Wa’s Japanese Restaurant
1721 Centre St N
[Editor's Note: Our first double posting! We figured it might be interesting to write a posting with two points of view on the different flavours we experienced. Hope you enjoy!]
Foodosopher: Japanese people like eating at places run by Japanese Chefs. I cannot explain why, but In many ways, this is true of most cultures. They prefer to eat from their own. From an authenticity standpoint, this makes sense, but in an era of globalization, I am not sure if this is true any longer. Does a native chef offer better cuisine than an import? Does growing up in a culture make one more aware of a specific food culture than someone with a great palate, a passion for the food, and the energy to learn?
Shokutsu: If I may answer what seems to be a rhetorical question from Foodosopher above, I must admit that I do tend to sneak a peak at the kitchen whenever possible, and try to learn who is actually doing the food preparation and cooking, whenever I am in an ethnic restaurant. Mostly this is due to such places being more understated, simple family run operations where more often than not, the food that is being created does come from the native land of its operators. In the case of some cuisine that I am less familiar with, this “authenticity” does help alleviate some apprehension I may hold about how good it could be and ease any fears that I am getting an untrue representation of that country’s food culture, especially when I may not know a whole lot about it myself. My version of a culinary Linus Van Pelt “security blanket”.
It also helps when a server is also knowledgeable and is open to kindly sharing information on what one should look for in an accurately constructed dish from a country – Foodosopher: recall that North African restaurant with the “preachy” server, he was a bit overbearing, but at the end of the day I found it useful in my learning.
In the end though from the kitchen/chef standpoint, I feel that it should not matter where the cook is coming from, provided he has been well trained in the particular cuisine he is serving up by someone who him/herself has been trained well. Unfortunately, this is where we see a lot of faults in North America, especially from the sushi point of view – with the mass development of “Japanese” restaurants on as many corners as Starbucks, out to capitalize on the craze, but having no formal training in the cuisine they are serving.
Foodosopher: Wa’s is a Japanese-run restaurant on the North side of downtown Calgary. Not just sushi, they carry a variety of Japanese dishes – offering a large cross section of dishes from tempura, ramen, and a variety of dishes cooked and raw. A typical North American Japanese restaurant.
As an aside, when discussing the typical “North American Japanese restaurant” with one Japanese chef in Calgary, I found it interesting that he complained about parts of his business – specifically, sushi. He didn’t train as a sushi chef, and found it stressful to prepare fish, being much more comfortable in his domain of serving up teishoku meals. It leads me to wonder how many Japanese restaurants have chefs who are trained in one specific discipline, and yet working in a multi-discipline restaurant because that is what the local market demands?
Foodosopher: Back to Wa’s, located in a small, recessed strip mall backed away from Centre Street, it is easy to pass it by without noticing it. In fact, the first time I was looking for it, after a Japanese co-worker had continuously expounded on the qualities of Wa’s, I drove by it 3 times until i finally noticed it. For some reason, this reminds me (quite pleasantly in fact) of Tokyo, where trying to find the location of a specific restaurant is often like trying to find Waldo. You know it’s there, but it takes a while.
Shokutsu: My first visit to Wa’s was the result of me one day lamenting the fact that I was missing the Shochu-based “sours” from izakaya establishments in Japan and wished I could get some in Calgary. My Japanese friend told me flat out that I could get them at Wa’s and we made a quick stop and sat at the counter to partake in some drinks and some appetizers. It’s been a while since that first visit, but as you note, had I not been introduced, I could have easily drove back and forth in front of the building and not know what that place housed inside. For those who are not aware, the Japanese character you see on the exterior signage is read as “WA” (meaning Japanese); and is often used with the character of “SHOKU” (which means cuisine or food). I am thinking that many people assumed the owner’s name was “Wa” or something, but this is not the case.
Foodosopher: The interior is quite small, and has a dark, simple, wooden feel. A simple room, circled by some booths and tables, and a simple sushi bar. In many ways, it reminds me of a classic Japanese Izakaya, albeit smaller.
Shokutsu: The layout and design of the space does lend itself well to the laid back atmosphere that I’ve experienced every time I’ve been here. I’ve never experienced one of those loud, bustling scenes here that you may find in some of the izakaya in Vancouver – that is both a good and bad thing I suppose, depending on your point of view.
Shokutsu: With the cold brisk Alberta night air cutting through my Vancouver weather-appropriate jacket like a knife, I wanted to get something both warm and comforting in an appetizer, thankfully the Agedashi Tofu met these needs and then some. The broth (shoyu, dashi, mirin) was very flavorful and the chunks of fried tofu were a good size requiring a few bites each to finish off each cube. The bounty of toppings including green onions, daikon oroshi, ginger, etc. made for an authentic mix of flavors that complemented this dish very well.
