1237 Guy St. (1/2 block south of Ste. Catherine St.)
Mon.-Fri. from 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m./4-10 p.m., Sat. from 5-10 p.m. Licensed, all major cards. Tel.: 931-0388. Sushis from $1/piece ($8 min.), appetizers $1.50-$6.00, main courses $6-$12.
O-Bento is Japanese for "box lunch." The restaurant that bears its name is a bit boxy, and you'd probably find one of the cheapest Japanese lunches in Montreal here, if you're a fan of sushi.
When I heard that one of its biggest selling points was one-dollar sushi, I was skeptical. "Sure," I thought, "but you won't see anything that swims in a one-dollar sushi."
Not only was I proven wrong, I was proven pleasantly wrong. I'd been tipped off to the place by a very positive review by Ashok Chandwani of the Gazette, who'd written about it a couple of weeks before. There's a dearth of so-called cheap sushi places in Montreal, so I decided to check it out. It's definitely a hole-in-the-wallor should I say a hole in the groundbecause it hides under a non-descript awning on a fairly off-the-beaten-stretch of Guy street, even though it's less than a block from St. Catherine.
On a cold winter's night, it's a warm, cheery but fairly spartan interior, with well-spaced tables and a semi-open kitchen at the back of the room, which is where our party of four was seated. There seems to be no smoking, thank Genji, because the room is so small that gas masks would be required if someone lit up.
At 7 p.m. on a Thursday night, it was fairly crowded, and the population ebbed and flowed all the way to 9:30.
There's a small strip of paper on your table and a pencil stub to mark it withthis is where the one-dollar sushi is listed. Indeed, they have all the standard offerings, tuna, yellowtail, tobiko (flying fish roe), even exotic stuff like tako (octopus) and sea smelt roe, for exactly one dollar apiece. At the bottom there's a selection of makizushis (rolls), with three pieces for $1.50: California roll (crab, smelt, cucumber, avocado), Kamikaze (tuna, tempura, avocado, lettuce) and a couple of others, including a vegetarian roll. Definitely not the underhanded "$1 ploy" just to get people in as I expected.
The owner, when he came to take our order, was quick to point out that you can't just come in and order 6 different sushis for a dollar eachit's $8 minimum. Still, that's a bargain compared with some of prices for sushi seen elsewhere in Montreal.
They also have a regular menu, featuring a selection of soups (miso etc.), salads (seaweed - $3.50, sashimi - $5.95), appetizers (2 pcs. yakitori - $2.25), ramens and udons and sobas from $6-$8 and then some other standards like Tempura and the usual Teriyakis.
My internal/eternal skeptic still unwilling to believe that $1 sushi could possibly be any good, I was mighty surprised when it turned out to be some of the best I've ever had in Montreal. The rice was perfectly made, with just the right amount of softness and vinegary resistance, and the fish was impeccably fresh. The soy sauce, wasabi and pickled ginger were all authentic and top-notch. The substantially large shrimp tempura was "pari-pari" (crisp) on the outside and properly moist and toothsome on the inside.
A zaru-soba ($6.00, served cold and piled up on a bamboo lattice in a square frame and dipped in tsukejiru, a cold broth) was earthy and flavorful, but a Teriyaki beef ($12) served on a bed of rice was bizarrely Chinese in flavor, starchy and glutinous in the worst kind of take-out fashion. It must be noted that the restaurant is Chinese-run ("He's speaking Cantonese," whispered one of my Japanese companionssilly me, I'd thought it was Mandarin) so I'd be surprised if authenticity ran the gamut of the menu.
Still, one does not come here for the tired staples of westernized orientaldomone comes here for the sushi, which, after all my (seven) years in Montreal and dozens of Japanese and pseudo-Japanese meals later, ranks as one of the best.
Review/photos Nick Robinson