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A photographer and a food writer embark on an omakase odyssey through Vancouver’s top Japanese restaurants.
All photos by Leila Kwok.
Eating five multi-course meals in one week may not be logical. Or practical. But when food photographer Leila Kwok and I set out to snap and scribble our way through the best omakase dinners in Vancouver, we abandoned any sense of control. “Omakase” literally translates to “I’ll leave it up to you”—it’s a Japanese way of dining in which the chef decides what’s served. Typically, it takes the form of several meticulously crafted small plates. This is more than a cooking style: it’s an art, and it’s one of the truest ways to experience the personality of the artist (and the soul of the chef).
Choices, begone. Preferences, be damned. Two women, one camera, no menu. With open minds and ready stomachs, we left it up to them.
Stem Japanese Eatery
Chef’s Kaiseki Omakase:
$150 to $170
5205 Rumble St., Burnaby
The first rainstorm of the season only makes the shelter of Stem’s rustic, clean-lined room that much cozier: natural woods, deep greens and stained-glass pendant lighting give the restaurant a quietly comforting vibe. Chef Tatsuya Katagiri says his omakase menu changes about once a month, but that’s not a hard and fast rule—if a certain vegetable is suddenly available, for example, he’ll rush to alter his plans. That’s the case now: mushrooms are in season. Chefs just wanna have fungi.
Tatsuya-san’s menu has a focus on hot food. Most courses arrive as a tray full of small dishes and feature a mix of Japanese and local ingredients—think expertly seared Brant Lake wagyu, bonito with sweet onion ponzu and roasted Yarrow Meadow duck breast with B.C. butternut squash purée and goma dashi sauce. The aburamono dish perfectly sums up the chef’s style: pillowy corn and tofu agedashi sits in a sauce that’s hefty on the spoon but light on the tongue. B.C. uni levels up the dish (as does an edible flower) and hazelnut provides an unexpected touch of bitterness. It’s comfort food done expertly and elegantly.
One tray arrives with a stowaway tucked among the colourful dishes. It’s a tiny miyazaki sawagani—a freshwater crab—that’s been painstakingly boiled and caramelized in sweet soy, so it’s entirely edible. That’s what the chef assures us, anyway, right after confirming that it’s fully grown (I ask, because I feel a bit bad about eating an adorable baby crab). Relieved that it lived a full life, I bite the little guy in half. It’s surprisingly easy to eat—Leila expected a violent crunch and warned me to be careful, but there was no need. The cooking process made the shell delicate but still crunchy, and it’s delightfully sweet. The crab is a detail, but an important one: a playful, exciting and super-memorable treat.
The last part of dinner is the gohan, which also plays into the warm, homey mood of the menu. The massive rice bowl is beautifully adorned with salmon yuan yaki, bright ikura and those earthy mushrooms. It’s more than we can eat, but also perfect for takeout, so we pack it up. Somehow, it’s been almost four hours. I know how ridiculous that sounds. But the food and hospitality at Stem sets such a pleasant, relaxed pace that it feels like home. So much so that you forget about your own.
Yuwa Japanese Cuisine
Chef’s Kaiseki: $190
2775 W 16th Ave., Vancouver
I learned in high-school theatre that you’re not supposed to commend actors on how well they know their lines—that’s sort of the bare minimum—and since then I’ve always been conscious about not pointing out anyone’s memorization skills. But at Yuwa Japanese Cuisine, neither Leila nor I can prevent ourselves from applauding our server Ayano’s comprehensive presentation of each dish. She doesn’t seem offended (and hey, she’s not an actor—she tells us she loves her job, and her authenticity shows in her attentive but easygoing service) and when we ask her about it she acknowledges that the ever-changing menu isn’t easy to master. She mimes how mind-blown she gets each time the list of new dishes is presented to her. We get it.
Technically, our dinner at Yuwa is kaiseki, a kind of omakase. It’s still a multi-course chef-curated meal, but kaiseki is made up of dishes cooked in a specific way and presented in a specific order, with an emphasis on seasonality (co-owner and sake specialist Iori Kataoka makes this distinction). And the seasonality in Yuwa’s kaiseki comes through not only in the ingredients, but also in chef Masahiro Omori’s artful presentation: dishes adorned with Japanese maple leaves; tiny leaf-shaped yam chips sprinkled atop marinated tofu. Expert technique is evident everywhere. Sword squid is sliced into refined noodle-like strips, marinated grilled eggplant is robust and smoky, perfectly cooked taro breaks open in a savoury sauce with chanterelle and lobster mushrooms. Sockeye salmon is carefully wrapped in paper, and, once open, gives me pause. “I feel crazy, but this smells like pancakes,” I tell Leila. If she’s questioning my competence as a food writer, she doesn’t show it. She breathes it in herself and agrees: shio koji gives the dish a syrupy aroma. The dish, served with ponzu vinaigrette for dipping, is perfectly flaky, flavourful and balanced.
