Sushi Yugen is the closest thing to dining in Japan without leaving Toronto

Japanese chef Kyohei Igarashi came to Toronto to head up Sushi Yugen, where he serves an incredible, authentic omakase menu full of creativity and artistry that goes way beyond sushi.

Sushi Yugen: What’s the vibe

There are a lot of great sushi restaurants in Toronto, but none of them offer the full-on authentic Japanese experience that Sushi Yugen does. It feels like the new Toronto restaurant has been plucked out of Japan and placed in downtown Toronto — its doorway acting as a portal to cross the globe.

Inside the foyer of 150 York Street, Sushi Yugen’s entranceway is already a far departure from other Toronto restaurants. A reception area lined with light wood offers diners a few tables to sit at while waiting for the meal to begin or if they wish to linger over drinks afterwards. Each seating experience comes with a set start and end.

Outside Sushi Yugen omakase in Toronto

When it’s time, hosts adorned in beautiful floral kimonos take our jackets and usher us through the narrow entranceway into another world. Every effort has been taken to create an authentic Japanese dining experience, from the minimalist interior design down to the imported art pieces. There are nods to nature around the restaurant, and circular shapes that signify the cycle of life and the swirling cosmos. Behind a glass case, a miniature tree sculpture wears 1,000 tiny, hand-folded paper cranes as leaves. 

We walk past the spacious dining area where large ovular lighting illuminates the beautiful light wood room and its 12-seat sushi counter. The restaurant houses two authentic omakase experiences that both use premium ingredients, mostly from Japan. The faster-paced main counter is a more casual, but still luxurious experience. Highly skilled and experienced chefs use ingredients like Japanese uni (sea urchin) and bluefin tuna from Japan to create the omakase menu that mostly focuses on sushi for a 12-course lunch or 14-course dinner.

Sushi Yugen omakase in Toronto | The main sushi counter

The smaller backroom is where head chef Kyohei Igarashi crafts his chef's counter omakase menu. After his training, chef Igarashi cut his teeth in high-end sushi and kaiseki restaurants in Tokyo and Yokohama for 15 years. Following that, he travelled abroad to explore sushi and Japanese cuisine in different countries for nine years. His desire to share impeccable, authentic sushi outside of Japan led him to head up the omakase counter in a one-Michelin-star restaurant overseas before moving to Toronto to helm Sushi Yugen. 

Sushi Yugen omakase in Toronto | Seats at the chef's counter

Seated around the chef’s counter with seven others, the intimate space adds to the feeling of reverence for chef Igarashi and his craft. Before the meal has even begun, it feels special, and we realize we’re lucky to witness him work.

Sushi Yugen: What’s on the menu

Showing artistry and mastery through an 18-course tasting menu is no easy feat, and chef Igarashi manages to nail every single dish. "Yugen," refers to an awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses too deep and powerful for words, but it's translated to "profound mystery and beauty." It's a fitting name for a dining experience that takes you on an unknown and unfamiliar journey through magnificent flavours presented with beautiful and intriguing plating.  

Sushi Yugen omakase in Toronto | Head chef Kyohei Igarashi

We start with a refreshing jelly made with fresh, local, organic tomatoes — one of only a few ingredients on the menu not imported from Japan. It’s unusual, but tasty, and serves to cleanse my palate and pique my hunger.

As we eat, chef Igarashi prepares the next dish. Using a piece of shark skin as a grater, he shaves fresh truffle over Japanese fluke before it’s handed to us in a frosty dome-like dish. The delectable truffle sauce and fresh shavings perfectly compliment the fish without overpowering it.

Sushi Yugen omakase in Toronto | White fish truffle

In every dish, the ingredients seem to shine while still blending harmoniously. Japanese thin noodles are served cold in a light broth with hints of fish flavours; the seabream shabu shabu is delicately cooked and presented with a spicy garnish that we’re instructed to lightly dab on top. We’re guided through each course with a description of the ingredients and how best to eat it.

Sushi Yugen omakase in Toronto | Seabream shabu shabu

During my visit, the signature dish is a rare abalone caught in Japan, served in a rich, savoury sauce with a hint of sweetness. The mollusk’s texture is unlike anything I’ve ever eaten before; it’s only slightly too firm to be considered buttery. The flavours and unusual mouthfeel are addicting, yet decadently satiating.

It’s hard to pick favourites in a menu so stacked with showstoppers, but the uni rice bowl is a top contender. We’re told to stir up the layers in the beautifully presented dish, combining the flavours of uni (sea urchin), raw tuna, sushi rice, roe and caviar. Blended together, it’s an explosive combination that leaves me wanting more, but the nigiri selection is up next.

Sushi Yugen omakase in Toronto | Uni rice bowl
Sushi Yugen omakase in Toronto | Head chef Kyohei Igarashi prepares a piece of nigiri

Chef Igarashi deftly slices each piece of fish and forms the nigiri with his fingers. Watching his nimble hands prepare each piece is like witnessing a painter create a masterpiece. His every move is full of intention and precise skill.

Using our fingers, as we’re told, we grab each piece as it’s placed in front of us, enjoying it in a single, sinfully delicious bite. He slices us tuna from the leanest part to the fattiest part — and both ends of the spectrum are incredible. While many chefs will sear sushi with a blowtorch, chef Igarashi uses a smoldering piece of Japanese charcoal. It imparts a smoky, fragrant flavour that’s incomparable.

A castella-style tomago is a sweet, fluffy, eggy bite that leads us into the closing of the meal with miso soup, followed by white sesame ice cream. We’re quite full, and after this journey of unfamiliar and exciting flavours, not one of us can settle on a single dish to call their favourite.

Sushi Yugen: What’s on the drink menu

Tea is served to all of the guests before the meal begins. We start with cocktails — the yuzu spritz is refreshing and tasty — but we’re quickly lured in by the sake collection. A wine and sake pairing is available with the omakase experience, and sipping the strong spirit definitely enhances the flavours of the meal. We sample a more full-bodied, fruity sake with hints of sweetness, and a lighter-bodied sake that's clean, bright and opens up our palates. Finally we try Beau Michelle, a sake made in the style of wine that's a great entry point for those who are new to the spirit. 

Sushi Yugen is an incredible experience that gives Toronto a true taste of Japan without leaving the city. It’s well-worthy of any special occasion meal, and I’ll be thoroughly surprised if the new restaurant doesn’t land on the Michelin Guide this year. Sushi Yugen is a must-visit for anyone who enjoys Japanese cuisine.

Sushi Yugen, Main Counter, 12-course lunch, $80 per person; 14-course dinner, $98 per person; Chef's Counter, $275 per person. All prices before tax and tip.