Sara — All senses ignited at Japanese-inspired restaurant from The Food Dudes
|Location||98 Portland Street|
|Dinner for two with a bottle of prosecco||$150|
With Sara, the newest addition to The Food Dudes family, owners Adrian Niman, Brent McClenahan and Adam Minster have created an elevated dining experience that goes above and beyond la nourriture. The premise of Sara is about disconnecting from technology to reconnect face-to-face — something that’s rarer in today’s society of Instagrammers hashtagging their #foodporn with every plate that emerges from la cuisine.
In relation to The Food Dudes’ other restaurant, Rasa, Sara is meant to be the more refined “older sister”. As I walked into the two-story Victorian home, which has been redesigned by Toronto-based design studio Odami, a feeling of serenity washed over me. A monochromatic colour palette, light wood, marble-topped tables and clean lines brought a minimalist aesthetic to the space. And, Sara’s crisp and clean bespoke scent made the experience even more blissful — as if you were settling into a spa de luxe.
As my guest and I took our seats on the second level, we already felt like we were stepping away from the frenetic pace outside — a welcome antidote after a week of métro, boulot, dodo. A server approached our table, and, after introducing himself, he lifted a wooden lid on the table, which revealed an inlaid box — a makeshift coffin for our cell phones and other technological distractions (of course, it was completely optional, but it added to the whole experience).
The menu, with just 23 items, was the most innovative I’ve seen lately — sheer evidence that the team had done their research. In Japanese, “sara” translates to “small plates”, so it was appropriate that the menu was divided into multiple sharable sections: small plates, dumplings, charcoal grill and sweets. All dishes range in price from $8 to $34.
The unique offerings — from a less-refined Laksa noodle dish ($17) to a more complex P.E.I. aged rib eye ($34) — showcased the range of skill of executive chef Davin Shearer and chef de cuisine Mary Dinh. Beaucoup de plats paid homage to Asian cuisine with strong Japanese influences, such as the yellowtail sashimi ($20) and shrimp tempura ($17), both of which are sustainably sourced. Robatayaki — a barbecue-esque technique where food is meticulously cooked over hot charcoal — was used in many dishes, aussi. After living in Japan, I was curious to see how authentic Sara’s food would be.
After popping a bottle of prosecco, which rested in a geometric stone vessel, my guest and I asked the server for some recommendations. He added that four to five dishes per person should suffice. Two items he recommended sans hésitation were the “French fries” ($8) and scallop and crab dumplings ($20). While I was intrigued by another diner’s plate of appetizingly plump dumplings, we opted for the truffle crullers ($16), “French fries” ($8), Hamachi bites ($16), and wagyu reuben ($18). And from the charcoal grill, the momo yakitori ($18) ignited our palates. After noshing on these dishes, we’d reassess our hunger and go on from there. I later regretted ordering all our mains in one go.
Shortly after ordering, Japan’s ceremonial culture came to life with the oshibori or “hot towel” experience, meant to help us freshen up pre-meal.
First to arrive were the truffle crullers, with the faint smell of truffle wafting into my nostrils as the server placed them in front of our hungry eyes. The two Insta-worthy pastries were served on a wooden board and looked more delicate than they tasted. The dense, golden dough sat on top of a puddle of fermented tomato. A dusting of parmesan helped balance the acidity of the tomato. The savoury flavor was made a little sweeter with a faint drizzle of honey. My only complaint was the price-to-portion ratio and the temperature inconsistency. C’était difficile to decipher whether these were room temperature bites, or to be served lukewarm.
Like something gracing the cover of Lucky Peach, the Hamachi bites came next. I admired the intricacy of the four pieces that were arranged symmetrically on the circular plate. Luscious pieces of Hamachi mixed with cucumber sat on top of a chicharrón cracker and were artfully finished with a slice of jalapeño and some microgreens. Sara’s chicharrones — although pieces of carnivorous glory — tasted as if the air got to them. They were un peu stale and didn’t have the crunch factor I’d anticipated.
Sara’s “French fries” were a whimsical take on the classic fry and were summed up in one magiquebite. The four fried logs were made of grated russet potatoes and fatty schmaltz before being submerged in the deep fryer. Then, they were topped with kimchi, Kewpie mayo and bonito flakes. Merveilleux!
The comfort food theme continued with the wagyu Rueben — at $18, it was the most expensive and satisfying sandwich I’ve bitten into. Shaved medium-rare wagyu, melty gruyere and tangy sauerkraut were stuffed between two perfectly toasted slices of bread. Truffle mustard sat on the side to dip. Somehow, the ordinary nature of this dish was transformed into something extraordinary.
At this point, our server came up to us and asked us if we wanted our bill. Confused, we mentioned that we still had the momo yakitori left on our order. As a gesture of goodwill for this small fumble, he brought the bincho broccoli ($15), which was a rather underwhelming dish consisting of charred broccoli, kohlrabi cakes, and tossed with nuoc mam (a Vietnamese fish sauce) and a sprinkle of almonds.
Finally, hot off the charcoal grill came the momo yakitori, otherwise known as chicken on a skewer. One of the more complex flavor profiles, it was plated with a circular drizzle of rich cherry, plum and mocha sauce. Dollops of goat cheese mousse infused with sumac honey provided some brightness on the plate.
I could not imagine ordering four to five dishes per person, because we were full. But when the server offered a complimentary dessert for his earlier screw-up, we said “oui”. The party sandwich ($12) — essentially a reboot on the classic ice cream sandwich — was truly a party dans ma bouche. Chocolate tahini ice cream between sesame-lined chocolate cake and miso caramel provided the perfect ending to my Sara experience.
If you go to Sara once, you’ll already be planning your next visit. It’s lively with conversation, but it’s not loud and obnoxious. It’s beautifully designed, but not in a “look at me” way. And la nourriture is otherworldly — both visually impressive and mouthwateringly delicious. Sara is a new breed of restaurant — an urban oasis where all your senses will be ignited.
Mme M. xoxo
P.S. Don’t forget to visit the restrooms for a truly Japanese experience.
La rubrique de Madame Marie
1 étoile – Run. Before you get the runs.
2 étoiles – Mediocre, but nothing you couldn’t make at home.
3 étoiles – C’est bon, with some standout qualities.
4 étoiles – Many memorable qualities and excellent execution. Compliments to the chef.
5 étoiles – Formidable! Michelin Star quality. Book a reservation immediately.