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2081 W. 42nd Ave., 604-266-1428
You don’t need a special reason to visit one of Vancouver’s finest sushi restaurants, but here’s one anyway: chef Ikeda Hide offers the option of trying sushi Osaka-style. The sushi we’ve come to know and love is actually the Edo, or Tokyo, style. While Edo won the global sushi wars (even in Osaka), battera—“pressed sushi”—survives. It’s a sort of sushi layer cake with ingredients such as cucumber and seaweed sandwiched between fish on top and compressed rice beneath. Pique your palate with the tartness of an ume (plum) roll, followed by the smoky sweetness of unagi battera (barbecue eel). Chef Hide’s artistry is all across the menu, as in the cornflake crisp of the Edo tuna roll.
1123 Mainland St., 604-633-1280. Bistrosakana.com
Some Japanese traditions die hard. It’s no accident that you never see female sushi chefs. It’s not allowed. In fact, old-school Japanese sushi institutions won’t allow a female foot to violate the domain behind the sushi counter, even to pass through. But Etsuko Needham isn’t in Japan anymore. The head chef at Yaletown’s Bistro Sakana is also co-owner, with husband Peter. As boss lady she was able to get her sushi chefs to instruct her, and for the last seven years Bistro Sakana has been proving Needham’s talent. The menu goes beyond sushi to cover a range of classic Japanese dishes, sometimes incorporating unexpected Italian touches like pesto and her popular prosciutto roll.
912 Clark Dr., 604-251-3711. Fujiya.ca1238 Robson St., 604-682-3634. Konbiniya.com
There’s no better introduction to the staples of Japanese cooking—and snacking—than these two grocery stores. Safeway won’t cut it if you aspire to create Japanese treats like addictive tako-yaki. Fujiya can sell you the special pan, the pre-mixed flour, the sauce, the garnish, and of course the tako (octopus). Konbiniya on Robson (the name is a Japanese approximation of “convenience”) offers shelves full of sembei (rice crackers) and cookies with names like Milk Sand, Animal Mate, and Cream Collon—and to wash it down, a cold can of Pocari Sweat. All the fun of Japan without the jetlag.
Various locations. Guu-izakaya.com
In Japan, izakayas fill the niche of all-purpose eateries where a group of diners can get a wider variety of dishes than they would find in more specialized restaurants. Vancouver is the North American capital of izakaya-style diners, and has a number of great examples, including Hapa and Kingyo. But Guu takes pride of place, having introduced Vancouver to the boisterous call-and-response mayhem that has become a familiar element of the city’s dining scene, and to tuna tataki, the lightly seared tuna sashimi with ponzu sauce seen on Rob Feenie’s Cactus Club menu. Kabocha korroke, a signature Guu oddity, is a deep-fried ball of kabocha squash (called pumpkin in Japan) surrounding a hard-boiled egg. The chain’s playful approach is on display with ebi mayo, the popular salad with deep-fried shrimp and chili mayo; “Ebi Mayo’s Sister” is a potato-crusted version.
Various locations. Japadog.com
Those who want hot dogs with Japanese-inspired toppings and trimmings like bonito flakes, shredded seaweed, or miso mayo—and devotees include Anthony Bourdain and Mark Zuckerberg—heretofore had to make the pilgrimage to the little cart at Burrard and Smithe. Now they can also go to an actual bricks-and-mortar location at 530 Robson (or even Manhattan) for new menu items like “Meat Lovers” (a pork sausage topped with a sauce of beef and pork meat, and cheese) or Japanese ice cream (matcha, sesame) served in fried hot dog buns.
451 W. Broadway, 604-568-4211
It’s not a place you’d go on your anniversary, but despite its modest look and cafeteria-stylefood, Marulilu offers some rare Japanese treats. It’s one of the few places in town offering traditional okonomi-yaki, a fried pancake of cabbage, flour, and egg topped with mayo, bonito flakes, and sweet sauce that is one of Japan’s favourite casual meals. (It’s also on the menu at Kishimoto on Commercial Drive.) Marulilu is also home to yoshoku—essentially, Western food reinterpreted for Japanese tastes. The results, such as katsu-don, a pork cutlet sandwich, still manage to turn out distinctly Japanese. Go for the breakfast that comes with rice, scrambled eggs, a piece of salmon, miso soup, and the choice of tofu or natto. (Burnaby yoshoku fans: try 29th Avenue Cafe at 4441 Boundary Rd.)
740 Denman St., 604-639-0310
For years chef Daiji Matsubara was pretty much the only game in town, but ramen shops have finally proliferated in Vancouver. The man behind the Denman Street diners Kintaro Ramen and Motomachi Shokudo, however, is still the local emperor of Japanese noodles. Kintaro serves pork-based broth, while the more upscale-looking Motomachi Shokudo features bowls built on chicken broth. Motomachi emphasizes organic ingredients throughout a menu that allows Chef Matsubara to stretch out a little. He creates his own bowls with innovative variations like charcoal miso—the charcoal lends a slightly smoky taste to the warm miso flavour—that won’t turn to ashes in your mouth. While most of the other ramen houses in town are franchise operations that use standard recipes, Chef Matsubara offers the sort of ramen artistry the franchise outfits can’t match.
1133 W. Broadway, 604-872-8050. Tojos.com
Places like Sushi Aoki on West Broadway, Samurai on Davie, Akira on Denman, and countless others offer good quality at prices you won’t find in Toronto or New York. But the biggest name in local fish is waaaaay up the price spectrum. Chef Hidekazu Tojo has dominated the sushi scene for years (the Northern Lights roll sees wild prawn tempura, avocado and seasonal fruit rolled in a cucumber crepe), but he works magic on the stovetop too: witness his smoked black cod in a slightly sweet broth, gossamer tempura-battered albacore tuna, and sea urchin tongues baked au gratin with rich chunks of smoked sablefish, geoduck, and crab, brightened with fresh yuzu.
Multiple locations. Zakkushi.com
In most of North America, Japanese food still means sushi. The restaurant scene in Japan is an entirely different story—there, sushi is for special occasions and other dining options are more common. A very popular category includes yakitori, yakiton, and tsukune joints—basically, variations on the theme of barbecued meat on a skewer. While Japanese barbecue restaurants tend to specialize, Vancouver’s Zakkushi combines them all. The menu offers plenty of other dishes too, but Zakkushi is the best place to sample the whole range of Japanese stick-based cuisine: yakitori (chicken), yakiton (pork), tsukune (sausage meat), as well as outliers like quail eggs, okra, and bacon-wrapped asparagus. Beer pairings available.
2775 W. 16th Ave., 604-731-9378. Zestjapanese.com
Japanese chefs have different tests of skill and style, such as the quality of their tamago (Japanese omelette), and their sushi rice. But the true showcase is omakase, the tradition of allowing your chef to select dinner for you. At Zest chef Yoshiaki Maniwa asks for 24 hours’ notice to prepare his omakase course. (It also gives him time to create the perfect serving tray for your sashimi: a delicate ice bowl made by freezing water in a balloon.) One recent omakase menu included Hokkaido scallop and kiwi carpaccio, grilled duck breast, sushi, sashimi, a chawanmushi (a kind of egg custard, often served at breakfast) with uni and lobster, and more.
Note: around here it can be hard to tell your Yoshis apart. Before opening Zest seven years ago, Yoshiaki Maniwa worked at the former Yoshi’s on Denman Street, but he wasn’t the titular Yoshi. That would be Yoshihiro Tabo, who has since become head chef at Ki on Alberni.