Kujira is a month-old sushi bar in Yorkville that takes pride in thoughtfully crafted, individually garnished, hand-pressed and hand-rolled sushi. The sunken 56-seat restaurant occupies a lower-level unit on Cumberland, and while it's faced with windows, the interior is dark and subdued - dimly lit, panelled in wood, and decorated with a rustic but minimalist sensibility.
While not unique in its approach (restaurants like JaBistro are already doing the same), it's a refreshing change from the prevailing trend of Western-style sushi and subpar AYCE varieties that value quantity over quality. The fish for each piece of nigirizushi is sliced to order, hand-pressed and thoughtfully dressed with unique condiments as chef Kevin Shin sees fit.
Absent from the menu is anything named after an American state - though the offerings aren't exactly perfectly traditional Japanese either. The neta (topping) on each piece is torched, glazed and/or garnished to impart various flavours and textures. In one instance, salmon is topped with a sweet apple purée; in another, the garnish is a tapenade-like garlic and black olive purée.
From the selection of salads, I try the beet salad ($7), featuring a rainbow of root vegetables parboiled to retain a crunchy texture, then pickled in a pleasantly tangy mustard, miso and vinegar dressing.
Next up is the meal-worthy anikake udon soup ($13), a bowl of thick chewy noodles with clusters of mushrooms and nuggets of karaage. The thick, starchy dashi broth is poured table-side to coat each noodle while also keeping the chicken crunchy.
To share at the table, there's an array of hot and cold tapas-style plates. The sweet, soy sauce-glazed beef short ribs ($18) are a take on a Korean favourite - only braised in the Japanese style, so that the meat is tender but still a little toothsome. A shishito pepper and date add extra sweet notes, but if it's a little heat you're after, there's a little pot of house-made mustard supplied on the side.
Skip the cocktails - sure, they hover around $8 (reasonable by today's standards), but they're blended with Tropicana and Ocean Spray. Sake is the way to go and the bar plans to expand on the nine labels currently on offer.
Expect the menu to change seasonally with more hearty dishes due in for winter. Also in the works, the chef is experimenting with a menu of vegan sushi and set bento box lunches.
Photos by Jesse Milns