Japanese Food


It is said that the small entrances of Japanese teahouses forced travelers and samurai to remove their heavy bags and swords in order to enter, thus allowing them to symbolically jettison there outer selves and better relax into the building’s serene atmosphere.  Momiji in Seattle, Washington also provides such an oasis from the city courtesy of its interior Japanese garden, warm design, and delicious Japanese food.

Momiji's Garden

When we arrived, we were immediately greeted and ushered to the back of the restaurant, which houses a seating area with a wonderful garden in the middle (pictured on the left).  As night falls, and as you feast on the healthy selection of food, night falls and the garden glows peacefully in the background.

While perusing the menu, we enjoyed cocktails.  My wife had the delicious Dhampir (Ikkomon, orange, lemon, brown sugar-vanilla syrup) and I had a shochu (I love me my imo shochu).  After a while we thought we should just go hog wild and order a little bit of everything.

First to arrive was the oyster shooter.  It was  great start to the meal, and cleansed our palates.  Next, we ordered some some sashimi and sushi.  The fish was top quality and the sushi on offer was beautifully crafted and intelligently conceived.  There were no heavy sauces or surplus ingredients.  The rice, I note, was also beautifully seasoned, leaving us with the feeling that the chef knew exactly what he was doing.

Parallel Sushi HighwaysAs we ate, the other side dishes arrived, including some lovely gyoza, and a very nice and fragrant chawan mushi.  The pace of the service was just right, and we felt well taken care of by our waiter and waitress, who zipped around the dining room attending to the many, full tables.  When the bill arrived, I found the total to be very reasonable.

Momiji is a very special place.  We’ve all been to countless restaurants, most forgotten and others forgettable, but this is one that will live with me for quite some time.  In fact, we hadn’t even left for the night when we started to talk about coming to Seattle again to come back to Momiji.

Momiji on Urbanspoon

You could be forgiven for walking right past Sushi Zero One and missing it completely.  Its storefront is nondescript.  Its interior isn’t particularly attractive.  But then there’s the food, which is a different matter all together.

I visited Sushi Zero One a few weeks ago after hearing it had a good reputation for solid sushi.  Unlike many reviews I have read, I wasn’t particularly put off by the unimpressive interior.  The restaurant is unpretentious and, in my opinion, should be seen more as a take out place rather than a sit down restaurant.  I used to work at a similar place in Montreal – Sushi Volant back when it was run by the beloved “Tobi-san”.  Despite its interior, Sushi Volant had a well deserved reputation for serving up some of the best (if not the best) sushi in Montreal.  So it was with a nostalgic, wistful understanding that I approached Zushi Zero One.

Delicious sushi (please ignore the dixie plate...)

We ordered a sushi combo and chirashi sushi.  The sushi combo was unceremoniously served on a paper plate (pictured on the right) which frankly detracted from the entire experience, but the quality of the ingredients more than made up for it.  The fish was very fresh and tasty.  The rice was also wonderfully seasoned and texturally pleasant.  The selection was also something to behold for a combination of food that clocks in just over $10.  Ordinarily, I find it difficult to eat nothing but sushi for dinner (I crave greater variety) but this was different.

Ikura jewels in chirashi sushi

The chirashi don was similarly successful.  The rice was just as lovely as in the sushi, but this dish featured delicious salmon roe (ikura) that exploded in your mouth.  The generous slices of fish and other seafood that adorned the chirashi sushi smelled of the sea and was buttery.  I also appreciated the daikon leaves/sprouts that added a hint of pepper to the dish.  Though it is by no means high cuisine, this dish satisfies and is relatively good value at about $10 before taxes.

Though this is not a place you would go to eat at for a first date, it is potentially one you’d get takeout from for a third date (if you know what I mean…).  It’s also the best sushi I’ve had in downtown Vancouver to date.

Zero One Sushi on Urbanspoon

Tucked away on Broadway near the corner of Cambie is a busy little cafe that serves up simple, delicious food: the Marulilu Cafe.

I went to Marulilu for lunch a few weeks ago. Despite showing up at about 1:30’ish, the cafe was packed and alive with the laughs and conversations of a weekend afternoon. Luckily, a stray table had just been left open, and my wife and I pounced on it before perusing the menu.

A coffee jelly latte chillaxing with its cousin, the macha latte.

