dish seemed like an afterthought. Of course, the main event at Shinji is sushi and sashimi, so steak and Caesar salad eaters take note.
As for desserts, I’m on the fence. The two on offer were Japanese in nature, which means you’re looking at sweets like black sesame or green tea ice cream and red bean pure mixed with gelatinous textures and unusual flavours. Japanese and Indian desserts are not my favourites, and yet my dining companion wolfed them down mumbling,
fake oakleys "Very good, very good."
I’m told there’s usually a brownie on offer as well. Hmm . maybe a cup of hot tea would be the best way to end a meal here, though the tea bag setup could use an upgrade. With a master like Nagai in the kitchen, it’s a shame to finish such a flavour packed meal with such a wimpy cup of tea.
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