After Masaki Saito received two Michelin stars last winter for his eponymous Yorkville restaurant, the perfectionist will be opening a handful of new eateries in Toronto in 2023.
“It’s true we have five new restaurants coming this year,” said a communications aide at Saito’s restaurant. “We are working on new restaurant developments, and we aim to open them all this year. However, there’s no guarantee, as we won’t open until we are 100 per cent ready to deliver the best to our customers,” the aide went on to say. “ I don’t want to mislead the public, so I prefer to say ‘Stay tuned.’”
Diners in Toronto who can afford to spend $680 per head will certainly be staying tuned because the most awarded restaurant in Toronto is almost impossible to get into. There was nearly a two-month wait for a reservation at Sushi Masaki Saito before the Michelin stars, and then, in January, Chef did something wild. Due to supply chain problems stemming from air shipments from Japan, Saito decided to close his restaurant on Saturday evenings, which meant that Toronto’s only two-starred Michelin chef is leaving oodles of cash on the table by choosing perfection over mass appeal.
According to the latest update, these five new restaurants will all serve Japanese food but not of the current Masaki Saito variety. They will be less expensive and less rigorous in their service.
At his high-end sushi restaurant before the December holidays, Saito said he would rather close shop at the height of its popularity than serve something that isn’t great.
“The food in New York is so much better than the food in Toronto, but I don’t accept that — there is no reason why Toronto cannot win,” Saito said gleefully in the tiny waiting room at his immaculate, austere, minimalist, wood-panelled Yorkville haunt. “To make something excellent, even perfect, requires sacrifice. I just think we need to take care with our fish — in Toronto, there’s too many fake chefs.”
Fake chefs and sushi joints with heavy sauces and inexperienced owners putting discounted fish on plates is causing Saito, 35, consternation. However, he admitted to a very late night recently, and it could have been the sake still milling around in his system that led him to take the gloves off.
Speaking through a translator and surrounded by similarly dressed, similarly clean-shaven sous chefs and aides, Masaki Saito orates like the king of the world. For such an accomplished perfectionist in the kitchen — and someone who routinely battles Canadian food regulators for his insistence on serving his fish aged, as he was taught in Japan — Saito has a light, even goofy vibe.
He talks about his life as a single man living in Yorkville and mentions that he’s having fun, but is not content.
“Outside looking in, it might seem like I’m rich and famous, that I have many girlfriends, but I’m not rich and I’m not famous and it’s not enough,” he says and mentions his hard-core work ethic that keeps him in the restaurant most nights past 3 a.m.
“We need power at Japanese restaurants so sushi is respected like French and Italian food, and I think we only get that from better customer education — but I think the Michelin stars at Masaki Saito might be a good place for the education to start.”
At his exclusive restaurant, Saito has his stars displayed on the coveted sushi bar, and Chef walks through the quiet, almost mystic second-floor haunt. Tucked up above Avenue Road and just north of Bloor Street, Saito looks out at Toronto and sees so much clay, like his delicate fish inspirations, he’s able to sculpt. Alongside his business partner, William Cheng, the entrepreneur responsible for bringing Saito to Canada, Saito now aims to grow his empire, bring down his costs and prices and educate Toronto’s diners on a different type of Japanese food. He believes the bar should be set higher for Japanese cooking in Toronto and that his adopted hometown needs to be educated on real Japanese food.
With the launch of five new restaurants in 2023 — one confirmed by his kitchen aide to be opening in Yorkville — Saito is on a mission to reclaim Toronto’s appreciation of Japanese food.
“I did a lot in New York and want to do a lot in Toronto, but even earning three Michelin stars isn’t success,” he says, with a smile. “Success is more of a mission — my mission — because Toronto customers need an education on how to eat Japanese food.”
With five new restaurants trailing behind him, the mission seems one that Saito is ready to accept.