Escaping the busy sidewalks of Toronto’s Adelaide Street West, diners are greeted with two options at #230 – the bustling, noisy environs of Copacabana and the quiet elegance of Shibui Robata Bar.
Unlike most of the Japanese restaurants in Toronto, the typical décor of shoji screens and images of geishas isn’t seen here. This modern Japanese restaurant reveals its nod to tradition with tables set with Japanese ceramics and an elegant open kitchen with its notable, rotating robatayaki, a fireside grill.
Lighting is low and intimate, a decidedly mellow enclave, where those meeting for a drink can pick a spot at the curved bar that wraps around one side of the restaurant or at one of the tables in this small dining room.
The server is quick to offer liquid refreshment, and the cocktail menu reveals the chef’s plan to forgo their preferences for a typical Japanese dinner with inspiration from fresh, crisp flavours like cucumber, elderflower or grapefruit. The Lemongrass Sour (lemongrass infused gin, ginger syrup and lemon $9.25) or the Pink Blossom (vodka, elderflower, pink grapefruit and orange $9.25) are both well suited to the Pirikara edamame. ($6.00).
No bento boxes overloaded with California rolls and carrot tempura offered here – Chef Masaki Nakayama is focused on modern influences he’s developed during his past stints at NYC’s Mr. Robata and Miami’s Zuma while working south of the border after leaving his native Japan. I embrace new Japanese dining traditions with the Kinoko Salad ($8.00) a crisp combination of soba noodles, Japanese mushrooms, thin sliced carrots, picked vegetables and ponzu dressing, a palate cleanser before trying more pirikara ( which meanslittle spicy) – this time Nakayama’s signature rolls, with plenty of citrus and spice.
The creamy and slightly sweet Hamachi maki ($13.00) is a colourful combination of yellowtail, jalapeno, mango and avocado roll while the Ebi maki ($12.00) looks very dramatic with the oversized fried shrimp topping the layers of asparagus, cucumber and chili mayo sauce. And note to diners – forego the elegance of a small bite and pop the whole roll in your mouth.
The star of the show is the robatayaki – flaky and definitely fresh Chilean sea bass ($22.00) is enhanced with the rich flavours of teriyaki while the Pork belly with shichimi ($14.00) is crispy and indulgent, and leaves a welcome heat on my tongue thanks to Nakayama’s version of the red chili, orange peel and sesame seed spice mixture. But unlike most restaurants with a grill, the smokiness isn’t pervasive.
With each course, the server has provided a pairing with sake (three options $15.00) and the sake menu offers suggestions to choose, providing notes for diners to learn about the wide variety of this traditional Japanese liquor.
For those who need their dose of sashimi or nigiri sushi (or even ebi tempura) its on offer, but I challenge those traditions – go off your typical Japanese script and bring your palate into the 21st century of Japanese cuisine.
The writer was a guest of Shibui Robata Bar. The restaurant did not review or approve this article.