When one colleague is an ex-Kendo warrior (ok, slight exaggeration, but he does have the outfit and the sword) and another is Montreal’s answer to Astro Boy (it’s his hair), it’s easy in this office to let a Japanese fetish flourish.
Surely though, we here at The Montréal Buzz are not the only ones who gravitate toward the Land of the Rising Sun. Fellow Japanophiles, here are some Montréal spots to hit for a quick Japanese fix.
Let’s start with the best. Juni is bar none Montreal’s top spot for sushi. Executive chef Junichi Ikimatsu hails from Kyoto – as does his ever-smiling sous chef. Get the best seats in the house by sitting at the bar and watch the master in motion. He doesn’t speak a lot of French (mainly conversational English); so don’t be surprised to hear his multicultural staff talk to the Chef in his native tongue. As far as sushi goes, you’ll get traditional Japanese but served on modern white plates in a lively contemporary atmosphere. Pair it with the best sake in town. Some of my faves include the B-52 futomaki-temaki, which has red tuna, rice crispies, spicy mayo, avocado; and the Funny Maki, for which I can’t promise you’ll be laughing, but smiling, yes.
Nearby: If the night is still young, roll on over to Baldwin Barmacie across the street, one of the trendiest bars in the area.
A Japanese restaurant that doesn’t serve sushi? “Well,” says Big in Japan André Nguyen (who co-owns the place with Chef Yutaka Abe), “we want you to eat a whole bunch of weird stuff that you haven’t had yet.” By this he means “classic everyday Japanese food.” So, expect yummy dishes like chicken wings tossed in caramelized soy sauce, gyozas stuffed with beef, mussels in a sake and prosciutto broth, and braised beef tongue in a miso broth. They also serve cold filtered or non-filtered sakes, the latter being that milky white version. Open until 3 a.m. it’s a great spot for late night munchies, but it’s also an after work hangout for many of the city’s top chefs, including Restaurant Toqué!’s Normand Laprise and Charles-Antoine Crête, and Frédéric St-Aubain, the Executive Chef at super-swank and ultra-private Le 357c in the Old Montreal. Décor aficionados should also take note that Big in Japan was in the hands of Montreal’s go-to design guy, Bruno Braen (he’s also a partner), who has also charmed Montrealers with his unique tongue-in-cheek style at glitzy Restaurant DNA, refined Le Club Chasse et Pêche, and Plateau neighbourhood bar Bily Kun, just to name a few. At Big in Japan the interior starts with an izakaya feel and ends on a pop-diner note. P.S. Big in Japan is indeed named after the Alphaville ditty.
Nearby: At the corner of avenue Pine, Big in Japan is in the heart of Montreal’s bar and nightclub hub.
Speaking of Normand Laprise, my third pick is definitely newcomer Kazu (1862 rue Ste-Catherine ouest). Namesake owner Kazuo Akutsu used to work for the star chef. So I wasn’t surprised to hear that Kazu’s little hole in the wall (and I mean that in the very best sense) is frequented by big players on the resto-scene as well. André from Big in Japan recommends the pork neck, which he says must be “grabbed like a caveman.” Kazu apparently slapped down a roll of paper towels in front of him and said, “You’ll need this.” Homemade ramen also gets high points, as well as the 48-hour pork marinated in soy, mirin and sake – Hai! It’s as tender and tasty as it sounds. The resto is located in the Concordia University student ghetto, or Chinatown West, as some call the area (which is really a misnomer since there’s a bunch of different Asian restaurants, like Korean and Indian, and not just Chinese) and closes early, around 9:30 p.m., so if you get there past the 5:30 p.m. opening time for dinner, don’t get upset if there’s a line-up. Kazu is also open for lunch from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m., but keep in mind there are only four tables and then maybe another half dozen at the bar. Oh yeah, bring cash.
Nearby: Kazu is situated on rue Ste-Catherine ouest. So you’re only a short stroll from the Pepsi Forum – where the Montréal Canadiens won all of their Stanley Cups – which is now a funhouse complete with cinemas, bowling alleys, cafés and restaurants.
Guillaume De L’Isle is the owner of L’Émouleur, a tiny knife shop just around the corner from my apartment. Émouleur means “knife sharpener” in French, and Guillaume is certainly an expert at that (he uses a choice ceramic method), but his shop gets a lot of attention from professional chefs and foodies who come for his high quality knives imported from Japan. Your stainless steel ain’t got nothing on De l’Isle’s carbon steel blades, many of which feature magnificent swirls, a visual detail that often denotes superior strength – and beauty. One day I was crossing the street near his boutique and bumped into Guillaume on the corner. He was on his way to Juni to hand deliver his newest order. Always a good sign when the top sushi chef in Montreal gives you his thumbs up.
Au Papier Japonais offers classes where you can learn various paper arts (how to make fancy boxes and books, drawing and painting, etc.), but to me the big draw here is the colourful assortment of washi paper, as well as papers from other parts of the world. This is a lovely space to buy original gift-wrap, delicate stationary or custom invitations. They also sell all kinds of Japanese-themed books (from cooking to decorating); vintage silk kimono, as well as more casual cotton versions; and home décor items such as shoji screens and lanterns.
Collection de Japon is kind of hidden on the fourth floor of a building, not far from the Bay department store downtown. But those who make the trek are rewarded with all sorts of lovely imports from Japan; including one-of-a-kind kimono; furoshiki, an earth-friendly kind of wrapping cloth in beautiful fabrics (in case you don’t know how to fold them up as pretty as owner Ms. Uchimaya can, there’s a handy little video on her website), bento boxes for bringing your lunch to work in style; and elegant tatami mats.
Local label Mosaïk Montréal by designer Marie-Ève Chagnon has chic “kimono” dresses in teal or black and come with a bronze obi-style belt. Marie-Eve’s contemporary take ensures that you will not look like a geisha-wannabe. Available at J’Bouj (1699 rue Amherst).
Just across from the Olympic Stadium, the Japanese Garden and Pavilion of the Montreal Botanical Garden is a Zen getaway by Japanese architect Ken Nakajima. The outdoor space includes a meditative rock garden, traditional lantern and bridges, and a bonsai garden with mini-trees up to 350 years old. The tea garden is only open from May to November, but not to worry otherwise as the garden is breathtaking all year round.
If you’re planning a visit in August, there are two events you may find interesting. The first is Otakuthon, which is held at the Palais des congrès (Convention Centre). Next year’s dates are already planned for Aug. 12 to 14, 2011. Otaku is a Japanese term for those who have obsessive tendencies when it comes to anime, manga or video games. This unusual event where dressing up is de rigueur is probably the closest you’ll get to the Akihabara or Shibuya districts – or three days of Halloween.
Second, there is the Matsuri Japan Festival at the Quays of the Old Port, usually the first half of August. (Dates for 2011 are still TBA at this time.) This is a lovely family event held al fresco that features Japanese food, cultural activities and performances (such as bon odori and taiko) and martial arts (karate, nawatobi, judo, kyudo, aikido) – and hardcore gaijins sporting yukatas.