Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Japanese food is usually associated with mediocre sushi. With the plain California roll and the super western cream cheese Philadelphia roll setting our standards, we are seldom presented with much more to this cuisine. Even without venturing into the realms of Izakaya (Japanese bar food) there are ways to elevate sushi beyond a cool slice of raw salmon over rice, cloned from one Mariko/Sakura/whoever to the next, none special, unique, memorable. At the foot of Carlton street, right where Cabbagetown begins, is a fish that leads to the way to something...different. It is a black fish, a silhouette, understated. With a pop of red, OMI makes its mark, and leaves it, too (243 Carlton St.). This is sushi done different. There are rolls, but you won't see either of the above mentioned on this menu. As well, items which are staples at any Japanese restaurant become elevated to surprising heights by the talent of the chefs at OMI...
One of the specialties of the house which you won't see enough of in Toronto is the option to have omakase. Compare omakase to the tasting menu at your favourite fine dining lounge or bistro. It's a taste of this, a bite of that. It's not like bento, which is just a medium portion of a couple things: this is a full array of delectable sushi, sashimi, and house favourites. The price is market (it's 70$ a head right now, but that will change with the season), but is only available for a party of 7 or more. Sadly I was just a lonely party of one! I will save my omakase dreams for another day.

A salt lover to the core, I've always been a great fan of miso soup. I love getting a bento box and slurping up the bowl of white miso broth, piping hot, rich with umami ( I used the word!For once it feels less snobby). OMI dishes up the classic with only a light spin, enough to make me tilt my head in amusement without being totally blown away. Miso soup is so simple that adding or modifying much means you're having a completely different appetizer very quickly. Here the broth was peppered with a few stalks of enoki mushroom, the citrus stalks playing with the very mild salt of OMI's broth. There was a curious flotilla of what I think was rice puffs, forming a layer over the soup. Served near boiling, as I like it. Simple and mellow.

Here must I profess a great and undying love, no, an ever growing love, or weeds from the sea. Sea weeds. Ever since I started perusing that massive superstore in little Ko9rea, I've been spoiled for choice. I like to nibble on salted, roasted nori, and will happily soak wakame in preference to chopping iceberg for salad. There are many, many varieties of seaweed, all with a unique taste, and generally bursting with vitamins. I love the flavor! Much for the same reason people enjoy oysters, seaweed taste wild, and like the water. It tastes fresh. This trio of salads comprised of two kinds of seaweed and one cabbage  leaf'd construction hit the spot. It's a great salad for this still-hot days. The seaweeds (one was certainly wakame, the other MAY have been arame, though it wasn't as black as I recall arame being) were moist, and slid down my throat like refreshing tentacles. Appealing, I know! They tasted basically the same, though the arame was milder tasting. Both had a hint of sesame, maybe from just the seeds, maybe from a drop of oil. The other salad was a super-fine julienne slaw of white and red cabbage, crisp as anything (daikon, also?). There was a simple and juicy dressing of lemon, and a sprig of carrot added just a tease of sweet. So finely crafted! I tried them all separate, and then messed together for a grand finale of flavor.

On to the rolls! A certain writer for the star has been posting to his blog about all this crab consumption, and I wanted in. I've been feeling the seafood lately, especially the crustacean kind. I am also growing more aware of how unfamiliar with the fast array of crabs I am! I've had tinned crab, fake crab, and disappointed, overcooked snow crab legs (they were not worth the fight to free the dry meat). Softies, come to me! This roll, with the rice on the outside and the crab snug in a wrap of nori, was delicious, but not the best dish to flex my taste buds with. Why? Bonito. LOTS of bonito! Like dandruff, but more appealing, the top of the nori was loaded in dry flakes of dehydrated tuna. And it was STRONG! The flavor of the roll wound up being mostly fishy, with a hint of green onion and mayo. It came served with zippy pickled ginger that skipped the pink dye, and surprisingly mild wasabi.

On the website, this is listed as a special for November. Is it possible OMI hasn't updated their specials in almost a year? I won't complain, so long as they keep this on when the menu does change! In a way this is not unlike a sushi inside-out roll- just substitute rice for stringy sweet potato (they must seriously love their mandoline here), flash fried around the tempura catfish until it's crispy AND chewy. That's right, both, the best of both worlds. The natural sugar of the sweet potato keeps it a little moist even after cooking. The log of four pieces sat in a little puddle of watered down tamari- let it sit long and it gets soggy. Each section was topped with something different, wasabi, roe, mayo, a mystery. I wish there had been a more substantial portion of fish under all that orange spud. I am happy that the fish was so fresh and meaty, though.

Dessert was a fun and weird delight! These fish-shaped ice creams (based on something called bungeoppang, wikipedia tells me) aren't made by OMI. They're a snack item, like a Klondike bar but from Korea (no, they aren't Japanese!). Learning that this is a cheap snack food (made by a company called binggrae) has changed my opinion of it a bit- not because I didn't like it. Actually, I enjoyed the thin wafer and soft serve, with the earthy and sweet red bean jelly layer. It wasn't fresh, didn't taste fresh, but I liked the novelty. What bothers me is knowing your can get this for $4 in a grocery store. Is a $5 surcharge a bit much, especially considering it wasn't even dressed up? For something processed and not fresh? I think so.
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