Marulilu’s menu is classic Japanese cafe. Loads of delicious breakfast goodies, light lunch fares (salads, rice burgers, etc.) and more traditional Japanese comfort food like katsudon, oyakodon, and okonomiyaki. There is also a lengthy list of drinks on offer, including Marulilu’s yummy macha lattes and coffee jelly drinks. The selection of drinks alone (especially if, as wife is, you have a weakness for coffee jelly) are worth a trip here.

We ordered a few drinks (featured in this first photo), and I ordered a rice burger set. The set comes with a duo of rice burger patties, the first adorned with sukiyaki sauce and the second kimchi sauce. It also came with a salad (seasoned with a surprisingly good salad dressing) and a miso soup. The staff was very friendly and all smiles.

It is here, however, that I pause to comment on the weakest link in the Marulilu experience: Its ordering system. I’ve read a review or two that has complained about this. Essentially, you go to the counter, order, and then have a seat. Though in theory it is not a problem, few people were aware of this, and the line up of those who were snaked awkwardly around the tables in the restaurant, adding a layer of claustrophobia to what was a cozy atmosphere.** But I digress with my picky comment…back to the food.

The Rice Burger Set - Kimchi and Sukiyaki

The presentation of my lunch set was very cute (reminiscent of MOS Burger) and the portion size was ideal for lunch. The rice burger patties were just how I like them, crispy and crunchy on the outside, and moist and warm on the inside. The different sauces were also delicious. The miso soup was nothing to write home about, but its inclusion in my lunch combo was welcome, and its earthy flavour counterbalanced the sweet and spicy of the burgers, and the sweet and acid of the salad.

Before leaving, as we relaxed with our drinks, the staff promptly came by to take away the empty dishes to give us more space. It was a nice touch and shows that despite being busy as bees, the servers somehow still manage to be attentive to the customers.

Overall, Marulilu was a very nice experience. It is very much a “what you see is what you get” cafe – unpretentious and friendly with good food. The restaurant is also relatively good value, and the food will leave you satiated and satisfied. If you’re in the neighbourhood, or even if you’re not, I ‘d suggest heading over to Marulilu for a pleasant meal or a leisurely break.

Marulilu Cafe on Urbanspoon

[** This unfortunate situation may be related to the bizarre layout of the restaurant. The kitchen/counter  juts out and takes out a massive amount of unnecessary space, and the bathroom is enormous. One can’t help but wonder why this is, and why the issue hasn’t been remedied.]

Who knew that charcoal ramen would taste good, let alone make sense? I guess the mastermind behind Motomachi Shokudo (“Motomachi”) on Denman Street in Vancouver. The delicious bowl of noodles, and the entire experience, was top shelf and makes me want to head back soon.

Like many great places, Motomachi is unassuming from the exterior, and is not adorned with a perpetual long line of people snaking out of its front door like its Denman cousin, Kintaro Ramen. The restaurant is relatively narrow, with seating for less than 20 (including the spots at the counter), so its a pretty intimate experience. Motomachi’s design, and the speedy and friendly service, also adds to the restaurant’s amiable feel.

After a quick review of the menu, I was immediately drawn to the “charcoal ramen” on offer. I’d never heard of such a thing, and I was initially skeptical of its black broth. The little blurb (you can read a version of it in the photo on this blog) exalting the benefits of charcoal tipped the scales, however. I threw caution to the wind and decided to order a bowl, some gyoza, and a beer.

Motomachi Shokudo's charcoal ramen (and an order of gyoza hiding behind the bowl).

The kitchen was very quick in getting the ramen to me, and I was pleasantly surprised. Though you can definitely taste the charcoal’s influence in the dish, you don’t feel like you’re eating handfuls of ash. In fact, it’s fair to say that the charcoal actually provided a nice, bold contrast to the broth and the sweetness and umami of its other constituent parts.

Oh…and as you can tell from the photo, there were many a constituent part to this generous dish. Below the egg, seaweed, and vegetables, there were also a stack of pork slices that filled me right up. Though plentiful, I found the pork to be slightly dry/overcooked. It did not bother me, however, because one can remedy this minor criticism by combining a each pork slice with a sip of broth.

As for the gyoza, it was pretty much your standard gyoza deal (NB: In the interest of full disclosure, I am a horrible gyoza snob). I suspect that they had spent some time in a freezer, but then you don’t go to a ramen place for gourmet gyoza.

As for the price of my meal: My ramen was a little under $10 before taxes, making it a little bit pricey for a bowl of noodles, but good value given the mountain of goodness contained in the hefty ramen bowl.

