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Mike Cohen experiences the sushi magic at Restaurant Sho-dan

    One of the truly wonderful things about writing about restaurants is stepping inside a place you have seen and heard about for many years, yet never before experienced its menu. Such was the case recently for my family when we walked inside Restaurant Sho-dan on downtown Metcalfe Street for the very first time. Let me say from the outset that if you are a lover of sushi like I am and have never tried this spot before then make a reservation without delay.

    The story of how this restaurant came to be is an interesting one.  Sho-dan was established in the summer of 1998, in the heart of Montreal’s financial district. The brainchild of Madonna Bailey, Chinh Pham (a.k.a. Romeo) and their team, resulted in the restaurant’s unique blend of sushi. The new style cuisine gave rise to what has become Sho-dan’s renowned Japanese Concept.

    From sushi passionate to restaurateur!

    Sho-dan was born from the unconditional love Madonna Bailey (founder of the restaurant) had for sushi. For years, Madonna was a regular client at the Mikado Restaurant on Saint Denis street where she used to go a few times a week. Overtime she formed ties with some of the employees, whose talent and knowledge she admired.

    Her passion drove her to open a sushi restaurant with the best team. One day, Madonna asked Chinh a.k.a Romeo, who at the time was one of Mikado’s sushi chefs, to form a team for a new restaurant. Since she spent a few thousand dollars a year on sushi, Madonna said to herself, “why not form a partnership with people who know the restaurant business and invest in a restaurant that would serve my favourite food?” Excited by Madonna’s proposal, Romeo created a young team that wanted to take up this stimulating challenge.

    From a Mexican to a Japanese restaurant

    Madonna, who worked in downtown Montreal, began to look for the ideal space to bring their project to life. The team wanted the future restaurant to be in a busy area in the heart of the action.  When Madonna saw a “For Rent” sign on a building belonging to Standard Life at 2020 Metcalfe, the address was perfect but came with a challenge. The space which had previously been a Mexican restaurant-bar needed to be 100 percent renovated.  The radical change took almost six months and was a success. When the previous lessees came to Sho-dan, they didn’t recognize their old place and thought they’d gone to the wrong address! The ambiance was elegant and inviting. The addition of columns and a mezzanine added intimacy to the space while the tables with tablecloths and upholstered chairs provided beauty and comfort. This is how Sho-dan came to life during the summer of 1998. At that moment the owners did not expect the restaurant would have such longevity.

    The restaurant current day

    It has been steady as she goes ever since, with VIPs popping in on a very regular basis. Spread over two floors, with capacity for 180 to dine (including 50, Mezzanine; 20 sushi bar and two private rooms for 10 people each), the à la carte menu is very elaborate, creative and ideal for those who want to take a chance. Many different creations are offered, and they change every week. The plates are presented in the traditional Japanese style and reflect the artistic talent of the chefs. To distinguish itself from other sushi restaurants, Sho-dan accepts special orders. The chefs will try to satisfy your every wish. It is also possible and quite gratifying to add a perfectly matched wine to your sushi selection.

    The large sushi bar surrounds the chefs and allows you to see them at work.   The mezzanine is at your disposal for bookings, be it a birthday, a meeting with friends or any other group activity. From here you have access to a view of the entire restaurant. We were there on a Saturday evening, like Thursdays, an opportunity to enjoy some soft live jazz music in the background.

    Fabulous Menu Selections

    There are two table d’Höte options for $40 and $30 each and a lunch menu. You can choose from soups, salads and four teriyaki options:   steak, chicken, salmon, seafood and vegetable platter.

    The sushi offerings are too many to mention – about 40 in all. I presume as one becomes a regular client you will eventually taste them all. For starters rely on the staff to guide you. As Romeo explained to me, he is an artist outside of the kitchen. “For me sushi is a form of art: Each piece is a canvas on which he creates a unique visual and sensory experience for his guests,” he says.  

    “On the palette you never want everything to look the same with each work of art.”  

    Romeo is an active owner. He seats diners, mingles with regulars and newcomers, communicates with the serving staff and chefs and makes return trips to the kitchen. And for firsttimers like us he will make much appreciated suggestions in terms of ordering.

    After some wine to get things started, we shared a few appetizers: some delicious golden brown tempura (Fried shrimps and vegetables served with tempura sauce); the Haru Maki (spring rolls); and the gyoza (Japanese dumplings filled with a mix of seasoned pork, chicken and cabbage, served with soy-vinegar sauce).

    Next we turned to some of the specialties, designed mainly Romeo. The different combination of flavours are unique to this restaurant and will be sure to make you live the “Sho-dan” experience. As first timers we were invited to taste the most popular specialty, the Besame Mucho – spicy tuna, shrimps, avocado and tempura flakes rolled in soya paper. Next was the Explosion – fresh yellow tail served with fresh ginger, green onions and ponzu sauce. Then came the Samba, fried gyoza dough topped with a ceviche of spicy red tuna, red onions and celery marinated in lemon juice and the Anais, containing shrimp, salmon, avocado, rice and soya paper.

    For those who cannot eat raw sushi, Romeo will steer you towards rolls such as the Phoenix (crabsticks, avocado, mango and fried onions rolled in soya paper topped with red tuna) and the Atlantis (crabsticks, asparagus, avocado, fried carrots and tempura flakes rolled in soya paper and topped with smoked salmon).

    Dessert was an exceptional treat. A plate consisting of two sorbets, a large piece of chocolate cake and a mouthwatering taste of cheesecake.  The restaurant offers Nao teas. A Canadian company, based in Quebec City, Nao consists of a variety of organic infusions. A box is delivered to the table. Open it up and you will be able to choose from a nice variety of selections. They are described in writing and by the amount of caffeine included. You can smell the different small containers to clinch your choice. This went perfectly with our dessert.

    Romeo the Entrepreneur

    A busy man indeed, Romeo has another business. The Romeo J. Jewelry collections (https://www.romeoj.ca) use natural materials such as Tahitian pearls, precious metals and a variety of leathers and exotic skins in an array of colours. The pieces in these collections are designed to complement and enhance the style of men and women who are looking for a distinguished, authentic and relaxed look. Everything is designed and handmade in Canada.

    Romeo is an inspiring success story. Coming from a very modest background, he and his brothers were among the thousands of boat people who fled Vietnam and landed in Thailand. Through Terre des Hommes Canada (TDH Canada), an organization that helps children in need around the world, Romeo found refuge in Canada, where he lived in foster homes for a number of years. Thanks to his hard work and determination, he was admitted to the Fine Arts program at Concordia University, where he developed his talent as an artist; he also began to build his reputation as a sushi chef.

    Sho-dan is located at 2020 Metcalfe.  Opening hours are 11:30 am to 2:30 pm Monday to Friday as well as 5 pm to 10 pm Monday; 5 pm to 10:30 pm Tuesdays and Wednesdays and 5 pm to 11 pm Thursday to Saturdays. For reservations call (514) 987-9987 or do so online via http://www.sho-dan.com/en/reservations. You can also order your sushi tray and have it delivered to the place of your choice with the SkipTheDishes platform.  

    Mike Cohen

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