In Vancouver we love our sushi...
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1055 West Hastings St, Vancouver
604-568-3900 | www.mikurestaurant.com
As I walk into the restaurant’s bright, modern space for lunch, it’s obvious that Miku is doing everything to impress Vancouverites’ blasé palates and to challenge the usual Japanese esthetics. I sit at the sushi bar and linger there for a moment, just looking around. Finding inspiration in the restaurant’s name, which translates as “beautiful sky,” the tasteful design has brought together elements that evoke a sense of ethereal serenity: a large blue-glass waterfall, floating glass clouds on the ceiling, natural light coming from the floor-to-ceiling windows, and lush flowers decorating the tables. Under my fingers, the menu feels soft, made of Japanese paper decorated with dried butterfly pea flowers.
The young, smiling sushi chef offers me an assortment that includes four vegetarian nigiri, avocado, eggplant, and perilla leaves with pickled ginger and toasted sesame seeds, and a bell pepper with coriander leaves and black pepper. There are also two aburi-style temari sushi made of bigeye tuna and B.C. sockeye salmon. They look like cute little balls with flavourful seasonings.
My friend gets a selection of nigiri and oshi sushi that includes hamachi (yellowtail), bigeye tuna, saba (mackerel), sockeye salmon, and spicy tuna. The food is gracefully presented on a bamboo leaf, and the signature aburi-style preparation releases highly enjoyable smells and smoky flavours in the fish. The seasonings are hit-or-miss. While the light coat of red miso mixed with mirin on the saba is appealing, the sweet soy sauce on the bigeye tuna overpowers the fish taste.
Taste the “Miku Aburi Sushi Select” for $15. It includes three aburi sushi, two salmon oshi sushi, two pieces of maki sushi, one piece of saba bo sushi and miso soup. Replace shrimp and yellowtail with more sustainable options such as albacore tuna or saba.
Miku is one of the newest additions on the Vancouver sushi scene, and the first to offer aburi-style sushi and sashimi: lightly flame-seared fish served with creative sauces. It is a work in progress, and is worth keeping an eye on.[pagebreak]
Zen Japanese Restaurant
2232 Marine Dr, West Vancouver
604-925-0667 | www.zensushi.ca
I first walked by Zen without even noticing it, as its location on Marine Drive in West Vancouver is so modest. I suspect that the locals like it this way, so they can keep this neighbourhood gem to themselves.
I am warmly greeted by chef Nobu Ochi as I sit at the counter next to a mix of regular customers who chat with the chef. Everybody seems to know each other, and the atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable. I feel like I’m in a serene garden, surrounded by impressive trees revealed by the floor-to-ceiling windows. Very Zen indeed.
A three-course Ocean Wise tasting menu ($35) is prominently featured on the menu. I start with a barbecue salmon salad with cherry bombs, featuring sesame ponzu tossed organic peas topped with caramelized Alaskan sockeye salmon skin and pickled daikon radish. On the side, there are two “exploding” tempura cherry tomatoes with sweet spicy sauce.
Chef Ochi is trained as a graphic designer, and his strong sense of esthetics shows in the plates. I particularly like the use of fresh organic vegetables that complement the fish. The Japanese tradition is revisited with a warm mix of West Coast, Italian, and French influences. The “seafood cigar,” a spring-roll tube stuffed with marinated shiitake mushrooms, smoked salmon, and Baja diver scallops is pleasant, with the smoky flavour of the bacon combining well with the delicate texture of the scallops.
The Zen halibut served with fresh organic snow pea tops and smoked red pepper B.C. spot prawn jus, is beautifully presented, but disappointing to the taste. Everything cannot be perfect, and the sake taster makes up for the minor disappointment.
I start chatting with the bar neighbours, who turn out to be West Van residents and Zen aficionados. They tell me Ochi likes to test his new sustainable creations with his regular customers, and I almost want to move to West Van to become one.
Despite the chichi setting, you can get a fairly substantial snack for under $20, including a California roll ($6.95), a tekka maki with albacore tuna ($4.95), and a sockeye salmon maki ($5.95).[pagebreak]
Blue Water Cafe & Raw Bar
1095 Hamilton St, Vancouver
604-688-8078 | www.bluewatercafe.net
I walk in the beautiful Yaletown brick and beam heritage converted warehouse with confidence, and sit at the sushi counter, the domain of master Yoshi Tabo. It is Tuesday night, and the place is packed. The sushi counter is well lit, and I feel I am sitting on the stage of the Chan Centre, only a few feet away from the artist at work. Yoshi Tabo is a true performer, surgical with his knives, obsessed with cleanliness, and artistic in the food display.
