How this Toronto temaki bar serves a 'bomb of sea flavour'
Omai Restaurant is at 3 Baldwin St. in Toronto
A few months ago, I had the privilege of visiting Japan with a group of food enthusiasts and chefs from Toronto.
It was my first time back in Japan in a decade and once again the visit proved to be an enlightening one.
For someone who likes to eat and explore, there are very few cities in the world that can rival Tokyo.
It would take one lifetime to explore all the small stalls at every street corner, and another to peer into Japan's notorious secret dining culture, where restaurants only open doors by referrals.
It was a whirlwind trip, a week of eating through Tokyo and Kyoto with standup sushi bars, elbow-sized ramen joints, rivers of sake, and some of the best kaiseki of my life.
Within days of returning, I felt a withdrawal, and the feverish cravings for ramen and fresh sushi started to become unbearable.
Japan leaves an impression on you, especially if you're a food enthusiast.
In Toronto, Japanese-style food spots have sprouted all over the city in the last seven years, notably when it comes to ramen, sushi and izakaya-style bars that celebrate the Japanese culture of after-work drinking.
Omai Restaurant is in Baldwin Village and offers up a unique take on Japanese influenced cuisine.
Omai is run by chef Edward Bang and partner Jason Ching.
Bang is Korean with an impressive pedigree, spending time in the kitchens at Michelin-star restaurants Eleven Madison Park and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. On a recent trip to New York, Ching and Bang were awestruck by a dinner at KazuNori, a small restaurant that exclusively serves temaki – sushi hand rolls.
Temaki is traditionally a part of the omakase sushi menu. During the omakase, the itamae (a sushi chef) will present each piece of freshly prepared sushi one-by-one.
It is a multi-course journey that highlights the best seasonal ingredients of land and sea. For each course, the itamae slices each piece of fish and reserves all the trimmings (fats) in a separate bowl.
Near the end of the omakase, the trimmings are brought back, they are mixed with rice and wrapped in nori (seaweed) to form a cone shape.
The temaki is presented to the diner by the itamae, and is meant to be consumed immediately to prevent the nori from becoming soggy and losing its crispness.
It's a luxurious mouthfeel of creamy fish with a tinge of tang from the rice and umami from the nori.
The highlight of temaki is the crunch, the feeling of snapping the nori shell in your mouth, which leads to a bomb of sea flavor.
Bang and Ching fell in love with the idea and decided to explore it further at Omai.
"We wanted to give it our own take. We are not a Japanese restaurant, we don't try to be. We consider ourselves Japanese-Canadian. Ed has many different culinary influences and we wanted to see if we can showcase that," Ching said.
Bang decided to create a temaki menu at Omai that highlighted his cooking career.
"The temaki is my vessel. I use the nori and rice as a canvas and fill it with the various influences I have had," Bang said.
The duo found a location on Baldwin last year that fit the bill, small enough to invoke the Japanese izakaya aesthetics, with the long chef rail playing a central role in the Omai experience.
Since each roll is prepared in front of you, the chef's rail is where you should sit when you visit Omai.
The nine item temaki menu is unique, it's a journey across the seas with Spanish, Italian, French flavours rolled in with Japanese roots.
Bang takes the idea of pulpo gallego, a Spanish dish of octopus and potatoes, and has created a version for his temaki with diced octopus, jalapeno and a green onion salsa verde.
There's another memorable roll with Hokkaido scallop thinly sliced and layered with green apple and crème fraiche.
The best way to enjoy Omai is to go with a friend and order the entire temaki menu, all nine temaki, and pair your dinner with sake.
Ching has managed to assemble a notable sake list that is essential to completing the textural temaki journey.
The last piece of temaki that you will be presented is one of my favourites.
Inside is a sweetened Japanese rolled omelette called tamago is coated with essence of truffle.
I find the light texture and subtle sweetness of the layered omelette mixed with hints of musky pungent truffle, a blissful combination.
Omai Restaurant is at 3 Baldwin St. in Toronto.
Suresh Doss's weekly food segment airs every Thursday on Metro Morning. Watch for video of his jaunts across the city on CBC Toronto's Facebook page.
Do you know a GTA restaurant that Doss should visit? Tweet us @metromorning or send us a message on Facebook. And if you try any of the places he features, we want to see photos!