Japadog (Waterfront Station) – Vancouver, BC


Japadog (Waterfront Station)
600 W Cordova St
Vancouver, BC

Much is already out there about the Japadog phenomenon.  Your truly has had his fair share of dogs at some of their outlets, but this one at the Waterfront Station was a first timer.  Melding in with the throngs of visiting tourists fresh off the cruise ship and wandering around Gastown was interesting to say the least, and I could do some casual observing of how they interacted with our fair city.  A few minutes near the Japadog cart was a key highlight.  I’m sure many of them had no clue what was going on or being offered here.

I haven’t bothered to keep up to date with the latest flavor combinations but this #6 on the menu board, the Gokudare, seemed something fresh.  I should have investigated further.  But alas, I got drawn to the classics.  This time the #2, Kurobuta.  I love how they have dubbed it the MVP – the Most Valuable Pork.  I’m torn if that’s the result of a clever play on words or some odd Engrish creation…

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The Lions Den Cafe – Vancouver, BC


The Lions Den Cafe
651 E 15th Ave
Vancouver, BC
(604) 873-4555

ec·lec·tic/iˈklektik/
Adjective: Deriving ideas, style, or taste from a broad and diverse range of sources.

That single word that I feel best sums up what The Lions Den Cafe is all about, with  its unusual combination of Caribbean and Japanese food menu items (based on the married couple proprietors’ backgrounds), the unmissable large stuffed lion that hangs on the wall inside and the complete freestyle approach to the service.  On first glance, it may seem like your regular neighborhood diner, but delving in deeper you soon realize its quirky and unique is its own special way, that should appeal to some and perhaps confuse others.

The day of our visit was a bright sunny weekend late morning.  Following a morning jolt at The Elysian Room, we headed on over to Kingsway for a bite to eat.  The hot weather resulted in all of the tables inside the establishment being brought outside for diners, and the place was busy by the time we arrived but were fortunate to get a table immediately.  After perusing the menu – initially I thought I’d try something fusion – our waitress inquired if we’d be interested in drinks and with that, I opted for one of these sweet Grace bottled beverages.  High on sugar but with ice, it was on the refreshing side.

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Distrito – Philadelphia, PA


Distrito
3945 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA
(215) 386-1072

In what many people incorrectly assume to be strictly a cheesesteak city, Philadelphia is home to a blossoming restaurant scene, with a wide range of eclectic fine dining. Nothing may better represent this scene than Iron Chef Jose Garces’ restaurant Distrito. An homage to Mexico City culture, Distrito is a combination of ethnic flare with fine dining ingredients, and solid technique.

The Mexico City theme is prevalent throughout – complete with a VW Beetle to sit in! The decor is odd, eclectic, and not at all to my liking. But it doesnt really matter. It’s kitschy, and unapologetic. However, it feels like the designer is trying a bit too hard – 250 seats is a lot of pink, green, and neon. And the decor doesnt fit the price point in my mind.

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BonQuLa Fusion Restaurant and Café – Richmond, BC


BonQuLa Fusion Restaurant and Café
Olympia Center, #165-8460 Alexandra Road
Richmond, BC
(604) 214 0027

BonQuLa Fusion Restaurant & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Lately, I’ve been giving more thought to and being more patient in checking out some places that I’d been following through word of mouth and online sources – especially those that have recently opened or are rumored to be still working out the finer details of their operations.  This does clash with the need for frequent and new reviews on Foodosophy however, so my balancing act is indeed a difficult one.  And lastly, my time and ability to venture to some of these places that are further away from my home base, also comes into play (the city of Richmond being one such example).

One uniquely positioned restaurant that I’ve been aware of for over a year and was following comments on through Japanese message boards has been Richmond’s BonQuLa Fusion Restaurant and Café. When it comes to Japanese home-style cooking and yoshoku ryori (Japanese interpretations of Western food) in Vancouver, I find getting the thoughts and opinions of ex-pats and foreign exchange students yearning for a taste of home, is the best method of pre-dining reconnaissance that one can do.

For those who have only been exposed to the North American classics such as sushi, tempura and chicken teriyaki, yoshoku is at times difficult to convey to those less familiar as they just simply refer to in their minds the western equivalents.  As such, I hope that places like BonQuLa continue to flourish and help spread the word that there is a lot more to Japanese cuisine that what is commonly portrayed in the media and the countless imitation Japanese restaurants that abound in greater Vancouver.

Early sentiments after it initially opened in June 2007 that I’ve heard were a mixed bag.  Most of the negative impressions that were left were based on the speed of service (both of food coming out of the kitchen and the waiters).  A lot of these complaints were from lunchtime customers, which I know are more demanding given the limited amount of time they have to grab something to eat.  On this visit, I think there are still some remnants with the service aspect, in particular the middle-aged Chinese woman who was lacking some knowledge of the menu and struggling with explaining some things and generally not “all there”  (as well, a bit of an English language issue).  The other server on hand, a young Japanese man, was interesting to observe when he came to our table, as we picked up on those little Japanese service nuances that you get when dining out in Japan.

