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486 St. Catherine W, 2nd Floor

Takeout Sushi menu. Hours TBA
. Licensed. Major credit cards.Tel.: 904-1363
Let’s face it: Montreal is not a good place for SushiWars—Phase II: The Reckoning. There just isn’t enough material for drama here. We’re landlocked, unless you consider the St. Lawrence, and last time I checked, albacore wasn’t on Benoît Tremblay’s hook.

The Japanese foodmakers generally stay away. Dealing with French scares them off and the pastures around New York and Toronto are much greener. The bright lights of Japanese cuisine in Montreal can be counted on one hand, the wannabes brushed away like fireflies with the wave of a summer fan.

Entering the ring with the established heavyweights of the Japanese resto business in Montreal would be like a Sumo match between a geisha and Akebono.

However, the match might be fairer if the geisha were also a ninja, trained in the feint from in front and the thrust from behind.

Such a contender might be found in Zen-Ya, a bold new face on the Montreal sushi scene that attacks on all fronts simultaneously with the hopes of overwhelming and subduing the competition before the opponent can catch its breath. Here’s hoping the gambit works. Montreal desperately needs new blood on the Japanese restaurant scene.

Zen-ya (“Meditation shop,” loosely) is on the second floor of what was formerly a textiles building on St. Catherine. From the street all one can see is an elegant, sand-blasted glass sign on the side of the building; puzzling which street-level door to use to get in could prove to be a problem, as there are several next to each other on the sidewalk in the general area below the sign.

Still, once one is past that and in the right place, standing in front of Zen-ya’s massive double doors, all the puzzlement evaporates.

The designers were clearly in a dramatic mood. The entire room is done in shades of charcoal, from the tea-stained overhead beams to the smoky brick on the wall, and all is lighted with discrete spot-halogens and a few artfully placed rice-paper lanterns. The sushi bar sweeps darkly along the righthand side and the sea-green glass of the fish display casts an icy glow on the upturned faces of the three busy sushi-chefs, who are usually to be seen carving elaborate shapes from various edible objects with shanklike paring knives.

The music is post-Eurobeat with overtones of Sadé, the clientele on this night consisting of a few stylish young couples, a preponderance of whom are Asian.

Our server is low-key, smiling and informative. He points out a few items on the the handmade-paper clad menu, notably the five or so entries in the saké selection, which is amazingly reasonably priced. We ask for a bottle that is cold, but there is only one: the Shobu from Gekkeikan ($28), and he’s not even sure if there’s a bottle left. The place is so new, he explains, that not all the sakés are yet available. He comes back with a bottle from which a “carafon” has been poured—there are still at least four-fifths remaining. He offers us the bottle for $20. We are impressed. He puts the bottle on ice.

The menu is surprisingly large. There’s a “Robata” section: various grilled offerings teriyaki or shioyaki style. Among several recognisable items like Yakitori and Unagi (eel) are some unusual ones like Salmon cheeks and Black Cod.

There are soups—ramens and udons—and Donburis (rice bowls). There is an entire page of entrées like vegetable or shrimp gyozas, chopped octopus and something called Ikura Oroshi (grated daikon topped with salmon roe), among others. There’s a page of à-la-carte items like chicken and steak teriyakis and also a separate sushi dinner page.

Best of all, however, is a page of five table d’hôtes ranging from $32 - $54, all including a “Chef’s special appetizer,” a crab sunomono, miso soup, rice, dessert and green tea and varying with price from Chicken Yakitori and choice of sashimi or onigiri to one including an assorted grill plate, assorted tempura plate and an assorted sushi plate.

We decide to pick on one hand and order the Edo dinner on the other. So many choices, so little time.

The crab sunomono arrives perfectly chilled: flaky, melt-in-the-mouth morsels of pink and white crab on a bed of pickled vegetables. It is sublime. The other dishes follow in carefully staged succession: delicate skewers of glazed chicken on a banana leaf; a combo plate of sashimi consisting of slabs of chargrilled skin-on salmon, tightly-bound twin curls of squid and belly-pink toro, all on a banana leaf with a sprig of thyme. A mixed shrimp and vegetable tempura is moist, crisp and greaseless and the dipping sauce is thin and properly sweet-salty.

A special request of tekkyuu-maki (maguro and cucumber in a maki roll) comes in a tight, perfect presentation of toothy rice (the rice throughout the meal is outstanding) and is crunchy-squishy, just as it should be.

The pièce-de-résistance, the sushi plate, comes with large pairs of ultra-fresh hamachi (yellowtail), unagi (broiled eel), deep-red maguro from the side of the fish and the slightly chewier, pink toro from the belly, all on a stunning two-toned plate reminiscent of the coloring from an underbelly of a blue marlin.

The saké, cold and delicate, is sipped from tiny ceramic cups. Carbon-coloured chopsticks rest on their own wood blocks. Square, hand-fired tasting plates are discreetly changed with each course.

The server is extremely knowledgeable, the Japanese itamae-san, Tomo-san, cheerful and accomodating, the setting exotic.

How refreshing it is to see a viable new contender on the Japanese food scene in Montreal. Bold, brash and beautiful; Zen-ya has all the elements needed to propel it to the top ranks. It’s still very young (three months) and there are elements missing. The location will provide an obstacle but once the word gets out this should prove to be less of a problem.

“Kanpai” to the new geisha-ninja on the block.—
Review/photos Nicholas Robinson

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