Sophistication reigns here, but there’s no pretension. The agemono (fried dish), for example, is a spring roll containing wood ear mushroom, Hokkaido scallop and… mozzarella cheese. It’s served with a sweet, jam-like dollop and feels like an elevated take on street food. And the ni-mono (simmered dish) is spectacular: an entire sweet fish bursting with eggs, glazed in a sweet soy and entirely edible, similar to our crab friend from Stem.
At the end of the meal, the chef visits our table, joined by Kataoka, who helps translate. Masahiro Omori is more on the reserved side—he nods humbly as we assert how lovely
the meal was and is bashful when Leila jokes that he has a lot more hair than most of the Japanese chefs we’ve been photographing. Kataoka indicates it’s time for a trim. Yuwa somehow manages to achieve a dignified, artistic and professional fine-dining atmosphere while maintaining a friendly, down-to-earth spirit. Perhaps that’s the trick to keeping a great head of hair, too.
Tetsu Sushi Bar
Sushi Bar Omakase: $220
775 Denman St., Vancouver
I have to double back to find Tetsu Sushi Bar. On my first pass, I walk right by even though I’m looking for it: the tiny restaurant has only 12 seats. Leila and I take up two of the three bar chairs, giving us a front-row view of chef Satoshi Makise’s incredible knife skills. The way he carefully serrates flesh, expertly slices away skin and delicately extracts bones is mesmerizing. Behind him, there’s a gorgeous cupboard with a slatted sliding door that leaves intricate, unique ceramics exposed—the chef tells us he’s formed close relationships with potters in Japan and points out a tiny sauce bowl made by a 92-year-old artisan. He’s just as particular about his dishes as he is about his ingredients.
Satoshi-san’s omakase starts with a platter of appetizers to be enjoyed in any order (except for the chilled corn soup—that’s last, he explains). The sablefish in sweet vinegar sauce is delicious—hearty but refreshing—and the bonito and sea bream are evidence of those stellar knife skills at work. The bonito is smoked, the sea bream lightly seared, but both are delicately sliced to maximize surface area and flavour. There’s also a tiny ice cream cone filled with negitoro; it adds a whimsical touch to this intricate spread (and is very fun to eat).
Next, there’s cold and hot: chilled udon noodles (the flat kind) on ikura with egg yolk, then a gorgeous little pot of chawanmushi (steamed egg). Each dish is unique—one is refreshing, the other is steamy—but both walk the same careful line between light and deeply satisfying.
Listening to the chef explain his strategy is awesome: he slices the shiro ika (white squid) again and again to make it taste sweeter and prefers his rice on the harder side to balance the soft fish. When Leila looks at what’s coming up later on the menu and says, “Fancy uni time,” Satoshi-san agrees: “Fancy uni time.” He shows us the three kinds of uni he’s currently serving (Hokkaido Bafun uni, Hokkaido Hadate Murasaki uni and Awaji Aka uni). The boxes of sea urchin can be up to a thousand dollars apiece. Fancy uni time, indeed.
At the meal’s end (a delicious little tamago egg brulée was the finale), the chef disappears and I assume he’s prepping for the next customer. But soon he emerges from the kitchen with a stunning boat full of desserts, complete with the tiniest, cutest nigiri I have ever seen. It’s like sushi for Barbies. Also on board is Japanese melon, Hojicha ice cream and little pots of creamy coffee mousse. Leila had secretly told the team that I’m getting married in a week—as if this meal could possibly be more thoughtful or special. Love is definitely in the air here: love for craftsmanship, love for technique, love for detail. It’s all around.
4376 Fraser St.
Stepping into Masayoshi from blustery Fraser Street feels like stepping into another world—the quiet room embraces all the serenity of minimalist Japanese design: it has a calm, noble, spa-like aesthetic. Chef Masayoshi Baba himself smiles with his entire face. He greets every diner with that signature grin, but the moment he turns his attention to his work, his expression is all business.
I have the best seat in the house (the sushi bar, where I can watch the Michelin-
starred master at work and also eavesdrop on fellow restaurant guests). Leila’s hunkered down in the corner, so her flashing camera doesn’t bug any of the folks who’ve had their spot booked for a month.
Masa-san’s machine-like preparation of his dishes is captivating. The way he divides his ingredients among 10 plates, individually positioning each ingredient, feels like a factory—that is, if a factory could also manufacture each dish in its own individual way, taking into account the specific curve of every sliver of preserved lemon, the circumference of each radish circle. As we eat, he carefully reaches over to wipe aside stray rice, keeping everyone’s plate perfect.
