We were looking for a special restaurant to celebrate our wedding anniversary. A local chef in Toronto recommended his favourite place called Zen Japanese in Markham, just north of the city. We decided to be adventurous, risky and open to taking a chance and trying something new that we hadn’t heard about. Actually, this is Zen’s second restaurant, they had their first location in Scarborough for over fifteen years and moved to this spot a little over two years ago.
We pulled up to an industrial looking plaza at 7634 Woodbine Avenue and saw the “Zen” sign. It is an unassuming restaurant from the outside. But once you enter, well it is all…zen. With light wood partitions, a nice size sushi bar and a couple of private rooms in the back, and seating about 45 people in total. It has a modern, minimalist lines and a relaxed feel. Although we were one of the only few non-Asians in the restaurant, we were made to feel right at home. We were seated at the sushi bar directly in front of chef and owner Seiichi Kashiwabara and got to watch the master meticulously prepare some of Toronto’s finest sushi. Because of our special occasion, we opted to splurge on the kaiseki tasting menu at $160 per person. It is a 7-course meal plus an omakase sushi experience. Our server Jessie was helpful in describing each dish and she selected an excellent sake to go along with our experience. I always prefer sitting at the sushi bar and highly recommend it. You get your sushi fresh, one piece at a time, plus you get to watch the chefs create everything in front of you. We got to speak to Head Chef Seiichi the entire evening, who was very engaging, and we found out more about his journey. Plus, I got to request some sushi that was not on his intended list for the evening.
We started off with sakizuke, an eggplant in flavorful dashi jelly topped with a poached shrimp. The shrimp head is deep fried and tastes like the best potato chip ever. We followed with an assortment of appetizers like a shiitake broth, black miso cod, octopus, some seaweed, and duck cooked to a medium rare. Next up, a gorgeous bowl of somen, which is thin cold Japanese noodles in a light flavored sauce. It arrives as a beautiful package that you get to unravel. Next up is the sashimi moriawase, the chef’s special choice of sashimi. On our night we had tuna, ebi and some of the tastiest amberjack I have ever had. He grates the wasabi root that comes from Japan, and his soya sauce is excellent, not what you would receive in your typical Japanese restaurant. Our next course was a grilled air dried Japanese ayu fish and some Japanese barbecued eel. The ayu was a little out of my comfort zone, but I will say it was interesting. I enjoyed our next course of wagyu suki nabe, which is Japanese wagyu beef that you cook yourself in a fragrant broth, brought to you in a beautiful hot pot. Then we finally get to see our chef’s talents soar with his special selection of nigiri sushi and then end with a hand roll. I got to experience tasting some fish that I have never had before, and I’ve had a lot of sushi in my time.
If you are looking for crazy rolls with gimmicky fillings, this place is not for you. Here you will get the freshest fish, just seafood, and traditional classics. They serve up the utmost quality and everything you receive is very authentic. The rice is warm and soft and perfectly seasoned. They only serve fish that is in season. The uni is super fresh and served in the best crispy nori. I was swooning over amberjack, red eye snapper, fluke, bluefin tuna belly, mackerel to name a few. Everything is exemplary. For dessert, they created a special “Anniversary” selection of sweet delights. There was a strawberry ice, a soya milk ice cream with a matcha cookie, a cool bubble cake and a meringue heart filled with a toasted green tea ice cream.
Of course, there are also a la carte menus, other omakase selections or you can just come for some sushi and sashimi. Zen is one of only three restaurants across Canada that has a special license to bring in A5 Hida meat from Japan. It is basically a Kobe beef – the tenderest beef you will ever have – and also the most costly. As well, they had a special crown melon, for a limited time, from Shizuoka Japan. One table ordered the whole melon (which is the size of a small cantaloupe) which was a hefty $160.
Zen is open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday from noon until 2:30, and dinner from 5:30 until 10pm. They are closed on Sundays and Mondays. There is plenty of free parking right in front of the restaurant. I noted the fine array of cars out front.
Zen restaurant aims to preserve the traditional culture of Japanese cuisine. They provide excellent service, with beautifully prepared and presented dishes, using fresh and unique ingredients. Happily, our meal exceeded our expectations and lit up my umami sensors. Each bite brought an appreciation for the simple, perfect preparation and flavours pairings of each dish.