Overall, I would definitely recommend Motomachi. Its an easy-going place with a nice atmosphere, good service, an interesting menu, and good food. What more can you ask for?

Motomachi Shokudo 元町食堂 on Urbanspoon

Charcoal is a magical thing.  When used to cook food, it imbues it with a grittiness that can’t be matched.  And that is why Zakkushi, Vancouver’s yakitori restaurant chain, is like eating in an alchemist’s lab – an alchemist who plies you with amazing food and booze.

We arrived right as the Denman branch of Zakkushi was opening.  As we walked in, I already knew this would be a special place.  Though it was impeccably clean, the restaurant had the look of an old, welcoming haunt that has been around forever.  What caught my attention more than the homey atmosphere, however, was the large grill, chock full with enough white hot charcoal bits to hold a half-dozen Viking funerals.  It would be there, through charcoal’s powers of transubstantiation, that seafood, meat, and offal would be cooked to perfection.

This is what 1L of beer looks like.

After showing us to our seat (and mentioning that there was a 2-hour dining time limit), our waitress boomeranged back to get our drink order.  I ordered the 1L Sapporo “mug”/cistern and started in as we chose which animal bits we would have cooked. As we debated how to best feed our faces, we were serenaded with some super old Japanese rock music – bonus points for the Japanese skid factor.

We ended up settling on a number of skewers.  The first batch were all part of a chicken at one time:  thigh, wings, hearts, gizzard and liver.  We also ordered the minced meat balls (with and without garlic), cheese-covered tomatoes, bonito flake-covered okura,  finally, to pretend we were the least bit health-conscious, we ordered the seafood salad, jellyfish and (imitation) shark fin, and the bonito flake-covered okura.  Our waitress, who frankly seemed a little distracted, smiled, and before leaving us, confirmed what we had requested.

Chicken heart, liver, and minced meat balls.

The food came out quite quickly and everything was very good.  The portion sizes of each skewer were generous, but not so large that you were full after only a few.  The sauce in which the meat skewers were coated was nicely balanced and added an extra depth of flavour.  At first, I thought that it could have been a little more viscous, but I soon thought better because the more subtle taste allowed the charcoal’s smokey aroma to come through.

The most aesthetically delightful dish was definitely the okura skewers.  I loved the way the bonito flakes danced on top of these charbroiled emeralds (I even took a video, below).

Not to be outdone, however, the astonishingly sweet shrimp in the light seafood salad was also amazing, and the lightness of the salad made what would have been a heavy meal into a well rounded one.

Seafood salad and jellyfish appetizers.

By the time we had finished our meal, I resolved to come back to this place soon.

This mountain of food and lake of beer (as well as an umeshu) came to about $75 after taxes and tip.  You might think that this is a tad pricey for what is essentially barbeque, but you would be wrong.

Zakkushi it not merely a barbeque restaurant, it is something much more.  It is difficult to explain the wonderful combination of energy, good food, and laid-back atmosphere captured by Zakkushi.  The best I can do is simply to say:  “GO!”

Zakkushi Charcoal Grill (Denman) on Urbanspoon

I fell in love with three pieces of yellowtail fish the other day.  The meat was fresh, the texture divine, and they smelled like the sea.

This, in a nutshell, was my experience at Guu Otokomae, the Gastown branch of the Guu chain of izakayas.

“Otokomae”, loosely translated, means handsome, stylish, or cool.  When one first comes into the restaurant, one quickly gets the impression that this was the look the designers were aiming at.  The restaurant is on two levels, has a lovely, large exposed brick wall , a relatively large selection of properly spaced seating (so you don’t feel like your sitting on top of the neighbouring table) and a big ol’ bar.  This was a promising start.

Guu Beer and Beef Tataki

After being taken to our seats by our affable waiter, menus were quickly dealt out.  We  decided on drinks (a few bottles of the Guu Beer) and an appetizer:  Guu Tataki (beef sashimi/carpaccio with grated daikon in ponzu sauce).

The Guu beer was refreshing and a pleasant accompaniment to the delicious, thinly sliced beef.  With our palates cleansed and our appetites whetted, we were ready to get down to the business of some serious eating.

We then ordered the spicy ika calimari.  The calamari was beautifully tender, not too spicy, and very pleasant to eat.  It did not last long.