More recent commentary has been a lot more positive, with many highlighting their satisfaction with being able to get such cuisine and at such a good quality, in Canada.  Even in published interviews, the female Japanese chef (a 2001 immigrant to Canada, graduate of the prestigious Osaka Music College, former piano instructor and graduate of Vancouver Community College’s Culinary Program) herself mentioned that they had some growing pains in their early days, adjusting to operating a business in Canada, with all the uncertainly that comes with entering the restaurant game.  With plenty of time having passed, I decided it was time to give this place a visit, as frankly I’ve not been over enthused by other yoshoku offerings in the city to this point.

Immediately upon being seated, I knew this place was indeed trying something different.  The interesting set menu booklet that featured a group of complete meals (appetizer through to dessert) were handmade, and utilized some recycled Japanese children’s books!  The background music pipped over the speakers was a mixture of slow and uptempo jazz, which fit into my image of the more old school yoshoku restaurants in Tokyo that I frequented.   BonQuLa was more modern in style but at the same time, very relaxed and homey.

With it being January and the start of a new year, mochi (Japanese rice cake) was a welcome sight on the appetizer listings in the main menu, only this had been incorporated with shrimp, and done in an agedashi-style (complete with a flavorful soy-based broth).

Our dining group was split into those who ordered from the main a la carte choices, and one who decided on taking a much more robust set menu selection.  With the latter, which was had the New York Steak as a main, one of the appetizers (the other was a trio of tasting items pictured earlier in this post – the homemade sesame tofu was divine! –  as well as a uniquely plated tuna salad – no image available) was this tray of Assorted Tempura.  Coming with a finely ground mix of matcha and a touch of salt, rather than the more stereotypical bowl of tentsuyu (dipping sauce), it really accentuated the crispy tempura and reminded me of this flavor combination one sees in Western Japan.  Given that the chef is originally from Kobe, its clear she has retained the tastes of the region.

The Ground Beef Steak with Teriyaki Sauce was my main target on this night, knowing its a great example of yoshoku and being at the top of their menu, I figured they had confidence in doing it well.  It came with a bowl of steamed rice, miso soup (light and not overly salty at all), some marinated pieces of konnyaku, simple green salad, and a deep fried shrimp and some onion rings.

The ground beef steak made from AAA Sirloin was beautifully done, a light and juicy ground meat patty, without any excess filler.  Topped with some slivers of deep fried potato and served with some bean sprouts and cabbage on a hot circular plate.

Pictured above is the Omurice Curry with Pork Tenderloin Cutlet.  The curry itself was spicy but a touch on the fruity, sweeter side, and was packed with flavor.  You could tell a load of vegetables had been cooked for many hours to generate that much flavor in each spoonful.   The cutlet was again much like the beef patty, the right level of heat making the interior meat tender and not dried out from overcooking.  Even for a hungry person, the amount of rice in the omurice was  more than plenty.

Perhaps this dish, the main component of the New York Steak set was the only letdown on the night.  I think our fried who had ordered it was expecting a more teppan-style, cooked and cubed, whereas this one was more almost steam-cooked making the meat more moist.  As a result, perhaps it was overdone and the meat itself wasn’t that great to begin with, thus there were some tough parts among the cuts in the hotplate.

Lastly, the dessert that was part of the New York Steak set menu was a homemade Matcha Purin (pudding).  It had a solid creamy texture without an overpowering sweetness (that you find too often in those instant packs to make purin), and was topped with vanilla ice cream.   The rest of us were given a choice of a mango, matcha or coffee flavored jelly, that was served in a mini wine glass, and topped with some vanilla ice cream, corn flakes and whipped cream.

The adage of “good things come to those who wait” certainly held true in my opinion by finally making the decision to dine here.  Our whole table enjoyed the outing and everyone remarked how happy they were with their food.  Luckily we were all in the mood for sharing and thus each of us had the chance to sample a bit of every dish that was at our table.  The balance of flavors really stood out for us, when they needed to be bolder they were, and the dishes that have flavorings requiring a more subtle level were similarly accurate.  The completeness, heart felt effort put into the food put out by the skilled chef was clearly felt by us all, whenever we found a new ingredient appearing or sensed by our palates.  In my research, it did not entirely surprise me that the chef had an non-food related artistic background – whenever I come across such a dedicated “artsy” person, it always seems to be that if you are talented in one creative area, that can easily translate to another.

Despite the name of the restaurant being derived from the Japanese characters contained in the words heibon (hence the ‘bon’) which means ordinary, kuu (hence the ‘qu’) which means eat, and lastly raku (hence the ‘ra’) which means enjoy; there is nothing ‘ordinary’ about BonQuLa.  For outstanding yoshoku, and I still have yet to check out the well heralded lunch items (e.g katsu sandwich), BonQuLa is an excellent location to fulfil your cravings for this often overlooked segment of modern day Japanese cuisine.

