Montreal is a inspiring restaurant city but attempts at beautiful sushi have always fallen so far below my expectations. The one obvious exception to this rule has been the terrific and sophisticated Kaizen, which, until this year, was the only acceptable spot in the city for artful sushi. (Though Kaizen’s recent addition of former French Laundry chef Noam Gedalof has tweaked its menu into sublime French-Japanese territory, making classification for this fun and creative spot totally impossible.)
Park Restaurant, opened in February by former Kaizen and Le 357c chef Antonio Park, is wonderful addition to Montreal’s still-growing sushi community. Chef Park takes a hybridic, slightly whimsical approach to traditional sushi, adding subtle global flourishes to traditionally austere Japanese dishes. (Park is Korean by lineage, Brazilian and Argentinian by birth, and has lived and trained all over Japan and North America.) Park’s cultural mash-up is subtle, understated, and inspired — imagine pearlescent sashimi, dabbed with chimichurri; coins of fish soaking in a ceviche broth; tender, vermillion uni blooming from a bed of halibut “rice”. The core is Japanese, but the execution is Park’s vision alone.
On a recent evening, we visited the cheerful Westmount restaurant and sat at the five-seat sushi bar, where Park personally attended to us with tempting single-bite morsels of sashimi and sushi that he prepared as we watched. The dining room is studded with easter eggs that hint at Park’s obsessive attention to detail — like the scuffed knob of chartreuse wasabi, sitting on a small wooden paddle coated with shark skin. It’s gorgeous food that’s memorable, not just perfunctory.
Park insists on making nearly everything in-house, like the mayonnaise and soy sauce that laced this shrimp salad appetizer. The kimchi — which graces daytime dishes like Park’s BLT — is his mother’s own recipe. (He sent us home with a big tupperware of the stuff, since it wasn’t on our tasting menu that night. It was the best I’ve ever had, and so dramatic too — he didn’t cut up the cabbage beforehand so it sat in the container in frothy, wild tufts.)
Of course, the sushi is world-class. Park privately imports fish and seafood from a community of Japanese fishermen based near Tokyo, and receives shipments every single day.
Park instructed us on how to eat his sashimi, telling us that certain fishes — if prepared properly and bought at peak freshness — would leave behind a lingering sweetness. A soft, pleasing aftertaste of sugar and flowers coating the tongue and rushing to the head.
My favorite moment of the evening was sampling the kinome leaf, which renders your tongue numb and tingling — a little like a visit to the dentist and getting a shot of novocaine.
Later, we tried the shiso leaf, with yellowfin tuna and a scoop of caviar.
Park busted out the blowtorch for this salmon toro, lightly coated in his house-made soy sauce.
This is harder than it looks. Park can make the pad of rice that sit one-handed, with the inside of his palm and a thumb. It was hypnotic.
Is there any other food that so perfectly works as a one-bite wonder? That we only had one piece each emphasized the sashimi’s incredible, supple ephemerality — it’s here, then it’s gone forever.
Park’s Peruvian-inspired sashimi ceviche was a sublime explosion of acid, salt, and sweetness.
Somehow, I managed to stuff this sashimi bursting with halibut and uni into my mouth. It was not easy.
We finished dinner with a tropical fruit and strawberry rice pudding, studded with tiny pearls of grapefruit consomme. It was an incredible, invigorating meal: light and full of character, and those magnificent fish dancing in the ocean just hours earlier still felt so vital that night. Forget Montreal — this is some of the finest sushi that I’ve ever had, anywhere.