by David Fujino
When I’m in the neighbourhood — and I crave Japanese — I have lunch at Sushi-Gen; otherwise, I might have a foot-long tuna sub sandwich at the Subway next door.
I’m in the Yonge and St. Clair part of Toronto today because my chiropractor, Dr. Salima Manji, has her office on Yonge, just north of St. Clair, and I’ve come for my bi-monthly ‘wellness’ adjustment — but right after my adjustment, I frequently ask myself, What’s for lunch?
Japanese food was topmost in my mind so I crossed over to the west side of Yonge Street and entered Sushi-Gen. I ordered a classic standby, salmon teriyaki — basic, tasty and nutritious, and as I feasted on the freshness of the pan-fried and evenly brown salt-crusted salmon (shioyaki style) — it looked so good — I also savoured the cool mound of bean sprout and white cabbage shreds it sat upon. I dipped salmon chunks into the sweet-and-sourish brown teriyaki sauce and scooped, via chopsticks, steamed white rice into my mouth so that everything tasted complete and I felt contented in this world of enjoyable flavours and textures. And all the while, I quietly slurped white miso shiru and alternately sipped green tea — served hot in the Chinese fashion, but that’s o.k. Tea ultimately cools down. It’s just that I’m spoiled by the calming ‘lukewarm’ temperature of the fresh and flavourful green sencha served in Japanese–run Japanese restaurants.
But for now, Sushi-Gen is on my mind, and I’ve decided to spend a modest amount for a decent Japanese lunch. The food’s priced in the middle bracket, and it’s consistently well prepared, well presented, and dependable. Sushi-Gen is a Toronto mainstream Japanese restaurant — Chinese- owned and operated — and it offers a full menu of Japanese food and beverages.
On previous visits to Sushi-Gen, I’ve enjoyed their udon and shrimp tempura, as well as their bento boxes which contain, in addition to the sushi and takuwan on the menu, Chinese spring rolls. It’s in the bento boxes of such Japanese restaurants that the so-called multicultural and fusionist tendencies in Toronto exist. For example, if there’s a deep-fried spring roll in the bento box, the owner’s likely Chinese, and so on. The vast majority of Japanese restaurants in Toronto are run by Chinese and Korean owners and this is how (without itemizing the very few Japanese- run Japanese restaurants that operate in Toronto) we can have a mainstream Japanese/Asian menu such as Sushi-Gen’s, which establishes, as far as I’m concerned, a quality Japanese food identity in Toronto. Quality means a restaurant whose menu and reputation are built around more than all-you-can-eat sushi.
Sushi-gen has two or three rotating servers dressed in black and white. Most chain restaurants and classy diners operate the same way. These days, the person who takes your order is usually not the same person who brings your order. (I still find that a little odd and puzzling. I still prefer the same waiter taking and serving an order. It’s a highly personal thing.) Come to think of it, Sushi-gen has trained all their servers to also take orders, serve the food, and settle up the customer’s bill, so I really can’t complain about lack of service.
A further point: Sushi-gen has, so far, resisted including Chinese chopsticks with their Japanese o-chawan. At the risk of sounding like a nut case, this strikes me as a major mistake on a restaurant’s part. I recently recovered from the visual shock of seeing Chinese dark green chopsticks perched on top of a medium dark green tea cup that was brought to my table. The scale was all wrong; things didn’t look right together; it seemed almost devil-may-care. I won’t state the name of the establishment, but I now anticipate seeing more Japanese vessels containing Japanese food replaced by Chinese vessels containing Japanese food in certain restaurants in Toronto. They’ll probably even discontinue the disposable Japanese chopsticks that are presently used and randomly replace them with quasi-lacquered Chinese chopsticks as part of their shall- we-call-it ongoing participation in the Battle of the Chopsticks.
Of course, certain questions immediately arise: What do they think Japanese food is? Do they like it? Don’t they feel presentation and eye appeal is important, especially when serving Japanese food? Why not provide Japanese chopsticks? Isn’t the o–chawan part of the food’s identity? What about the chopsticks?
My question: if it’s the food that matters, then why sell it as Japanese food (served in Chinese vessels with Chinese chopsticks provided?) The 64 dollar question. If this is the future, I’m frankly already unhappy.
But, so far at Sushi-gen, there’s none of the above happening. The quality and presentation remain consistent and the multi-tasking servers are quick and business-like. It’s an ideal place for an informal business lunch or dinner where, somehow, the inevitable wear and tear of wall booths isn’t evident and the plasticized menus and food photographs still look fresh and new and organized. Also, the large and dark wood floor-to-ceiling mirrors open up the restaurant space and give it that crisp and tidy look. I’ve noticed that a lot of office workers, friends, newbies, and Forest Hill folks love to gather here — and the prices aren’t outrageous.
Sushi-Gen, 1502 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario, Telephone: 416 921-3388