Omakase is so much more than a meal, it’s a dining experience. An intimate exchange between chef and customer that has not been possible under the pandemic lockdown. Ato Japanese Restaurant launched in the middle of the pandemic and although their takeout sushi sets look divine, the staff have been prevented from offering the experience they have been training for.
True sushi fans will be familiar with Omakase; the chef carefully chooses what you will eat and crafts each morsel in front of you. For three of the four folks in our party, this trip to Ato was our first time dining inside a restaurant since pre-covid and it was a loud reminder of the magic that can be found in restaurants run by people passionate for their foodcraft.
The plaza in Richmond Hill, at which Ato is located, does not look like a location for culinary delights. However, the vibe was transformed as soon as we walked through the doors. First, a pristine glassed-in room with large cuts of wagyu, a variety of fish and eels on ice, and crates stacked with mysterious ingredients. Then, into the beautifully designed restaurant; warm wood, stone and patterned glass creating cozy pockets within a sprawling space. The staff were lovely and inviting. The interior is both calming and inspiring, and we commented through the evening that we felt like we were at a food spa.
Oh, and the food.
When I moved to Toronto a decade ago, I kind of gave up on sushi. Coming from the West Coast, I found it hard to spend money on tiny chunks of mediocre fish. Over the past ten years, the sushi landscape here has changed. The quality has risen and a handful of places to enjoy premium Omakase have emerged. And now, at Ato, the Omakase experience rivals any that I’ve had within reach of the ocean.
Much of that has to do with the freshness and variety of the fish. Although Ato is a new restaurant, the owners have been in the fish business for over fifteen years. Ato is a product of Seamax Wholesale, a Japanese food supplier with over five hundred clients in the GTA. Being part of the supply chain gives them unparalleled access to quality ingredients and it shows up in every delectable bite we took.
All in our group decided to give full trust to Chef Linh and we were grateful we did. There were some in our quartet who would normally shy away from uni or squid or mackerel, but on this night, Chef Linh changed our minds and had us enjoying sushi we thought we didn’t like.
Of course, the chef is the most important ingredient in Omakase. Chef Linh’s training, and reverence for the tradition and art of sushi making, is apparent. He’s also young and curious and excited about his craft, unafraid to push the boundaries just enough to surprise and delight you. Omakase can be a rather sombre and intimidating way to eat sushi, but Chef Linh is friendly and converses easily about the origins of the fish, to the philosophy of how to present tuna in the menu, to his fondness for the knives he uses.
A highlight for all of us was seeing how he prepared wasabi, by simply grating a fresh rhizome across shark skin to create the paste. He explained how rare it is to find actual wasabi in sushi restaurants in North America, which generally use “western wasabi” which is horseradish dyed green. The freshly grated wasabi has a beautiful, delicate spiciness which doesn’t smack you in the sinuses, but compliments the fish.
Chef Linh is talented at crafting pieces of sushi that play to the strengths of the fish, incorporating ingredients like shiso leaf or yuzu or sea salt mixed with bamboo charcoal to hit all the notes of taste texture and sensation all in a single bite. He builds excitement with each piece he creates. We quickly noticed ourselves saying “Actually, this one is my favourite.” with each course.
Ato is the best sushi experience I have had in Ontario. There is much more I could say, but it’s something you should experience for yourself. Go eat.