Our next dish involved more heat – spicy agedashi tofu.  This deep-fried tofu gem was served on a bed of lettuce and topped with seaweed, daikon and a nice vinaigrette.  The tofu slices were also very generous and the dish is excellent value.

Sashimi Special

Sashimi Special

Then came the fish I fell in love with.  It was a sashimi special which included that amazing yellowtail sashimi, as well as sweet shrimp and raw scallops.  The quality of these ingredients was astonishing.  The shrimp was tender but had a nice bite when chewed.  The scallops were also amazing, and the hint of of the shiso leave on which the scallops were placed added a cleaver dimension of bitterness.

Unable to stop eating, we then ordered another special:  the crab croquette.  The exterior was golden and crunch and the interior creamy and warm.

Banana Tempura and Coconut Ice Cream

Finally, when we decided enough was enough, we ordered the banana tempura with coconut ice cream.  Bananas and coconut are a happy combination, and this desert dish displayed that affinity.  It was a great, sweet way to end a great meal.

I freely admit that I have a soft spot for izakayas, but this experience was truly excellent by anyone’s standards.  I would highly recommend coming down to Guu Otokomae to enjoy everything it has to offer:  Good service, good value, and amazingly fresh ingredients for their fabulous dishes.

Guu With Otokomae on Urbanspoon

Shuraku‘s dark, upscale look made me uneasy.  It seemed almost too slick, and the chi chi suffix “sake bar and bistro” set off my spidey senses.  Would a restaurant with a glowing, white wall really deliver quality comfort food dishes and a pleasant izakaya experience?  Actually, and rather surprisingly, yes.

I was here on a busy Friday night to fête the end of some friends’ trip to the West coast.  From the get go, we were greeted warmly and seated quickly at our reserved table.  Our friendly waitress was quick to give out menus and to offer us something to drink.  Other than the fact that the benches at our table were cracked (am I too demanding?), this was an auspicious start.  The sweet fruitiness of the nigori umeshu cocktail also helped things along.

Shuraku’s menu is intelligent – it contains enough of a variety of food to create a special dining experience, but is not unwieldy.  We were also given a shorter specials menu.

Cruchy Squid? Yes, please.

We started our epic meal with the crunchy squid served with a garlic (but not too garlicky) spicy mayonnaise which was deep fried to perfection.  The agedashi tofu was also well-prepared and left a clean aftertaste – something surprising from a deep fried dish – thanks to the beautifully balanced dashi stock.  The skillfully fried food line-up continued with a lovely chicken nanban dish that I could have eaten all night.  We were very pleased with ourselves for having chosen so wisely, until the we came across the first bobble of the night:  the “three ways of tuna”.

The albacore tuna used in the “three ways of tuna” was top quality.  The sesame sauce added some nice earthiness and the wasabi sauce created a nice palate cleansing sensation.  The third tuna offering, which was covered in Shuraku’s “lava sauce”, however, was…well…bizarre.  It certainly looked like glowing lava, but it had the rather astonishing combination of heat, blandness, and saffron.  Suffice it to say that its strange taste and volcanic hue were lost on us.  I was glad we had the tofu and avocado salad to end this first round.

Rainbow Roll: Very worthwhile.

Our second wave of food was nigiri and maki sushi.  The nigiri sushi of the “assorted sushi plate” didn’t look particularly generous but appearances can be deceiving.  The rice was wonderfully seasoned (a rarity, I find, in sushi outside of Japan) and the fish was delicate.  The maki sushi of the “rainbow roll” was also lovely and quickly disappeared from the table in a rapid-fire flurry of chopsticks.  I would recommend either dish, and would really recommend ordering both.

Finally, it was desert time.  The “marble chocolate cheesecake” was very good and (for us, at least) was paired with macha ice cream.  An excellent way to end the meal.

After my initial apprehension at Shuraku’s appearance, I was pleasantly surprised by this restaurant.  The quality of the food, and the care that obviously goes into each dish, make a meal at this restaurant a memorable experience.

I note that some reviews of this restaurant (e.g., at urbanspoon.com) are critical of Shuraku’s prices.  Though the food is slightly pricier than Guu or Kingyo, it is not significantly so (maybe 10%).  As such, don’t let such comments dissuade you from trying Shuraku.

In short, if you’re downtown Vancouver and are hankering for a classy Japanese restaurant, look no further than Shuraku.

ShuRaku Sake Bar and Bistro on Urbanspoon

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