Highlights from Masayoshi included kabocha squash soup with big chunks of snow crab, a beautifully smoked skipjack tuna with spicy mustard and green onion paste and (my favourite dish) a little teapot full of light broth, with lobster, lobster mushroom and lingcod. To eat it, instructs Masa-san, we must remove the tiny citrus fruit on top, pour the broth into the teacup and sip—then, pour again and squeeze the citrus into the cup. (“Two flavours!” he says.) Finally, we eat the seafood inside. It’s a simple, repetitive process that feels therapeutic. There are simply no bad vibes here.
The nigiri dishes come with an add-on option for Northern Divine caviar (hey, when in Rome) and the fabulous staff discreetly suggest when to use it—yes for aburi sea perch; no for kohada; yes for bluefin tuna belly; no for the lean part of the tuna. There’s an understanding here that while some may have that big money to spend, others are here for a special occasion and might need a helping hand with godly caviar.
My tamago (omelette with shrimp) is shaped like a boot—not on purpose, I think, just a funny detail—and dessert is just gorgeous: an apple-and-ice-cream treat with edible gold, served on a hollow glass bowl that the chef fills with seasonal plants (it’s fall, so pretty green leaves rest delicately in tonight’s bowls). When compliments are sent Masa-san’s way—and many are—he covers his smiling face with his hands. Modesty and Michelin nods are not mutually exclusive.
Sushi Bar Omakase: From $330
1133 W Broadway, Vancouver
Leila and I end our omakase journey in the restaurant that many folks consider the beginning—the beginning of the California roll, sure, but also the beginning of popularized Japanese dining in the city… and the province… and the country. Tojo’s menu is iconic, and chef Hidekazu Tojo himself is iconic, too.
The 73-year-old chef has a story to go with every one of his dishes. He might not be chatty at first, but all it takes are a few questions for the food-centric floodgates to open. There’s Tojo’s tuna, each geometric chunk individually seasoned with soy sauce and wasabi, from way back when the average Vancouver restaurant-goer didn’t know how to use either. There’s the sunomono-style ceviche with apples, his favourite fruit. There’s the roll inspired by the aurora borealis; it’s wrapped in a cucumber sheet that looks the famed natural phenomenon. “Aurora’s too hard to say… so: Northern Lights roll,” says Tojo-san. His sense of humour is wonderfully blunt. After we hear the story of the Golden roll (it’s wrapped in an egg crepe and was invented to please a customer who didn’t like nori), Leila comments on how eager the chef is to innovate in order to please his guests.
“They have no excuses,” I joke. “No escape!” he agrees.
Tojo’s rolls favour the local. After all, he’s been serving Vancouver for 35 years. Even the names honour our geography: the Great Canadian roll, the Pacific Northwest roll, the aforementioned Northern Lights roll. The standout dish for me, though, is the Shiitake Shinjo (a mushroom stuffed with fish mousse). I’ve never been a big mushroom lover, but the way that these five chefs have served them up has been slowly converting me—and this one sealed the deal.
From a dainty kabocha soup served in a little pumpkin with a fried scallop nestled inside to a casual hand roll stuffed with pineapple, avocado and lobster tempura, Chef Tojo’s food has both history and attitude (can we really separate the art from the artist?) and is served with a side of special little memories… cut short, often, by the storyteller getting distracted by his regular customers. One dines at Tojo’s every Tuesday; another, Tojo-san swears, eats there every day he spends in Vancouver. Many of them drive expensive cars. “Do you have a fancy car?” I ask across the counter. I feel like I already know the answer.
“Sixteen years. Toyota Camry.”
Why is omakase so expensive? Like all upscale dining, there are a variety of hidden factors to consider when determining value: there are the years of experience the chef has under their belt, there’s the time each dish takes to prepare, there’s the specific storage needs of the ingredients, there are pricy knives and other kitchen tools, there’s rent to pay…
And all of the above still doesn’t account for the most obvious cost: the food. Chef Jin (the all-star behind downtown’s premium omakase restaurant Sushi Jin) offered to pull back the curtain on the average rate of his most expensive ingredients. The chef says that while his menu features many local goods—including Gindara sablefish, scallop, spot prawns and ikura—it’s the imported ingredients that set them back the most. He’s out to serve “the best quality ingredients from all around the world”—and that comes at a price.
20−40 lb piece
The chef says that this tuna has “great taste and texture, with a special aroma when it is aged properly.”
1−1.5 lb piece
Chef Jin serves his lobster live (yes, it’s wriggling right up to the moment you eat it) so it’s ultra-fresh.
300 g case
According to the chef, the sea urchin available in other regions just doesn’t compare.
$180 per lb
($80−$120 per root)
Chef Jin says this wasabi root has “great scent and proper moisture to maximize the sushi quality.”
11−-14 lb piece
This flavourful fish is chef Jin’s salmon of choice.
This story was originally published in the November 2023 issue of Vancouver magazine.