Celebrity chef Akira Back sets the bar high in Toronto

Has Toronto become a battleground for superstar Asian chef?

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.

Reading the menu can feel like the culinary equivalent of rewatching a season of The Sopranos – an experience that would have been revolutionary a decade ago but these days can seem dated and cliché, verging on nostalgia for the George W. Bush era (kimchi and bacon fried rice, anyone?). But after a few bites, you stop thinking too hard about it because, for the most part, the food is very delicious.

The tuna pizza ($22) is one of Mr. Back’s classic dishes from Yellowtail and it’s a mishmash of a decade’s worth of restaurant trends, with thinly sliced fish atop a crisp tortilla with micro shizo and a drizzle of truffle oil (an ingredient overused as an umami crutch). Sounds like a dish from a chain such as Cactus Club or Earl’s, right? So I thought, until I tasted it: The dish works with each ingredient in balance. Even the truffle oil, very subtle, didn’t bother me.

Yellowtail serrano ($22), again, is one of those Latino-Japanese mash-ups that is on menus everywhere and yet the version here is among the best: Generous slices of high-quality yellowtail was matched with yuzu soy sauce and the thinnest section of jalapeno pepper, which didn’t overpower the fish like it does at most other places.

The chef gets playful at times. There’s a tuna and crab roll ($15) with pop rocks (yes, the candy), so you get the bubbling sensation while eating the fish. I was highly skeptical – two Kardashian-styled ladies who sat next to me recommended it between selfies – but it turned out to be a fun bite and a convincing argument to use candy as a texture accent on savoury dishes.

Other plates demonstrated the sort of techniques applied at top French restaurants. The croquette ($26) is a truffle-potato ball, fried, topped with a marinated raw shrimp and sea urchin and served over a rich potato purée. On the menu, it sounds like two ingredients too many, but it’s a layered portrait of contrasting temperatures, textures and flavours.

Not everything was balanced: Grilled king crab legs ($32) are smothered with a sweet-spicy gochujang mayo (think of a Korean version of McDonald’s special sauce) that is tasty on first bite but quickly gets tiresome. Seared salmon tataki is surrounded by a miso-mustard sauce that is far too tilted toward the latter. But these mistakes are forgotten when the ribeye ($49) arrives. Atop the sliced beef is a kizami wasabi butter, a fantastic green condiment that tasted like a Japanese cousin of chimichurri.

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