Foodosopher:I didn’t find the weather too bad, it would be a bit wimpy to complain about such a pleasant evening, so i decided some fresh fish was in order. The aforementioned Japanese coworker comes here for sushi, which as i mentioned previously, is also one of my three places I am willing to eat sushi in Calgary. Generally, it is quite reasonable, very fresh, and very well selected, cut, and prepared. This evening was no exception.
The saba was honestly some of the best i’ve had in North America. Fresh firm, with a slight hint of the sea, without being overwhelmingly sour, salty, or fishy. A fantastic piece of fish. If we weren’t on notice for “last call”, which occurs 30 minutes before they close, I would’ve ordered more.
The tamago was standard North American fare. Nothing worth writing home about.
Foodosopher: The maki was fairly impressive as well – more often than not made from trim loss, I know it sounds a bit ironic but it was high quality trim! Good fish, good nori, decent rice, not the best “roll” i’ve seen, but good flavour.
Foodosopher: The salmon nigiri was impeccable – a nice rich fattiness, cleanly trimmed of any undesirable pieces. Good rice. From a raw standpoint, salmon is one of those fish that is hard to go wrong with in Canada. I’ve had a lot of the best salmon that Japan has to offer, and I can tell you Canada’s average salmon stands up to it without fail.
Shokutsu: As much as I wanted to reach out and snatch a piece after seeing how beautiful they were, I was afraid of what the Sushi Monster in front of me might do to my hand if I dared encroach on his meal. Just based on visuals alone, I knew the salmon nigiri must have tasted incredible!
Shokutsu: Sometimes I am not in the mood for nigiri. It might be due to being a bit shell-shocked through having some really bad stuff all too often in Vancouver. And then other times, I desire the simplicity of sashimi, to allow me to get a true taste of the quality of the restaurant’s offering. Furthermore, sometimes I still crave the sushi rice. Best solution, get the Chirashi Sushi. They do it very well here at Wa’s, albeit a bit pricy. The balance of ingredients ran the gamut of their sushi menu, and what surprised me most of all was the volume of sushi rice – the bowl was deceptively deep. The quality of the sushi rice was very good, which made finishing off the entire bowl a challenge, but a welcome one at that. As very often with chirashi, I end up not eating the provided sushi rice as it is a gooey mess (Uptown Sushi in Calgary was a repeat offender on this) , but not here at Wa’s.
Foodosopher: Finally, though they run out of it fairly frequently, I had a bowl of Tonkotsu Ramen ($8.95). While on the small side, It is well topped: chasu, menma, spring onions, konbu, and beni shoga, in the hakata ramen style. The chasu is nice and well-flavoured, a good balance of fat and pork. The noodles were a little less appropriate. Cooked to the soft side, they failed to shine in this bowl. They tasted like they were purchased from some local, pre-packaged noodle provider. The broth I enjoyed, had a decent flavour, though it lacked any real oiliness expected from a tonkotsu broth, was a bit thin, and was definitely a bit salty. I found out later than they buy their tonkotsu broth in a can, which would explain the saltiness, though I still stand by the fact that the broth is surprisingly decent. Overall, definitely much better than Muku, and for me, on par with Shikiji for a ramen offering in town.
Shokutsu: Surprisingly, I’ve never had the Tonkotsu Ramen here at Wa’s, despite hearing of it being the only place offering it, pre-Muku. It is on my list for my next visit to this southern Alberta city, after Foodospher kindly offered me a spoon tasting of the broth. It did seem a bit dense/thick to me, but I tend to like it that way as it clings to the noodles (especially if they are of the crinkly variety). A more thorough tasting is required by me, but based on my single tasting, I was in agreement that it was a good offering.
Foodosopher: There’s actually a lot to like about Wa’s. Though it is fairly small and often full, they serve up some good, fresh Japanese food at decent prices. As a “general” Japanese restaurant, I feel they would fail to standout in a city with more specialized choices, with restaurants that did a better job at specific dishes and styles. However, in Calgary, there are a lot of redeeming qualities. Wa’s is worth visiting, not just because they are Japanese run, but for me, start and end with the freshness and quality of the fish.
Shokutsu: I will say that I concur with Foodosopher’s stance that the quality of the fish and the preparation of it is indeed top notch here at Wa’s. They also do a good job with items from the kitchen as well, which warrants some more exploration on my part, as there are still some standard items I like to use as benchmarks when eating at all-encompassing Japanese restaurants in Canada. Please feel free to leave us your feedback, comments, questions as usual in the box below…