Restaurant: Jun I
Addr: 156, avenue Laurier Ouest, Montréal
Event: Thursday January 9th 2014 Dinner, 18:00PM
Phone: 514 276-5864
UPDATE : Click here for a more recent review (February 2017).
Re-visiting some of Montreal finest tables. This time, Jun I on Laurier, stronghold of Japanese sushi Master Chef Junichi Ikematsu. This is the closest you’ll get in Montreal to upscale sushiya, with a real Japanese Master at the helm.
Before this visit, I ate at Jun I in 2010. Back then, my review was severe but that was because I was comparing it to some of the best sushiyas outside of Montreal. Since then, I learned to be more realistic by comparing Montreal restaurants to their local peers. Another aspect that has changed: I used, back then, to make not much difference between the widely popular and commonly found americanized-sushis Vs proper original Japanese sushis, and tended to simply elect as best (or if you prefer, favourite) the ones I found more flavorful (read: rich in taste), which I believe was a mistake since a delicious take on a sushi does not mean it is proper top sushi. Time has changed: I studied a lot about the art of sushi making, have started crafting my own sushis at home since last year and do persevere in perfecting my sushi in all its nuances while keeping it as close as possible to the basics of classic Japanese sushi. As you’ll see, later on, this personal evolution of my appreciation of the sushi did not mean that I turned my back to non classic styles of sushis. It simply led to what I believe to be more accurate judgements.
In town, local sushi fans have Jun I, Mikado, Sho Dan, Tri and plenty of others shops as their favourites and seem to compare those between each other . It would be accurate to underline that there is a misunderstanding in comparing Jun I to those other suhiyas. Jun I’s classic sushis are genuinely Japanese in their conception (learn to make Japanese sushis the classic way, and you’ll get my point), Jun I is a Japanese sushiya, whereas the others are doing a more americanized / or personalized style of sushis. I am not a sushi traditionalist since I also enjoy my americanized-styled sushis, but it’s clear in my mind that Jun I is crafting the most original/authentic sushis in town (I am talking about their classic sushis, since they also have more contemporary items like some of their makis, French/Japanese fusion fares, etc).
Of course there is the possibility that classic items will fare a bit boring to someone who gets excited only when fed on americanized-styled sushis, and for whom the essential of a great original sushi (importance of the rice, and quality of the seafood) means nothing but I have always found this room full (whenever I was walking in the area or on my two visits here), which suggests that many Montrealers are also interested by the original sushis (as I’ll repeat, below, Jun I will also please the non-purists).
Then there are the skills: the knife skills, the thoughts and skills invested in the work of the rice and overall sushi textures as well as the sourcing of the seafood is simply superior at Jun I. For all those reasons, Jun I is still the best sushiya in Montreal. YES, Jun I is a bit pricey (though there’s an affordable lunch menu), but that is expected from a sushiya that imports superior seafood oftently from abroad.
So, how was the food on this evening? I went with David, a long time foodie who really knows his food, though not a complete sushi expert for now. Lately, he was starting to be annoyed by the average level of sushis in town and wanted something more sophisticated. I suggested that we both pay a visit to Jun I (a first for him, my second visit only). Chef Junichi Ikematsu does great at blending Eastern/Western cuisines (he still has some of his East/West fusion items on their menu), but I recommended to David that we skip the non oriental items for now. We sat at the bar and asked the Chef to serve whatever he deems worthy (omakase). David being a huge fan of salmon –my least favourite fish — and not a fan of nigiris (he says he does not like rice and prefers the raw seafood), I suggested that he orders some extra sashimis of salmon. Me, born and raised in a fishermen’s village, I naturally asked the Chef for any ‘catch of the day’ as well as fishes/seafood that are not on the menu / or that is un-common/exotic (the way to go at a sushi shop, especially one of this quality, imho), though they had no particular un-common fish /off menu offerings on this evening . The work of the shari (rice) is the other major aspect that interests me, of course, but I already knew that Jun I’s does it way better than its local peers, though, as it’s typical in most western countries, the rice is not boldly vinegared here (the rice at Jun I is cooked with enoughly bite while remaining soft in mouth, the seasoning’s most noticeable characteritic is the subtle sweetness part of the sushi vinegar mix (subtle) and the rice keeping its snow-white color on this evening, I can only suppose that they were mostly using white vinegar on this instance— One of the ‘weapons’ of a sushi Chef is her/his personal/secret recipe of the shari’s seasoned vinegar mix, so you won’t get much infos if you ask ) , though I doubt that Montreal sushiyasans find it worthy of their time to partake in long searches/experiments for the finest rice combo possible , therefore you won’t go too far with your assessment of the shari .
