You may have driven by this tiny, unassuming restaurant for years and never even noticed it was there. My chance outing to this little oasis exemplifies that wonderful surprises are sometimes located closer than you think.
Tadayuki Endo has been a part of the restaurant scene in Montreal for over 30 years, the past six as the owner of The Jardin Iwaki where he has been serving up impressive Japanese cuisine to the West End. The longtime chef spent many years downtown at Sakura Japanese cuisine and the iconic Desjardins seafood restaurant. But after two decades of serving up dishes to common diners and prime ministers, Endo decided it was time to turn his attention to finer detail. Ever since he has focused on each and every dish that he thoroughly prepares for each customer.
And so began Endo’s venture into the Kaiseki traditional Japanese cuisine in which a series of small, intricate dishes are prepared. Each dish is unique and prepared in one of 11 different styles of cooking including fried, grilled, baked and steamed.
I entered the 12 seat restaurant with my mother and daughter and we immediately felt as though we entered a typical Japanese home: warm and inviting, bamboo and wood, not too bright with traditional decor. We were greeted by our smartly uniformed server, Tomomi, a lovely young woman who has been at Jardin Iwaki for the past three years (having arrived from Japan just four-and-a-half years ago).
With a mere four tables to seat 12 diners, quaint would be an understatement to this really small establishment.
The menu was simple, posted on three blackboards, summing up the nightly offerings. The ‘Iwaki’ seven course menu is $35, the ‘Edo’ seven course menu is $45 and must be ordered a day in advance and the ‘Omakase’ (dishes selected by the chef) menu runs from $55 depending on how many courses you choose (from 8 to 11). The latter must be ordered three days in advance. We opted for the first and we were in for a surprise.
Tomomi quietly and elegantly fluttered about the room serving the two larger tables. She patiently explained each and every dish in detail as she delivered the courses and laid the unique, handcrafted dinnerware upon the bamboo placemats. Each of the six courses was served in different types of handcrafted vessels (dishes, shells, bowls) with intricate designs, shapes and textures.
Our interesting appetizers consisted of edamame with cream cheese, chicken liver paté, chicken breast, fried shrimp, shimeji mushroom and baby scallops. Each dish was creatively and seasonally-appropriate. As an added touch, one dish was adorned with a small red maple leaf, hand picked by Endo.
Next came the soba noodle salad. What a pleasant texture made from buckwheat and covered with tofu, tomato and green leaves. It was juicy, salty and very flavourful with three dressings: ginger, sesame and a mentsuyu glaze. All are home made by Endo.
The warm sea bass carpaccio was served raw and thinly sliced on a beautifully crafted dish. Tomomi drizzled the fish with boiling sunflower oil right at our table and within seconds it was perfectly cooked – piping hot and lightly sprinkled with sesame seeds. Oh, so juicy!
A mini Japanese pancake called Okanomiyaki with ginger, mayonnaise and bonito fish was brought out. The fish consisted of shavings set upon the pancake made of flour, cabbage and ginger. It was so hot that the shavings literally swayed back and forth. Wow. It had a tangy bbq sauce unlike the previous courses.
The small delicious dishes kept coming, each one unique in its taste and presentation. A grilled butterfish was next with a negi miso (or green onion) sauce. It was served with pumpkin, rapini and vinegar white radish; what a savoury morcel, laid upon a thin slice of orange. It was one of the best white fish I’ve ever had. My dinner guests were equally pleased.
I love mushroom but never before tasted a soup with five kinds of mushroom and rice. There were enoki, oyster, shimeji, kikurage, and shiitake mushrooms. Sensational and so very hot. A spectacular ending to a wonderful meal and unique dining experience.
Jardin Iwaki is only open for dinner (but seven nights a week). Reservations are a must as we witnessed: a family of five entered, saw there was no more room and said they’d be back another night. I was told they are regulars. Endo says many of his customers return again and again and we certainly learned why.
My daughter said it was the “prettiest” meal she had ever eaten. My mother proclaimed Jardin Iwaki as an excellent dining experience. The small dishes don’t seem like a lot of food on their own but it all added up to a nicely filling meal, she said.
Endo takes great pride in working every single night. He takes his time to ensure that everything is just right with great attention to detail. As fresh fish is delivered to Montreal twice a week he is sure to go to market frequently to buy small portions of whatever is in season.
Many Montreal Japanese restaurants are western-style, Endo tells me. Not here. Jardin Iwaki is an authentic experience throughout.
Jardin Iwaki is located at 5887 Sherbrooke St. West in Notre Dame de Grace, nestled among many cosy ethnic restaurants, lounges and grocery stores in the residential neighbourhood. There are only 12 seats indoors with a small terrasse. Remember, reservations are a must and some menus must be ordered in advance. 514-482-1283.