It’s a new year. Let’s talk about an old place.
C’est Japon à Suisha is 40 years old. Yes, that’s right – I checked – and no, I couldn’t quite believe it either. The Slater Street restaurant was rechristened five years ago from its original name (Suisha Gardens) to this more rambling title, and though it doesn’t trip off the tongue, C’est Japon à Suisha does delight it.
This is a forty-year-old resto that hasn’t succumbed to the pressures of the face-lift. It still has the wagon wheel (the ‘suisha’) out front, the waterfall and faux stepping stones over babbling brook, which lead to the curtained-off tatami rooms in the basement. These are great for groups or for a romantic occasion (though a dimmer switch would be nice), but I prefer the bar. Nothing grander than to plop down, be greeted by the gracious sushi chef Shu San, be asked what I like, be told what’s in season, and then give him carte blanche and enjoy the parade of nigiri. A fine way to graze through an evening and to eat your way to a better understanding of Japanese food.
You will notice his menu lists no silly sushi. You know the sort: tuna maki rolls with camembert, quinoa, and goji berries; the quality of rice and cut of fish masked with thick squiggles of ‘house sauce’. None of that here. So if you like wacky invention you might find the menu a bit dull. On the cooked side: gyoza, tempura, chicken kara-age, teriyaki, udon, donburi. Colder offerings include: Nigiri sushi, maki rolls, and sashimi.
Suisha may not be a modern day looker, but it does the classics very well indeed. And its sushi? Perfect rice (served at body temperature), fresh, cool fish, exacting knife work, and quality condiments —all prettily presented and served with dignity and a smile. The dishes are also paired with sake, the list of which goes well beyond ‘hot or cold’?
Two little nuggets of kara-age, soft within and crunchy on the outside, were served with lemon. They came as a gift from the kitchen, run by long-time executive chef Mitsuo Yamaguchi. Next, wobbly squares of lightly fried tofu, topped with ginger, bonito flakes and a chiffonade of nori. Then we ordered a round of appetizers: gyoza, those grand pouches of seasoned pork with the proper bite and proper soft; flambéed scallops in mirin; mixed tempura with a gentle crackle; and grilled mackerel with only sea salt for seasoning. These were followed by a sushi and sashimi platter (chef’s choice).
Another evening, we didn’t order but instead waited for whatever they decided to surprise us with: grilled squid, darkened from its bath in a sticky barbecue sauce, served with pickles; and wagyu beef tataki, beautifully marbled, juicy, and served with daikon, scallions, and shiso. And from Shu San: BC Albacore tuna nigiri; salmon, lightly blow-torched, served with freshly-grated wasabi and pickled ginger; and squid nigiri, served with a shiso leaf for a citrus, minty, peppery bite, and topped with popping yuzu tobiko.
Finally, uni (sea urchin) that was creamy, briny, soft, sweet and in-season —it’s an acquired taste, but once acquired (you need to practice) a remarkable treat. For a sweet-exotic ending: black sesame ice cream in a tuile cup with strawberries. Doesn’t take much practice to love.