He is not much of a talker, though. He barely greets or looks at us when we take our positions at the bar right across from his work station. People often choose to sit at the sushi counter to interact with the chefs, but Yoshi Tabo is concentrating like a pianist about to tackle the Goldberg Variations.
Blue Water Cafe and Raw Bar executive Chef Frank Pabst is committed to educating consumers about sustainable seafood, and he features an “unsung heroes” tasting menu every year to introduce less popular, yet sustainable species such as sardines, jellyfish or sea urchins.
So it’s surprising when chef Yoshi Tabo deflects my questions about the origins of his ingredients. He rolls his eyes and asks me how he could know that; he doesn’t do the fishing!
Deciding not to pursue the topic, I order the $34 sashimi platter, which includes a B.C. spot prawn freshly decapitated and still wiggling, three pieces of albacore tuna, two pieces of sockeye salmon, two pieces of halibut tataki, and two pieces of hamachi. The quality of the fish is exceptional, and the halibut tataki sandwiched with finely sliced lemon is tasteful. The presentation is clean and modern.
The menu selections tend toward the pricey, but one person could eat reasonably well for just a tad over $30 by ordering two pieces of sockeye salmon nigiri ($4.50 each), two pieces of albacore tuna nigiri ($3.50 each) and one Dungeness crab roll ($14.50).[pagebreak]
1133 West Broadway, Vancouver
604-872-8050 | www.tojos.com
When I arrive at Tojo’s sushi counter, the first question Hidekazu Tojo asks me is whether I have ever been to Tojo’s before. When I confess that it is my first time, he looks offended. “Such a shame,” he says with a sigh. He is right: how could someone live in Vancouver for 11 years but never have been to Tojo’s?
Determined to make a good impression, I order the “omakase,” which according to the menu entails “entrusting” Tojo to arrange your meal. I mention that I want to eat “sustainable,” and he graciously acknowledges the request, mentioning that he knows David Suzuki. My friend orders a vegetarian omakase, and while we wait for the food, we sit back in the comfortable leather chairs and appreciate the austere yet elegant setting, with a drink of the delicate and flavourful Tojo’s Choice Dai-Ginjo Sake.
The first dish arrives: a Dungeness crab salad served in a martini glass. The salad is light and fresh, and the interplay of textures works well, between the succulent crab, the crunchy cucumber, and the enoki mushrooms. The five dishes that follow do not disappoint: delicious caramelized hot morel mushrooms served on a bed of spinach, a poached B.C. spot prawn with a ponzu sauce and chopped scallions, a smoked sablefish accompanied by mango, asparagus and root vegetables wrapped in origami paper, a spicy albacore tuna temaki, and a maki roll with Vancouver Island scallop, zucchini, carrot, avocado, and pineapple. A green tea crème brûlée is served for dessert.
The dishes do not rely on excessive seasoning; rather they are a balance of just a few elements. Simplicity rules. The spicy tuna temaki is particularly impressive because of the restraint in the use of the spicy Japanese mayo dressing that allows the albacore tuna to show off its great taste. The sushi rice is done to perfection.
Vegetarian omakase can be enjoyed for $55, and regular omakase dinners start at $60, $80, $110, and up.[pagebreak]
Sushi Bento Express
1258 Robson St, Vancouver
Sushi Bento Express is one of many small and inexpensive take-out-style sushi places on Robson Street, but it recently distinguished itself by winning a contest organized by 3rdWhale.com that challenged sushi restaurants in the West End to become more environmentally sustainable. Its menu now includes a “sustainable choices” section offering gindara (sablefish), albacore tuna, and Alaska wild salmon.
The young owners infuse a refreshing sense of energy to this modest restaurant, and unlike a lot of take-out joints, put a lot of effort into the food presentation. Taste, however is uneven. The miso-marinated gindara is soggy. The albacore tuna, featured in the “tuna love,” a variation of the Philadelphia maki roll, does not stand up to the amount of rich cream cheese, avocado, and spicy sauce used. The rice is dry and the ingredients are not spread evenly over the entire sushi.
Yet for $8.50, you can get a California combo that includes a California roll (with imitation crab made of Alaskan pollock), one wild salmon roll, and one albacore tuna roll. If you are on a shoestring and care about where your sushi comes from, it is hard to beat.