Address: 330 Portage Ave
With Japanese restaurants sprouting up in almost every neighbourhood strip mall, it can be tricky to discern the best of the bunch. Downtown newcomer Samurai Japanese Restaurant has an edge the field with its picture-perfect presentation, a serene atmosphere and inspired dishes.
It is also one of the only places in town that serves “izakaya” snacks. In Japan, an izakaya is a Japanese watering hole popular with the after-work crowd that serves small snacks. Instead of the hustle and bustle of a Tokyo izakaya, Samurai takes a more zen-like and sophisticated approach to its ambiance. A feature wall displays a samurai headdress and sword, an homage to the restaurant’s name and respected Japanese warriors. Soft, traditional drum and flute music further add to the restaurant’s calm.
Owner/Chef Bo Li, who has worked at some of the city’s best restaurants,ncluding Meiji and Lobby on York, is also dedicated to that vaulted level of excellence at his own establishment.
He doesn’t scrimp on the finer ingredients of life. Many of the house rolls, for example, feature Alaskan king crab, barbeque duck and lobster. The Captain’s roll will excite fusion sushi connoisseurs. Glistening, lightly torched pieces of tuna and salmon catch the eye and taste smoky. Inside, cucumber and avocado are mixed with generous pieces of Alaskan king crab.
Unique to Japan’s Osaka region, boxed-style “Hako” sushi is served at Samurai. This type of sushi is made with a box that molds and presses it into a square. Samurai’s traditional Osaka roll is made with smoky barbequed eel, avocado, and Nagi sauce—a complementary reduction of sugar, fish and soya sauce.
In the Peking roll, generous pieces of luscious, fatty barbeque duck are paired with dabs of hoisin ssauce and sliced asparagus for a bittersweet taste. In a unique twist, sticky rice paper substitutes the usual seaweed wrap.
Don’t miss out on the aforementioned izakaya snacks offered, especially the stand-out spicy mango scallops. Presented on a seashellshaped plate, bite-sized pieces of fresh scallops are skewered, baked and coated in lip-smacking sweet ango-mayonnaise.
A sight to behold, the crab and avocado salad takes shredded pieces of soft snow crab layered atop sliced avocado and a nest of salad. Cucumber and yellow peppers add crunch, while drizzles of mayo and spicy kimchi sashimi oil make this a star dish in both presentation and taste. Spicier palates will appreciate the spicy tuna tartar starter. Three crispy, house-made wonton chips cradle smooth, chopped tuna mixed with fiery mayonnaise. Additional heat comes from thinly sliced jalapeños delicately teetering on top this culinary work of art.