Under the radar Ara is a new gem of a restaurant

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Toronto is spoiled for choice when it comes to Japanese cuisine. But Ara Sushi & Teishoku Bar, a new downtown restaurant gem, stands out with a teishokuskillful sushi platters and creative cocktails.

Opened in October, Ara (225 Queen St. W.) is the third GTA restaurant for chef and owner Ace Lee, who trained in South Korea under a talented chef specializing in Japanese cuisine. He is joined by his nephew, Steve Kang, who left a career in social work to become his chief’s assistant.

Teishoku (roughly “fixed meal”) is a traditional serving style popular in Japan and Korea. The beauty of this one is that diners are served a full meal, from starter to dessert, on the same gigantic platter. A key feature of teishoku is the varied collection of side dishes that accompanies a chosen dish.

In many Western cuisines, side dishes tend to take precedence over the main attraction (take, for example, a cheeseburger with plain fries). But in teishokuthe sides are each independently important – these are thoughtful “you wouldn’t prepare for someone you don’t like or care about [about]says Kang, whose passion for cooking stems from being raised by his grandmother, a prominent restaurateur in Seoul.

Recent Sides on Ara’s Lunch and Dinner teishoku include Japanese egg omelettes (drizzled with teriyaki sauce and sprinkled with katsuobushi), Asian-style hash browns (made with glutinous rice flour, which gives a deliciously chewy texture) and kuri no kanroni (“simmered chestnuts”, a candy that takes more than 24 hours to prepare).

Kang, in charge of side dishes, follows a formula to balance the entire serving platter: at least one vegetable (fresh, fried or pickled), no more than two proteins, and never forget dessert.

TeishokuBento’s cousin is ubiquitous in Toronto’s Japanese food scene. But while bento boxes offer predictable staples (almost always a combination of miso soup, salad, rice, and main course), teishoku Ara’s sides change every two weeks.

“It really kills my brain, coming up with new dishes and new combinations,” Kang laughs, “[but] we love doing it. Thanks to her creativity, regulars can order the same dish at Ara and enjoy a totally different experience each time.

Meanwhile, Lee took the reins of the sushi menu, preparing all the fresh fish in the morning; at closing time it invariably sells out. It aims to pique customers’ curiosity with signatures like kelp sushi, fermented for one to two days to draw out the flavor.

To suit Ara’s location on bustling Queen West, the menu also includes eclectic after-dark cocktails, which take inspiration from one of Kang’s favorite bars in Seoul (courtesy the bartender, of course). The intoxicating Faust cocktail, for example, combines overproof rum and fruity flavours. “You don’t feel like you’re drinking a strong one, but it will hit you later,” Kang says. The bar limits the Faust to two drinks per customer (mostly for their own good).

Like a meticulously planned teishoku set, Lee and Kang complement each other. As Lee expertly spins the fish with the flashes of his chef’s knife, Kang hops into the dining room to invite commentary, still thinking about his next dining experience. His favorite refrain of satisfied guests? “I’ve never tried anything like this before.”

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