By Michael Lowe
The dining landscape in Niagara-on-the-lake has taken a notably Asian turn. Masaki Sushi, now about a year old, seems to already have a base of local followers.
A chef friend first steered me to Masaki Sushi claiming it was the best place for sushi in Niagara. My first visit there confirmed, at least in my mind, that it is definitely a place for discerning palates.
Before I could come up with an excuse to return, a representative from Niagara’s Finest Hotels, the entity which operates Masaki Sushi and other NOTL properties, contacted me to come in for a second try — and I jumped at the chance. What was described as a sake-tasting menu tuned into a three hour extravaganza with each course paired with a different sake.
Greeted by Maski’s own Sake Sommelier, Ashley Hwang,I was seated at the bar opposite Chef James (photo above).. Masaki’s menu carries a varied selection of maki and nigiri sushi, sashimi combinations and small plate offerings. There is also the Omakase option where you advise the chef that “I’ll leave it up to you.”
My opening dish is a quartet of tantalizing flavours starting with rich, fatty toro — tuna belly — with avocado and taro chip (at bottom, below photo). Progressing clockwise, as instructed, there are creamy baked oysters, an oyster ‘shooter’ and a fresh radish and carrot salad with yuzu. I learn quickly that sake is a drink to treat with respect — alcohol content is notably high compared to beer and wine. The first sip of Kikusui Funaguchi Nama Genshu sake is slightly sweet with good depth and vibrant acidity, which belies the 19% alcohol by volume.
What sets Masaki above the rest is the high quality and variety of the fish served here. You’ll see hamachi, mackerel, salmon, snapper and even sea bream, carefully prepared and beautifully presented (photo below). You are served freshly grated wasabi root — not that horrid powdered stuff — and pickled ginger for cleansing the palate between bites. Wakatake Daiginjo sake with its delicate floral note was the perfect match with the pure, fresh flavours of the fish.
A plate of nigiri sushi (photo below), with the slight tang of vinegar in the rice pairs beautifully with the balanced, rich texture of Tomanohikari Omachi Junmai Daiginjo sake. Omachi rice is used for this sake and grains are polished to 50% or less before brewing, and the alcohol level is in excess of 16%.
My next dish is a miso-glazed black cod (photo below) and is matched with Wakatake Junmai Onikoroshi sake. There’s a textural partnership in this pairing, the meatiness of the cod mirrored in the round, balanced, weighty mouthfeel of the sake.
Course number five is a meal in itself. Clams, sea scallop, shrimp, shitake and enoki mushrooms with vegetables and udon noodles in a rich broth are served in a hot pot (photo below). Sake for this course is Nanbu Bijin (Southern Beauty) Junmai Ginjo — the tropical fruit notes and refreshing melon contrast the richness of the soup.
At the time of this article there was no optional sake pairing on the menu, but I strongly suggest that they add that option to enhance the experience. There are, however, a number of sakes to choose from, and I advise that you ask sommelier Ashley Hwang to assist in your selections. By now, satiated and slightly mellow from the sake, I reflect on what attracted me to Masaki in the first place.
Besides the fresh, top-quality ingredients and gracious service, there’s a serenity to dining here. Soft music and the silent, almost choreographed movements of the chefs combine to create a sense of calm — like a tonic for the soul. Reservations are recommended, as is seating at the sushi bar, if available. Full menus are available on their web site (see link below).
60 Picton St.,
(Below the Moffat Inn)
Hours: Daily from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.