Growing up in Halifax in the 1980s, a close proximity to the ocean meant that my family ate lots of fresh fish, but we certainly would never have considered eating it raw. I knew about sushi, but my experience of it did not extend past the scene in The Breakfast Club where Molly Ringwald’s character brings a selection for lunch. Which, in retrospect, is a little dubious, right? Did she have an ice pack in her bag?
When I moved to Toronto in 1987, my roommate Sharon and I would often go out clubbing and walk home. We walked a lot, and often far. Our weekly walk home from Psychedelic Sundays at RPM to our flat in Kensington Market (a walk of around 45 minutes and close to 4 km) often took us through the downtown core in the wee hours. We walked past Nami, and the blue neon wave above the front entrance, dozens of times, regularly wondering what Japanese food was really like. “I bet it’s really ‘fancy,’” one of us would inevitably say. “And expensive,” the other would reply.
While the ensuing decades has made sushi and Japanese cuisine not just accessible but downright normal or basic, I’d never gotten around to visiting Nami. During my time as a food writer, it flew under the radar, never needing to do any overt promotion. So when the name showed up on this year’s list for Summerlicious, I waved off my usual suspicion of the annual promotion, and we headed to Nami for an early dinner before a concert in St. James Park.
Opened in 1984, as one of Toronto’s first and finest sushi restaurants, Nami offers a traditionally elegant but modern take on Japanese cuisine.
The large open room is surrounded by private booths and a tatami room that sits up to twenty-two. The sushi station and a raw bar are along one wall, and tables are mostly roomy four-tops. The night we ate there, the building’s AC was on the fritz. Staff warned us as we entered but an array of old style oscillating fans actually gave the space an interesting vibe and kept up comfortably cool. Servers were dressed in traditional kimonos and wooden geta sandals.
At $75 per person, Nami’s Summerlicious dinner menu was at the higher end of the promotion’s price range, but the options were varied and generous and was extremely good value for the price.
We started with the Gyokai Carpaccio, a variety of different seafood marinated in an ooba shiso sauce and piled in among ribbons of shaved radish. This was a fun treasure hunt where we discovered salmon, tuna, mackeral and other seafood amidst a bright green shiso dressing that was fresh and summery. Shiso is one of my favourite herbs with a flavour that is a cross between mint, basil and anise, and I’m happy to eat it with everything.
To try the largest variety of things as possible at one meal, we opted for the Hassun, a tray of six different appetizers that offered a range of textures, techniques and ingredients. This included a sweet and creamy corn soup, a piece of grilled horse mackeral with a thin, crisp slice of dried mackeral that resembled a fishy potato chip, a small poached tomato served in a tomato jelly, a soft lotus root dumpling filled with chicken, and grilled eggplant. This was a sensory delight with flavours ranging from sweet to smoky, to salty, and textures that varied from crunchy to gelatinous, al dente or custardy, and was a remarkable way to move beyond just sushi and experience the full scale of the kitchen’s abilities.
We did come for the sushi, though, so the Maguro Zakushi was obviously going to be one of our choices. Four pieces of blue fin tuna featuring all the parts including Toro (dark and with a texture close to beef), Chutoro and Akami, plus four Torotaku Chumaki rolls was a primer in the different textures and flavours of the iconic tuna, and while it is an overfished species that should be served and eaten with respect and consideration to that fact, trying it will likely be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The Assorted Sushi was an omakase-type platter of eight pieces of chef’s choice sushi, which included shima-aji, a less fatty variety of mackeral, and other fish (our server listed them all but we quickly lost track). The hungry husband enjoyed this and spoke to the variety and freshness. In both dishes, we found the rice to be softer than at a typical chain sushi restaurant, which made things a bit more dangerous on the trip from plate to mouth but couldn’t tell if this was intentional or because the room was warmer than it might normally be.
Desserts were clean and simple, a slice of miso cheesecake topped with fruit was light and refreshing, while ice cream, in the traditional flavours of greet tea, black sesame, and yuzu vanilla was elevated with a sprinkling of edible gold dust on the strongly-flavoured black sesame scoop, bringing truth to the theory that everything is better with glitter.
Many items of the regular menu look intriguing and we are already planning another visit to check out the omakase menu; Nami offers a variety of menus ranging form $100 per person to a $280 ultimate 9-course omakase that requires booking a few days in advance. However, the remainder of the menu is actually quite reasonable for high-end sushi, including the sushi pizza, which was actually a Nami invention and is now served all over the world.
Service was friendly but neither over-bearing or intensely formal. I wondered if that had always been the case and if Nami has gotten more casual with the times. While I became an adventurous eater after moving to Toronto, I regret not being sophisticated enough to have an appreciation for more upscale dining during those years, as I can only feel sad about the opportunities I missed in waiting more than thirty years to try such a respected classic on Toronto’s dining scene.
Having said that, we noticed one of those ubiquitous development proposal signs outside Nami as we were entering. 55 Adelaide East is slated to be the location of an 80-storey tower, and while the facade of the original building, formerly a courthouse and the Consumer’s Gas offices, will remain at street level, no doubt Nami will be looking for a new home, at least temporarily (records show the restaurant owns the building) within the next few years. Might not be a bad idea to check the place out before all that history is gone.