Started with a maki, their ‘funny maki’ which consists of spiced tuna/avocado, tempura-texture’d rice exterior . The cooking skills is among Montreal’s very best at Jun I, so this was technically nicely executed (nice batter, tasty and quality rice, the seasoning enticing enough ), but the overall effect in mouth was not spectacular. A good but not excellent item 7/10
Then a platter of mackerel (both Japanese and Spanish), sea urchin, salmon, scallops, tuna, freshwater eel – the sea urchin simply exceptional by Montreal restaurant standards (all levels and cooking styles taken into account). Looking at its firm consistency and bright orange/yellow color, this sea urchin I was sampling on this evening was of California gold grade (I never ask waitstaffs about grades, I just trust my own judgement), easily one of the finest quality of sea urchin. They were two types of sea urchin both from California (one from Southern C, the other from its Northern part). The eel so fresh and of exemplary quality. Only the scallop impressed less, those being second to a stunning example of scallops from New Brunswick I had at my last meal at restaurant La Porte (if you see someone putting down our Canadian seafood, that is just an ignorant peep who has no clue of what he/she is talking about ) . Still a 10/10 platter in regard to what can be found in Montreal.
Crab maki was next. The crab quality quite great, as expected from a place of this standing, but the kitchen did not rely solely on that feature. The maki had enjoyable crispy texture packed with exciting crab flavor of the kind that only few few places in Montreal can deliver. The rice seasoned nicely , served at body temperature. Not my favourite maki at Jun I, but certainly a very good creation and the technique/refinement of its execution reminding that we are fed by one of the very few consistently strong kitchen brigades in town. 8/10
Then another platter consisting this time of crab, sea bass, scallops, octopus – The high quality of seafood (again, by the finest standards found on our local restaurant scene) continued to be the common theme of all items that they kept serving with the sea bass and fresh crab being among the finest I ever had in Montreal, the octopus tenderized and yet chewy as it’s supposed to. Again, although good and fresh, the scallop remained the weakest link of this remarkable journey 9/10
The stellar (by finest local restaurant standards) sea urchin made another appearance upon my request. Jun I is pricey, let’s be upfront about that, but you can see where the money has gone. Many of the finest dining destinations of Montreal are careful about the sourcing of their ingredients and yet they sometimes suffer from frustrating inconsistencies of all sorts, but here at Jun I the produce is beautiful, the skills admirable 10/10
Crème à la pistache / abricot – With a dessert simply based on pistachio cream, apricot ice cream, a biscuit base and some meringue, they managed to deliver a dessert far superior to what most Montreal top restaurants are offering. The pistachio flavor exciting, the work of the texture of the pistachio element would make a Michelin star restaurant really proud. An 8/10 (Would have been a 10/10 in my books had the texture of the apricot ice cream being as stellar as its P counterpart; regardless it was still of good quality and the apricot flavor enjoyable).
Drinks: I took some Kirin beers, but next time I go there, I’ll accompany my omakase with their great choices of teas (GenMaicha, Sencha Akita, Gyokuro, Jasmin Tea, Plum Sencha, Hojicha). There is an interesting list of wines as well as sakés, but I did not peruse it.
Service: Well versed classy young wait staff (My last visit here was 4 years ago, in 2010, and I recall the service to be as good as on this evening)
Décor: Tasteful décor (look at my previous post for pics of the décor)
Overall score for this meal (Category: top tier Sushi shop in Montreal) 10/10 As already explained in other reports, I do not share the belief that a 10/10 should be perfection all the way or about WOW factors (perfection + WOW factors can only be defined by personal feelings/perceptions). What matters to me are the higher highs a kitchen has reached on a given meal, in relation to the highest standards of their closest peers (local Montreal restaurant scene), and this is where the finest aspects (See the following ‘Conclusion’) of this meal left the competition far behind. For sure, we’d be in Japan or at a Michelin star sushiya, I’d want my wasabi grated from its root –I’ve heard that they do it sometimes –, the sushi pieces served once at a time, the choice of seafood more varied, a piece of tamago making an appearance, etc, but Jun I is not in Japan and has no Michelin star and yet goes to lengths that no other sushiya in town is covering) . This was a benchmark sushi meal for Montreal.
Conclusion: For me, Jun I is simply Montreal’s #1 sushiya (NOTE: I have always dined here either on a Friday or Saturday evening, as those are days I am expecting the main Chef to be working and indeed,Chef Junichi IkematsuI was working on the days I dined there ). They master their textures far better than any of their local peers, the knife skills as well as the sourcing is simply a cut above anyone else in town. Even the rice, an aspect that is usually an afterthought at many local sushiyas is, of course, treated with care here. Many sushiyas I liked, in Montreal, are now either closed or have opted for the more popular Americanized type of sushis, which makes of Jun I one of the very rare places where you’ll get some genuinely crafted sushis. BUT you can also enjoy the fun of their East/West fusion fares as well as their few makis which won’t fail to please the ‘not too traditionalist’ sushi fans.