J-Town is a bit of an open secret in Markham. The Japanese dining and shopping complex that opened in 1998 is hidden in plain sight along Steeles Ave. E. and Victoria Park Ave. Save for an easy-to-miss yellow billboard next to the road and an awning marked J-Town, the culinary destination is otherwise lost in a strip of unremarkable brick buildings.
My father has come here for years to get freshly baked Japanese-style sandwich bread from Bakery Nakamura. It’s the only bread my parents will eat, preferring the ultra fluffy and extra chewy texture compared to the Western-style bread found at most supermarkets. I got my first taste here of the sweet Japanese-style curry at the casual Cafe Green Tea restaurant and stocked up on imported candy from the Heisei Mart supermarket. Last year, when trying out a recipe that called for fresh myoga — Japanese ginger — to be served with salmon sashimi, I knew that J-Town’s fishmonger, J-Town By The Sea, would have what I needed.
Each business at J-Town focuses and excels at one thing. At the Shiso Tree Cafe, chef and co-owner Ken Terauchi gained a cult internet following since opening in 2010 for his take on Italian pastas, incorporating the Japanese flavours he grew up eating at home. It may seem odd to combine these two cuisines but after a taste of his unagi fettuccine dressed in a spicy yuzu kosho (fermented yuzu and chili paste) cream sauce with diced avocado, garlic chips and minty shiso leaves you realize that these two cuisines have more in common than you might think.
“Pasta is my comfort food, but I couldn’t do strictly Italian pastas, ’cause I’m not Italian,” says Terauchi, who was born and raised in Markham and is the son of Masaharu Terauchi, who owns Bakery Nakamura. “I thought it would be interesting to do a Japanese spin on it, but even then, there’s a lot of crossover. We have an uni tagliolini with nori and ikura, which is roe. Uni is the Japanese word for sea urchin, but sea urchin is eaten in Italy as well as fish roe. When coming up with dishes, I don’t strictly think how can I make this Japanese or Italian, it just has to taste good.”
Terauchi helped his dad at the bakery throughout high school and tried to give it a go as a DJ after graduation. Around that time, the management at J-Town approached Terauchi and his brother, Koh, with the idea of opening a cafe at a space near the bakery. Terauchi decided they would serve his favourite comfort food, pasta, but with no kitchen experience, he had to develop his cooking skills — and of course, learn how to make pasta. After doing culinary internships at places such as Auberge du Pommier and upscale Japanese restaurant Zen in Markham, Terauchi and his brother opened Shiso Tree Cafe, eight years ago.
Shiso has a poutine menu with Japanese flair: the Mentai Mayo poutine has a spicy cod roe mayo while the curry poutine is topped with a sweet house-made Japanese curry sauce and curds. His take on the burger replaces the buns with two mini slices of okonomiyaki, a savoury Japanese pancake of eggs, cabbage and flour. Still, Terauchi maintains that there are some classic dishes on the menu that don’t need much reinventing such as the iceberg wedge salad or a simple carbonara.
“For the unagi dish, I wanted to incorporate yuzu kosho, a salty and spicy paste from the island of Kyushu where it’s used in a lot of chicken or pork dishes. I added it to a cream sauce, but yuzu and cream didn’t taste that good together so I added mentsuyu to give it some body and saltiness. The dish then needed colour, but the garnish also had to taste good, so I added avocado to work with the creaminess of the sauce and the shiso leaves to give a fresh flavour. The sweet, smoky taste of the unagi also balances out with the cream, so the whole dish works well.”
Most of the pastas on the dinner menu are under $20 (prices are higher when seafood is involved) and lunchtime pasta combos are $12. In January, the restaurant closed without notice. Local food message boards and websites wondered why it shuttered.
“I was on my honeymoon in Paris and I got a call saying a pipe burst and the place got flooded,” says Terauchi. “When I came back it was less of a renovation and more of a total construction project.” Months went by without any updates (Terauchi admits he’s not the best at maintaining a social media presence) before the restaurant quietly reopened in July.
Charles Yu, a retired engineer who unofficially became the authority on the GTA’s suburban restaurants with his regular reviews on the online food forum Chowhound (though much of the activity has since moved to an unofficial Facebook group where he’s an admin), kept close tabs on Shiso during its closure.
“The menu is so unique with pastas ranging from traditional bolognese to the Japanese ones with seaweed and ikura (fish roe),” he says, adding that the restaurant’s rose bolognese rivals one he had at famed Italian restaurant Babbo in New York City. “It’s not just the taste, but the consistency. Whether you eat there on a weekday or a busy weekend, the pasta is always hot and the consistency is always perfect, I don’t know how they do it. And at that price point, it’s great. If you go downtown to an Italian place, you’re going to pay a lot more.”
Broadly speaking, Terauchi’s cooking falls under the yoshoku category: Japanese dishes with a Western influence. It includes dishes such as the hambagu or Japanese hamburger that’s a mix of beef and pork, Japanese-style curry, and katsu, which are fried pork cutlets that’s are now ubiquitous at many casual Japanese eateries. Yoshoku (also called yoshuku) is thought to have originated in the 1850s during Japan’s Meiji Restoration period when the emperor encouraged people to embrace Western ways of living and eating.
Yoshoku takes on a different form in Bloordale, just east of Dufferin St. on Bloor St. W. at Coo Cafe Bread Or Rice. The menu includes crispy potato croquettes with a creamy shrimp filling; omurice, an omelet served with tomato sauce on a bed of rice; a Japanese-style hot dog topped with pickled ginger; and hambagu on rice.
For Coo’s chef and co-owner Nagisa Hashimoto, yoshoku cooking brings together his French training with Japanese flavours, and for him personally, was the result of ingredient substitutions while growing up in Japan. “When I was a kid, beef was expensive so beef stock was rare. When making a demi-glace we’d substitute it with soy sauce or ketchup so that’s how it got started with me.” At his restaurant, Hashimoto wants to introduce diners to more yoshoku dishes, including his favourite, hayashi rice: a Western-style beef stew with a red wine base that’s served over white rice.
Whether it’s Italian or French influenced, yoshoku is a welcome addition to a city where many of its diners still think of Japanese food as sushi and ramen. But for Terauchi, he’s less concerned about the regional boundaries of his food and just wants to put out a good plate of pasta.
“I try to make comfort food with flavours that may be new but are familiar and nostalgic to me,” he says. “I’m just going off on my experience of food.”
Karon Liu is the Star’s food writer and is based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @karonliu