Shiso Tree Cafe
Shiso Tree Cafe specializes in Japanese-style pasta. Internationally, there are chains that serve this food, most notably Pasta de Waraku which is insanely popular in Asia, but since none of these large mega-restaurants seem remotely interested in opening a location in Toronto, this little place will have to suffice.
And boy does it ever do a good job. Serving heaps of Italian pasta wrapped in creamy Japanese-inspired sauces (try the sukiyaki pasta or the unagi pasta - they are simply wonderful, light, and smooth-tasting) along with Asian pastry such as red bean or green tea cakes, this place really does deserve more recognition than it currently has.
Tucked away in J-Town, the restaurant has the appearance of a comfortable and relaxing cafe although large groups can book the one tatami room just to the left of the entrance.
While they do have a regular menu, Shiso Tree offers popular daily specials that rotate often. Their pasta comes in three different categories: Wafu (pasta made with Japanese ingredients), cream and tomato sauce. During weekdays, they have an amazing good lunch deal - $8 for pasta, soup and salad. On weekends, only their dinner menu is available.
During my most recent visit to Shiso Tree, I arrive with a fairly small group and we all decide to get the the lunch deal as well as share some small side dishes.
The simple salad comes first. The wafu salad dressing, comprised mainly of soy sauce and sesame oil and seeds, is very good - flavourful, tangy and a bit salty but very light.
Next up is the soup. Each of us receives a house made cream of cauliflower. Like the salad, it's quite flavourful and we can tell it's made thick with a puree of cauliflower.
Moving on to something more substantial and unique, their Okonomiyaki fries ($8) are rather interesting. They're regular fries topped with ingredients that typically go on top of okonomiyaki: Japanese mayonnaise, otafuku sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce but thicker and sweeter) and a sprinkling of green onions and bonito flakes. After our first bites our mouths are begging for more. Who knew that the sweetness of the otafuku sauce would compliment the fries so well?
Not content with just one order of fries, we all split the nori fries ($6) which come with their signature wafu dressing (used in the salad) and a generous sprinkling of thin nori strips. A lighter combination than the Okonomiyaki fries, it's still equally delicious.
For our pasta mains, we order the Okonomiyaki (sauteed onions, bacon and garlic dressed like an Okonomiyaki-style pancake), Napolitan and the Puttanesca pasta. All three are made with spaghetti and plated with a thick slice of garlic bread
The Okonomiyaki pasta is by far our favourite of the three and is the true essence of Japanese-Italian fusion. Each piece has the perfect mesh of the thick, sweet otafuku sauce and the Japanese mayo. There's also a generous amount of onions and bacon in the pasta.
We are excited for the Napolitan pasta since it's a very popular pasta dish in Japan but it tastes just sweet and cheesy.
The Puttanesca pasta (tomato sauce, anchovies, olive and garlic) is, unfortunately, the most disappointing dish of the three. It isn't bad but there is just simply nothing extraordinary about it and the kitchen must have forgotten to include the anchovies but doubled the amount of olives.
Not ones to pass on dessert, we dig into a black sesame brulee ($6) which is utterly heavenly. The crispy caramelized top with the smooth black sesame pudding underneath is as good as this dish getsm not to mention a generous portion size for three people.
Also worth mentioning is Shiso Tree Cafe's cakes which are quite popular as the restaurant is affiliated with nearby Bakery Nakamura. All cakes and pastries are brought in fresh from the bakery each day.
Writing and photos by Christina Li with contributions from Darren Susilo