BonQuLa Fusion Restaurant & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Sai-z Japanese Restaurant – Vancouver, BC


[Update: July 2009.  After a brief concept change to a lower priced izakaya-style menu, has now closed its doors, changed ownership and renamed]

Dare to be different. Amid the hundreds of restaurants offering sushi in the greater Vancouver area, in all forms from the horrifically bad but cheap all-you-can-eat, to very good but preferably-on-expense-account options, it is clear that some have taken a step to differentiate. When it comes to their creations, some have been quite bold and have included ingredients that would make die hard traditionalists cringe and scream bloody murder. Sai-z is clearly one of them, incorporating a creative blend of traditional and non-traditional ingredients in many of their dishes. Case in point, their use of fruits such as mango and papaya in some of their sushi rolls!

Located on popular West Broadway, which is lined with numerous restaurants thus competition is fierce, Sai-z is located across the street from a boutique cinema theater. When the weather is warm, the sliding doors are opened, and there is a narrow patio that has a few tables right on the sidewalk. Stepping inside, the waiting area leads to the main floor area with table seating that has a mini grand piano off to the right. On this night, there wasn’t a live performer, but I am told that it does take place on certain nights. The crowd was quite young, mainly twenty-something groups of friends or couples on dates. I think the relaxed mood of the place probably is conducive to intimate outings and conversations, compared to say the boisterous izakaya scene downtown.

Scanning the special summer set price offering and not finding it to our interest, my dining companion and I chose from the regular menu. After placing our order for drinks, a one-spoon otoushi of a marinated mixture of tuna and green onions. Unfortunately, this was bad, quite literally – it had a terrible fishy smell to it. Not the best of starts.

Seeing the uni chawanmushi peaked my curiosity, so I had to give this a try. A large piece of uni was floating on top of this steamed Japanese egg custard, and deep below were some other seafood ingredients such as scallops, fishcake, prawns, as well as some mushrooms and thin slivers of yuzu peel. The base stock that was used was quite rich, perhaps too much for my personal liking. The addition of the uni certainly didn’t aid in lightening things up. It tasted okay, but I guess I like my chawanmushi simpler.

Another hot appetizer we had was this noodle wrapped and deep-fried shrimp served with a spicy mayo dip. The contrast between the crispy exterior and the plump, juicy shrimp inside was superb! The overall flakiness of it made it a bit messy to eat at times, as bits would fly off while biting through the crust. The dip was a mixture of shichimi and Japanese mayonnaise, adding both a creamy and spicy element to the total dish (and a mix that I’m finding appear more and more around Vancouver’s izakaya scene). This was a great pick up from the hot appetizer section.

Next up was the sushi selection. By-passing some of the unique choices, we settled on a single roll, called the Double Smoke Roll. This was comprised of a combo of unagi (smoked eel) and smoked salmon. Pieces of fake crabmeat, tempura bits and sprouts also added some more texture and flavor, with the outside of the roll dressed with a sweet teriyaki-like sauce. I thought the dual smoked flavored would be overpowering, but was pleasantly surprised that it was not. Each piece was densely packed, making it feel more filling than it already ways. A solid offering.

A platter of assorted nigiri rounded out our meal, sixteen pieces of maguro, shake, ebi, hamachi, hotate, tobiko, uni, unagi, a California roll and a dynamite roll. The size of the rice ball was “very Japanese”, by that I mean it was smallish and loosely compacted. Personally, this is what I am used to and prefer. So I was glad that it wasn’t that usually tightly bound, poorly flavored, monster-sized ball of sushi rice that you find at too many places in this town. The fish was good, each fresh and succulent, and not too big that it would take more then one mouthful.

Sai-z definitely feels and looks unlike your regular run of the mill restaurant specializing in Japanese food in Vancouver. I think it may be remnants of a previous tenant (Italian, Greek?) but the inner chamber looked very inviting with it high ceiling. There seemed to be a second deck above as I could hear some people upstairs dining as well. The open sushi bar that lines the back wall was quite long, and I could picture people wanting to sit up there and take in the show. Service was a bit lacking at times, with servers spending more time standing by the sushi bar than paying attention to diners. Our server in particular was quite anxious in clearing away our plates each time, which bothered me as it seems she was more interested in doing that than any other service task. Finally, pricing was perhaps above average, and thus might turn off some folks who are used to more quick dine-and-dash sushi joints.

I’ll certainly go back, though probably not often just given the price point. There are still a slew of menu items that I’d like to try out, so that gives me another reason to return.

Sai-z Japanese Restaurant
3116 West Broadway
Vancouver, BC
Tel: 604-732-7249
Hours: [Lunch] Fri-Sun, 12pm to 2:30pm; [Dinner] Sun to Thu, 5:30pm to 10:30pm; Fri & Sat, 5:30pm to 11:30pm

Sai Z on Urbanspoon