Akira Back (Three stars)
Location: 2nd Floor, 87 Blue Jays Way
Price: Cold sharing plates, $16-$45; hot sharing plates, $7-$39; mains, $28-$49; sushi rolls, $12-$20
Atmosphere: Dark room with thumping house music and a party vibe.
Drinks: A short cocktail list ($16-$30), an extensive sake menu ($45-$165) and a 14 wines by the glass ($14-$35).
Has Toronto become the new battleground for the globetrotting superstar Asian chef?
Quietly, our city has turned into a mini-hub for celebrity Asian restaurateurs. The latest to arrive: Akira Back, the chef behind the modern Japanese-Korean izakaya at the gaudy and loud downtown Bisha Hotel.
With an empire of 11 eponymous restaurants in 10 cities, Mr. Back is developing a chain of global outposts, just as other world-renowned chefs have done, including Joel Robuchon, Daniel Boulud and David Chang. And he’s serving up precise food with a confident execution that’s unseen at most new restaurants in the city.
'serving up precise food with a confident execution that’s unseen at most'
- The Globe and Mail
Not long ago, Toronto was a cursed destination for visiting celebrity chefs. Nobody wanted to set up shop and those who dared were chased out of town. (Remember Scott Conant?)
But Mr. Chang changed all that in 2012 when he chose Toronto as his second Momofuku outpost outside of the United States. Other Asian chefs followed: Hong Kong-based Alvin Leung partnered with Masterchef Canada winner Eric Chong to start R&D in 2015. Pick 6ix opened this year with Antonio Park, a Korean-Canadian chef known for his Latino-Asian-inflected food. Nobu Matsuhisa, chef of the global Nobu chain, is the name behind the Nobu condo-hotel-restaurant project on Mercer Street, slated to open in 2022.
The megatrend of New Asian cuisine, mashing styles and traditions from across the continent, keeps morphing, multiplying and spreading.
Although his brand lacks the name recognition of Momofuku or Nobu, Mr. Back fits into this culinary zeitgeist. Two reasons he’s lesser known: Mr. Back first established his name in Las Vegas, a city that the United States’ top critics still look down upon, and he doesn’t have a restaurant in New York or Los Angeles. And unlike Momofuku’s Mr. Chang, Mr. Back is awkward and stilted in media appearances – he’s unlikely to appear on a Netflix series or a podcast discussing the American immigrant experience any time soon.
Born in Korea (his real name is Baek Seung Woo), Mr. Back moved to Colorado when he was 14, took up snowboarding and became a pro. Injuries sidelined that career, so he turned to the kitchen, working in Aspen, Colo., and Japan. He was recruited in 2003 to open Matsuhisa (part of Nobu Matsuhisa’s empire) in Aspen, but his big break came in 2008 as the head chef launching Yellowtail at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Following the accolades for Yellowtail, Mr. Back has opened restaurants bearing his name around the world, in Hanoi, Jakarta and Dubai, among others. He earned his first Michelin star last year for Dosa, a contemporary Korean restaurant in Seoul.
Here in Toronto, Akira Back reflects the tastes of local impresario Charles Khabouth, who signed up Mr. Back for a second-floor restaurant at his Bisha hotel. Like Mr. Khabouth’s other joints, the music is loud, the lighting dark, the men are soaked in cologne and the women teeter in the highest of heels. The stairway to the second-floor restaurant is decorated in gold leaf and the toilets are jet black.
While some of Mr. Khabouth’s previous forays were beset by service issues, Akira Back is strong out of the gate, thanks to a solid kitchen.
The large izakaya menu is meant for sharing, with plenty of sushi as well as hot dishes. This can wreak havoc on an unprepared kitchen, but here, the dishes came out promptly and in proper order. Sitting at the chef’s table with full view of the kitchen crew (mostly veterans from the Jakarta branch, I’m told), I saw an efficient and quiet team banging out dishes for a packed house. Servers were equally effective.
Despite my best efforts, I still barely scratched the surface of this gigantic menu of more than 80 items during my visits. Few restaurants in this town can pull off a menu this vast and yet Akira Back did with such ease that I wondered if my food was being made by AI-enhanced robots. It was very good and consistent, but there was a slight mechanical feel to it – the impossibly smooth potato purée that appears on multiple dishes; the desserts that were perfect spheres; the steak that was a magical cut free of tendon or excessive fat. Top international chains often project this sort of cold competence. Mr. Robuchon’s dishes, for example, have an impressive but soulless consistency. Ditto for Nobu. I haven’t been to Akira Back’s other restaurants, but I’d imagine it’d be similar.
I’m nit-picking here. Akira Back, even with its clichés, has established a high bar for the globetrotting Asian chefs in our city. Next up among this rarefied league: Mr. Chang, whose Momofuku remake just opened earlier this month. Can Mr. Chang top Mr. Back? We shall eat and see.
By Jason Chow for The Globe and Mail