“It all started as a dream,” said Bo Seo, CEO and Founder of Kibo Sushi House as he introduced the new high-end restaurant Kibo Secret Garden. “I wanted a restaurant where each visit is full of wonder.” But opening a new venture during pandemic times and in Yorkville, one of the city’s most well-heeled areas, is an adventure in itself. That didn’t deter Seo from keeping his positive and welcoming energy. Thankfully, with his expertise in the restaurant business paired with his loyal and steady clientele (there are now 23 Kibo Sushi House locations across the GTA), he, and his team, are able to navigate the dining landscape in the city cautiously with optimism. He has hope — which is what “kibo” translates to in Japanese and is at the very core of the company’s beliefs. “Hope – in the sense that if you work hard, you will always be rewarded one way or another,” is what’s on the site. With safety protocols in place, Kibo Secret Garden is scheduled to officially open to the public on October 2.
Seo greeted us outside one quiet evening with his mask on and eyes glimmering. Locals will recognize the restaurant as the former space of Yorkville mainstay, Shogun. Before even stepping foot inside, he’s already assured us that plexiglass dividers are in place, staff has been well trained, masks are worn, and seating is well distanced. Upon entry, everyone goes through a health check – a series of COVID19 related questions that anyone who’s been dining out would be familiar with. Names and phone numbers are taken for contact tracing purposes like every other dining establishment. But once you’ve checked in, be prepared to relax, be inspired and just enjoy.
What Kibo Secret Garden offers is the chance to experience Japanese Omakase style dining in a contemporary and intimate environment. Yes, there are several Japanese restaurants in Yorkville that have enjoyed staying power. Kibo Secret Garden is most definitely a few notches above, in quality and ambiance, from the mass appeal churn ’em through, Sushi Inn. It’s not the club-like atmosphere of Kasa Moto either, nor is it knives in the air tepanyaki grilling air show like Yamato. But it’s also not astronomically priced like Sushi Masaki Saito (temporarily closed) or Aburi Hana that features a Kyo-Kaiseki style menu. They all have their own style and personality.
This new restaurant has its place for sure. Kibo Secret Garden is a Japanese dining experience that is both sophisticated and playful in its menu offerings. For those who haven’t tried Omakase, you’re essentially given complete control to the Sushi Chef to decide what to serve. At the helm is Chef Lin, who’s already been working with Seo for several years at Kibo Sushi House, a big sister restaurant on King Street. He, and his team, at the dedicated Omakase sushi bar seem to flow seamlessly. We were happy to see Sato, who is one of the city’s most cherished chefs, also behind the counter helping out.
The Omakase set menu here is generous with 18 courses – which also includes two delicious soups, a sultry sashimi platter, a Wagyu beef, lobster, octopus platter, and dessert. The seasonal high-quality fish is sourced from Canada and internationally and served within 24 hours of being caught. The slightly crunchy with a hint of sweet ginger is made in-house – not the sweaty and lifeless wilt that is often found in many places in the city.
Traditionally, each piece of nigiri is served individually as they are freshly made. Master sushi chefs expect you to eat the entire nigiri in one bite and immediately when served to appreciate the art and optimum freshness. Each nigiri here is precise in portion. Chef Lin honours tradition and elevates offering a few unexpected twists while feeding your curiosity. Surprising touches bring excitement to the palate – a hint of yuzu or the addition of truffles or gold flakes. Yes, I said gold flakes. A few nigiri were seared using hot rocks that were heated up and gently pressed onto the fresh seafood.
There is a small vessel of soy sauce on the table, however, traditional sushi chefs will have already brushed the right amount on to each piece. No need to add any here. Just enjoy. Save it for the sashimi if you need.
Some real nigiri standouts from the night we visited include the Hirame Nigiri (Fluke, Japan), Madai Nigiri (Red Snapper, Japan), King Salmon Nigiri (BC), Bluefin Tuna Belly (Japan), Black Cod Nigiri (Turkey), and the Sea Eel (seared) Nigiri (Japan).
To finish off this impressive Omakase menu was the dessert – not one, but two. The creme brûlée is creamy smooth and the Japanese Citrus Ice Cream isn’t too sweet.
The entire Omakase menu is a whirlwind of tastes with nothing overpowering. Even the popular sea urchin is worked in but in a more subtle way – a sliver over top of Ika (torched squid) Nigiri that doesn’t feel like you’ve been hit in the mouth with seawater. An acquired taste but worth trying if you haven’t before.
Can you substitute anything on the menu? Well, theoretically, no, since the whole purpose is to take in the full experience and in an order of tasting that continues to please your tastebuds. But if you have allergies or intolerances, let them know. I have some shellfish allergies and they accommodated without any issues.
The vibe of the restaurant is modern and fresh. It took over the space of the former Japanese restaurant Shogun – a well-loved homey fixture in Yorkville where I’ve escaped to on several occasions. The music the night we were there was more groovy-zen lounge – as though we were just relaxing along the coast at some chic little hidden gem overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Sigh. I would feel comfortable here alone with a book in hand or for an intimate date night. Most tables appear to be designed for two and up to four people currently. The Omakase sushi bar is where all the action takes place and where you would get the optimum experience. It seats up to 8 people with plexiglass dividers between every couple. They too are well designed and seem to not be out of place. You almost forget they are there, really.
For the opening month of October, Kibo Secret Garden will offer a special 20-course Omakase dinner ($100 per person) with two seating times promptly starting at 5:30 pm and 7:30 pm with each seating time running for 1.5 hours. A special 15-course Lunch Omakase menu is also available ($60 per person for October only) with starting times at 12 noon and 1:00 pm in 45-minute seatings. Only 20 diners will be seated at any given time in the restaurant.
If the Omakase menu overwhelms (or you’re a control freak) there are also 5 bento box options (vegetarian also available) for seats not at the sushi bar. Wine and sake pairings also available.
Kibo Secret Garden is located at 154 Cumberland Street. Reservations can be made online or by calling 416-519-4580 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org