Japanese, contemporary cuisine figure prominently in 1st Toronto Michelin Guide

Toronto can now boast to being home to more than a dozen Michelin-star eateries, including a two-star sushi restaurant run by a celebrated chef previously recognized by the prestigious food guide.

Sushi Masaki Saito earned two stars in Michelin’s first Canadian food guide announced Tuesday, when the Parisian ode to gastronomy endorsed a range of Hogtown outlets specializing in everything from Chef Masaki Saito’s tradition-steeped Edomae-style sushi to fried chicken takeaway.

The honours were revealed in an evening ceremony streamed online, with Saito last to take the stage to accept the night’s top award from Gwendal Poullennec, the guide’s international director, and the tire company’s puffy white mascot, Bibendum.

Dressed in black pants, a white shirt, white apron and white hat, Saito said he had two things to say: “I love Toronto, I love Canada.”

 “One more thing is: I am still single, I don’t know why,” he said to laughter from the audience.

Saito’s New York eatery, Sushi Ginza Onodera, earned a Michelin star in 2017 and two stars in 2018. He left that restaurant to open Sushi Masaki Saito in Toronto’s tony Yorkville neighbourhood in 2019.

In their citation, the anonymous inspectors praised Saito’s latest restaurant for offering fish and nigiri rice from Japan, and a special blend of vinegars.

“Only here will you find shirako boldly skewered and grilled over binchotan, and only here will you eat melting slabs of chutoro buried under a blizzard of white truffles,” they say of the restaurant, where an omakase dinner costs $680 per person.

“Laughter fills the air, thanks to Chef Masaki Saito and his jovial team, and for a few blissful hours, the world outside melts away.”

12 Toronto restaurants earned 1 Michelin star

Twelve other restaurants earned one Michelin star, including four specializing in Japanese cuisine: Aburi Hana, Kaiseki Yu-zen Hashimoto, Shoushin and Yukashi.

Four contemporary eateries also got one star — Alo, Enigma Yorkville, Edulis and Frilu — while a star each went to Alo’s French sister eatery Alobar Yorkville, Mexican restaurant Quetzal, and Italian restaurants Don Alfonso 1890 Toronto and Osteria Giulia.

All of Toronto’s one-star and two-star Michelin chefs raise their glasses following the ceremony in Toronto on Tuesday. (Alex Lupul/Canadian Press)

Before the gala, Poullennec said inspectors were impressed by “the diversity and the vibrancy of the local culinary scene.” He dissuaded any attempt to compare Toronto against other Michelin cities, among which the top-ranking Tokyo boasts 203 stars, Paris holds 118 and Kyoto has 108.

“It’s quite difficult to compare one destination with another,” he said in a phone interview.

“What is important for us is to find, `What are the unique flavours Toronto is adding to the well of the culinary
conversations?’ And here there is a lot to say about the diversity, the homegrown talent, and we really feel that’s not only a great beginning but that Toronto has a great potential.”

Three-star honours are relatively rare on the global list — out of 16,120 restaurants, just 137 achieved the highest standard. Tokyo has the most three-star designations with 12.

The century-old Parisian system awards one star to restaurants deemed very good in their category, while two stars go to establishments with “excellent” cuisine. Three stars single out exceptional cooking that is worth a special trip.

Aside from flavour, culinary technique and product quality, anonymous inspectors factor in consistency and whether the chef’s personality is reflected in the dishes.

17 restaurants earned Bib Gourmand designation

Michelin named 17 restaurants worthy of the Bib Gourmand designation, which recognizes great quality among outlets that offer two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for less than $60.

They included local darlings Enoteca Sociale, Fat Pasha and Bar Raval, as well as the fried chicken takeaway spot Chica’s Chicken.

Poullennec says a Vancouver edition is set to launch later this year.

Michelin’s arrival in Canada is thanks in part to a multi-year funding deal with tourism boards to help promote travel decimated by the pandemic, but Poullennec says the selection process remains independent.

The broader economic expectations of a maple-flavoured edition were clear from the evening gala’s speakers’ list, which included Toronto Mayor John Tory, Ontario Tourism Minister Neil Lumsden and Destination Toronto president Scott Beck.

Culinary attractions key to driving tourism, expert says

Before the bash, Destination Toronto’s executive vice president called the Michelin partnership a “very strategic investment,” given that culinary attractions are considered key to driving tourism.

Andrew Weir says being deemed a “Michelin city” helps not only the starred restaurants but can lift a battered hospitality sector still reeling from the pandemic.

“If someone comes into Toronto and spends three days here (in order to) have dinner at a Michelin restaurant, over three days they’re probably having nine meals — one is in a Michelin restaurant, eight are in other restaurants throughout the city,” says Weir.

“That momentum begets more momentum and hopefully will continue to pay dividends across the community for many years.”

Michelin’s anonymous chief inspector in North America pointed to a mixed list that goes beyond global outposts to include local teams such as those behind Edulis and Frilu.

“It’s a really great, broad, diverse selection of cuisine type that I think really reflects the energy and dynamism of Toronto,” said the U.S.-based foodie, who has been with Michelin for 15 years and previously worked in hospitality and professional kitchens.

Named after a tire company, the guides were first published in France at the turn of the 20th century to encourage tire sales by offering advice to French motorists and travellers. That included tips on how to change a tire, where to get gas — and where to eat or take shelter for the night.