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It’s a shame we’ve lost the term “casual fine dining” to the chains. The Earls/Joey/Browns matrix (as discussed in these pages before) doesn’t really offer sophisticated food in a laid-back atmosphere. Quite the reverse: the menus are casual and unrefined, while the interiors and prices strive for fine.
Shirakawa, which opened in May in the clandestine Gastown courtyard where Boneta last resided, actually does hit the “casual fine” benchmark nicely, though I doubt its founders — chefs Keisuke Itoh and Takuya Motohashi — would describe it that way. The first North American outpost of Japan-based mini empire Itoh Dining, it offers boldly flavoured, artfully prepared food served in a completely unpretentious way. The room is a wood-heavy play on Japanese themes tempered with a decidedly urban vibe, including tall glass at the rear affording a picturesque view of the Blood Alley rooflines. Shirakawa is also unpretentious in that it doesn’t struggle to impress you. One simply feels welcome to join the chefs in eating what they themselves already enjoy.
On the dinner menu, the Kuroge wagyu steak stands out. This highly prized beef (also known as “Japanese black”) wasn’t available in Vancouver restaurants prior to Shirakawa — in large part because if local cattle farmers were to treat their cows to daily massages and include beer and sake with their feed (all of which wagyu cows enjoy), a resulting porterhouse would cost as much as flying it over from Japan in its own business-class seat. Shirakawa imports its steak directly from Japan, but be prepared for sticker shock: two ounces costs $60; a mere four commands a C-note.
My advice would be to go for the omakase. From the Japanese makaseru (“to entrust”), this is a flexible chef’s tasting menu (beginning at $60 per person) that you can either build with your server or leave up to the kitchen. My table asked simply to be introduced to the ideas of Shirakawa, and our server was back in minutes with the first of what would end up being eight courses and various accompanying sauces.
All of the dishes were highly recognizable — this is a teppanyaki house at heart — but torqued in flavour dimensions: Tofu Gomaae Salada (fried tofu cut small to retain terrific crunch and plated over greens with a black-and-white-sesame dressing); hamachi carpaccio (thin slices of yellowtail, with a salty kick from roe garnish and a singe of heat from radish sprout); gyoza in pleasingly irregular hand-folded parcels, with a jalapeño-miso sauce I’d like to order in bulk. And then the pork belly — a menu cliché, sure. I love it anyway, and this version, with a soy glaze and house-ground mustard, hit all the right notes: rich and astringent, sweet and hot.
Mains came next, all very quickly. Ji Dori is teppan-grilled organic chicken in a maple-soy sauce with garlic rice; topped with filaments of red chili, the dish looked pretty and ate hearty. Black cod was smoked over sakura chips, plated on a medley of mushrooms, and garnished with shito peppers and house-dried tomato. Smoke, fungus, fish oils — enjoy your umami explosion, and feel free to close your eyes and grip the edge of the table.
Last up: that wagyu. No, not the steak. When you order the omakase, the chef may slip in wagyu nigiri, a wafer of the beef laid over a cork of rice and plated on a bamboo leaf. For my money, the wow factor here was the onsen tamago dipping sauce: an egg yolk swirled with house-made sweet soy and a drizzle of truffle oil. I’m not even a big wagyu fan (to me, its feel in the mouth is distinctly greasy), but a small bite here with a scoop of sauce… I was in heaven.
It’s customary to have one complaint, and mine is an odd one: the food came too fast. Appetizers piled up, and my table had barely finished those before mains began. It contributed to the genuinely homey feel of the place, and it was kind of fun to see everything streaming out of the kitchen — these gorgeous dishes, one next to the other, all the aromas wafting and mingling, and then the pleasant melee of trying everything at once, family-style. But if you aren’t starved, as we were, you may feel like you’re eating to stay ahead of the kitchen.
That’s a minor quibble, though. This is very fine food indeed, and genuinely casual. The kind of place where, next time (and there will be next times), I feel sure I’ll be able to tell them to just slow down.
Shirakawa 12 Water St., 604-336-6918
ORDER At dinner, the omakase is the best way to tour the menu
HOURS Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30am–2:30pm; dinner nightly from 5:30pm
PRICES Small plates from $4.50; sushi from $12; mains $15–$100. Lunch maxes out at $16
Related Reading: Kindred Spirits: Long Table Distillery, Belgard Kitchen, Pizzeria Bufala.