Quit snickering, you snob, and just get to Sushi Bar Shu.
For years, I lived a few blocks off SW Marine and Angus Drive, and whenever I told people my address, they’d scratch their heads and say, “Oh, you live in Marpole?” No, I’d say, a little too forcefully—I live in “Southwest Marine” or “South Kerrisdale” or anywhere other than what was widely known as the least desirable neighbourhood on the west side. Daily, I despaired the ’hood’s general lack of decent shopping, groceries and restaurants. To boot, my car was routinely broken into, and after eight years, there was no love lost when I eventually decamped. So imagine my surprise last week when I sat inside a converted Bean Around the World at Granville and 65th—a stone’s throw from my old front steps—and had one of the most exciting dining experiences I’ve had in Vancouver in a long, long while.
You could be forgiven for mistaking Sushi Bar Shu for just another take-out sushi joint or, worse, an express nail salon. The omakase restaurant has no PR, no functioning website and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it signage despite being located on one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city. Their name is an unintentional tongue twister; making a reservation is even trickier. On OpenTable you could only book in for one of the eight available seats at the bar, and then just at 6 p.m. or 8 p.m. So I broke down and actually used the phone to tell the voice at the other end that I would prefer to sit away from the bar at a nearby table if it meant I could book in at 7 p.m. instead. The person mulled over my proposition for a good long while before acceding, but added that, if it were all right with us, he’d move us to the bar once space became available at 8 p.m. Um, okay.
Upon arriving, I note we’re the only diners seated at a table while the eight seats at the bar are full. The small, rectangular room still has a distinct “I’ll have a grande soy latte” vibe, but they’ve done a decent job of modernizing a space that most restaurateurs would say is too small by half for a restaurant, given that food and drinks needs to be staged in the same galley space where you would put a lid on your americano.
We’ve brought our own wine—they’ve not yet secured a liquor license—and, lacking a proper chilling vessel, the server slips our bottle of Culmina’s Skin Contact gewurztraminer into a restaurant-grade stainless steel table pan filled with ice. Our wine is then poured into knock-off Riedel stemless glasses. I’m starting to get nervous—what if this wine-chiller insouciance is a harbinger of things to come? An amuse bouche arrives next (the server calls it a “free gift” from the chef): uni chawan mushi, which is lightly steamed egg with dashi, minced shiitakes and shrimp with a sizeable dollop of uni on top.
In a year where uni has been trotted out ad nauseam, this dish plays wonderfully to its creamy strength: there’s a seamless consistency between the egg and urchin, with a revelatory interplay between the three umami blasts. The note-perfect introduction dispels any of my previous qualms.
We’re served a small sashimi course—six pieces of near perfection—before the pre-nigiri appetizers appear: a trio of small dishes. The first is a sizeable piece of black cod, marinated in soy. It’s excellent. The second, a more challenging dish of firefly squid, a two-inch-long cephalopod eaten whole, served on briny bed of vinegar-marinated seaweed. But the goldilocks moment comes with #3—tako no yawarakani, a softly cooked section of octopus tentacle, sucker whole and prominent, in soy sauce, kelp, sake, sugar and daikon. It comes out with a deep mahogany hue, offset by a shock of what seems like Keen’s hot English mustard, delicately smeared across the bowl’s rim. The meat has just the right amount of give and the jolt of the mustard gives a sublime assist to the rich flavour.
And then the Easter egg: a tiny square of marinated daikon that's been intricately cut to create dozens of rows of little arms, an uber garnish that would have taken ages to prepare but here shows up without pomp. As we’re ushered from table to sushi bar, I graduate from nervousness to panic—the food is so good out of the gate that I can now only wait for the other shoe to drop. Somewhere, somehow, this insanely amazing food is going to disappoint. But it never happens.
Once seated at the bar, I begin to understand why chef/owner Kevin Shin was so adamant that diners get a front seat to the show. He and co-chef Denny (Sungsu) Park proceed to orchestrate the rest of the meal like the Sedin twins on the power play, a fine operatic ballet of graceful movements, right down to washing their own dishes. The pair met while working at Parq (Shin was the executive sous chef and responsible for the sushi at the Victor) and when Shin decided a few months back to hang his own shingle, he asked Park along for the ride. Prior to that, Shin had spent the previous 12 years in Toronto working at Ki Modern, Menami and Zen under Seiichi Kashiwabara, among other spots, until his wife’s desire to be home in Vancouver won out. Shin couldn’t afford Kerrisdale, and so Marpole it would be.
The two of them begin to prepare our fish in concert, inducing a mesmerizing reverie that can only be described as ASMR for food. I watch the duo’s elegant knife skills as they weave and wave the blade through the fillets, relentlessly trimming them down (I’m tempted to ask if I can keep their offcuts) to flawless slabs before slicing them for the nigiri. There’s a bluefin sourced from a farm in Baja that Shin leaves at room temperature for 15 minutes to open up the flavour; it’s both meaty and soft and insanely indulgent. There’s yellow grouper, with moshio (salt from seaweed) and kabosu (a yuzu cousin), a horse mackerel dusted with white kelp, a lightly torched crimson sea bream. What could go wrong?
And, just then, in walks Masayoshi Baba, the owner of an eponymous Fraser Street restaurant and reigning champ of Vancouver omakase, who plunks himself down beside me at this pint-sized bar. It’s the equivalent of a minor league pitcher having a lights-out game only to see José Bautista standing on deck. But Shin doesn’t miss a beat: he welcomes the famed chef and recounts how he visited his restaurant a while back, but didn’t want to bother the chef with questions as it was busy.
Now that Shin has Masayoshi here, however, he’s interested in how he secured his liquor licence (it came with his restaurant, it turns out). In between questions, Park turns out one last showstopper of a dish—a negitoro hand roll, comprising tuna belly and head meat that’s meticulously chopped and chopped again until being cut with green onion and slid into a sheet of seaweed, folded taco-like, then brushed with soy sauce and topped with crushed sesame seed. It’s a simple dish, really, but all the elements are working in concert. I could eat three of ’em.
There’s an option to add more courses to the $98 full omakase menu (the sushi menu is only $68), but we choose instead to finish with a superbly cooked square of Japanese cheesecake that—unlike some others—is actually worth lining up for. As we’re leaving, I have a sinking feeling: after all this, I actually don’t want to write about this place. I want to keep it all to myself and my friends and not have it lined up with people who won’t appreciate what might be the most beautiful, purest, most ego-free cooking in town right now.
But I glance up, and as Shin is standing at the tiny sink again, cleaning his own prep dishes while Park dices the tuna for Masayoshi’s hand roll, my heart breaks. I do a quick calculation of the cost of the ingredients (the bluefin from Mexico alone rings in at whopping $40 per pound), so at $89 for the entire omakase experience, I can’t fathom how Shin can make a profit, even if he sells out all seats every night. Masayoshi charges $145 for a similar meal (and that’s a good deal) and Tojo’s starts at $180. None of it makes sense: not the cost, not the location, not the space.
And not the fact that Marpole is now a dining destination.
Sushi Bar Shu
8099 Granville St.
Hours: From Tuesday to Sunday, 6 to 10:30 p.m.