Shikiji Japanese Noodles and Sushi – Calgary, AB

With the relatively well received post (in terms of our internal hit counter) on ramen, I thought I’d take our readers on a nostalgic jog down memory lane to the location of my first North American exposure to this Japanese noodle-in-soup dish, at a place called Shijiki.

But before going there, let’s step back a bit further, to my childhood. Ramen as I knew it then was the plastic wrapped, fried slab of noodles that came with a small packet of salty powdered soup mix, that you had to cook in hot water, adding in your choice of toppings such as cooked ham and veggies. At least that’s how it was in our house. The brand of choice was the Demai-Ichi. Shoyu (soy sauce) was the only soup flavoring I knew. I didn’t think much of it, until the one time I went to a neighbor’s house and I saw them eating instant noodles like this but without the soup, and the packet of soup mix being used as a dry dusting over top of the cooked noodles on a plate, to give it “flavor”. Suffice it to say, I was shocked. But still, I was in no position to say how great these noodles really were, even when made as per the instructions. As after all, it is “just flour and water”.

Fast forward to college. It was in the early part of winter in the years just before the global Y2K worries. The Liberals seemed invincible with Jean Chrétien as Canada’s PM, the price of regular gasoline was hovering at around 45 cents per litre, and I can remember thinking my recently acquired Pentium II-powered computer was the fastest thing I had ever seen. Oh how times have changed. And for the good… well, mostly for the good. Returning to my narrative of my fateful first experience with ramen in a proper shop. I was hanging out with some exchange student friends of mine from Japan at the university. They suggested a day trip down to Banff, that tourist hot spot better known for skiing and snowboarding in the winter. Being that none of us were into those particular winter sports, my bewildered mind posed a question…

“Why should we go down there?”
Their reply, “to eat ramen”.
“Ramen?”, I said, “they actually have that there and its not the instant kind I can make at home?”
“Yeah, its just like you can get in Japan.”

Well, that was enough for me and the four of us crammed ourselves in my two door sports car and made the drive down from Alberta’s capital city. The journey took almost five hours on not-so-great roads and we made it there just before the lunch hour. Pulling up in front of what is known as the Clock Tower Mall on Banff Avenue (the main strip that juts its way through the heart of this town), we piled out and I was led inside by my pals. Towards the back of the first floor space, was a tiny restaurant that was partitioned off by glass panels (today, it houses the Pad Thai Restaurant). Immediately inside the entrance was a small open window leading into the kitchen, with some short curtains hanging on them to prevent a clear view inside. A head popped out with a bandanna wrapped around it, and a man bellowed out “welcome” in Japanese. My friends had obviously come here before, as they immediately recognized each other. Leaving it up to them to order, they did just that and we soon squatted down as one of the open tables inside.

A short while later out came the steaming bowls of ramen. My friend had gotten me a Shio (salt) based broth, with lots of toppings. I immediately recognized the Cha-shu, but my experience at that time just associated it with Chinatown and the big slabs of barbecued pork, and I did not expect to see it as one of the toppings. I was by no means complaining though, as it was quite tasty. The noodles to me were obviously not the same instant noodles I had had all these years. I remember drinking down the entire bowl of soup while madly slurping up the noodles. I was in heaven. Knowing that we wouldn’t be making this a regular occurrence, after a few hours of checking out the town site, we came back and had another bowl before we made the long drive back. I was forever grateful to my friends for letting me know that there was something like this in Alberta, albeit not a place I could visit regularly, even with it barely costing twenty dollars to fill up my gas tank in those days.

Shikiji, had found a place in my heart.

Jumping back into Doc Brown’s DeLorean again, this time adjusting the flux capacitor and setting the date box to circa 2004. I had learned that Shikiji had moved to its current Calgary location in the early part of this decade after a landlord situation and a better economic climate in the bigger city drew the owners out from the confines of Banff. By now, Shikiji had established a name for itself predominantly within the ex-pat Japanese community and Japanese tourists in this picturesque town, but was looking for a more regular and wider customer base. The owner/chef, a stern looking but kindhearted gentleman originally from Akita prefecture in northern Japan runs the show. His son is often seen there as a server. Numerous articles adorn the wall, showing that the media has caught wind of this place amid the growing Japanese restaurant scene in this oil town.

The menu is now much more diverse, now including space for a sushi bar, and other popular cooked dishes coming out of a much bigger kitchen. I won’t comment on that here, though I’ve had many items from the menu and came away without complaint.

Instead, I want to revisit the ramen offering.

Perhaps its because I am older, have a better understanding of ramen after time spent traveling to Japan to eat the “real deal”, or my memories have a halo hanging over them, but this dish is clearly not the same as I remember it being in terms of my satisfaction. I had the Shio Ramen again, which comes with toppings such as green onions, wakame, the unorthodox Bok Choi, and slice or two of Cha-shu; price is $10.60. They also provide a small Japanese grinding bowl to break up some sesame seeds, to put into the soup as well. The noodles are a slightly thicker straight variety, with decent texture/consistency. With Shio soups, I am not as concerned with it being crinkly to pick up the soup, as its not as thick as compared to say a Tonkotsu or Miso broth. The soup is average, but nothing to write home about. There is not a great depth to the flavor profile of the liquid, and I can tell its simply made from just a basic chicken stock.

But for Alberta, having to deal with a lower skill level/understanding in making ramen soup and poor availability in getting authentic noodles, and despite being made in a Japanese-run restaurant, this is probably as good as you are going to get. Trust me, there are are much more horrible ramen impostors in Alberta – The Tokyo Noodle Shop in Edmonton comes to mind. That place should be ordered to take that off the menu!

Shikiji Japanese Noodles and Sushi
1608 Centre St. N.E.
Calgary, AB
Tel: 403-520-0093
Hours: Mon/Wed-Fri, 11:30am to 2:30pm, 5pm to 9pm; Sat, 11:30am to 3pm, 5pm to 9pm; Closed Tue & Sun

Shikiji Japanese Noodles and Sushi on Urbanspoon

West Restaurant – Vancouver, BC

West Restaurant
18 2881 Granville Street
Vancouver, BC V6H 3J4
(604) 738-8938

For every city, foodies usually have their recommended standbys. You know what i’m talking about – the restaurants they all recommend en masse. In my experience, many people make these recommendations having never patronized the restaurant. They’ve heard that the restaurant was great, so they suggest it to others. More often than not, the restaurant doesn’t deserve the reputation it has. Occasionally, a restaurant actually lives up to that reputation. Among the serious and the not so serious, West has a sterling reputation for delivering top quality food in Vancouver.

My last visit to West came post-David Hawksworth, who had been replaced by Chef Warren Geraghty. With sous-chef Stephanie Noel staying on, most people did not expect a drop off in quality. There was some trepidation, though reports were that the food was as innovative, fresh, and flavourful as always.

I had a reservation for a Friday night. Our reservation at 7:30pm  meant there was still light out, and the room was brightly lit with natural light, and very comfortable. I wish I had more interior design experience to be able to describe a room as more than “hip, casual-chic, trendy and modern”, but what can I say, I learned everything I know about design from television. I liked the room though – clean and crisp whites along with natural materials- leather and wood. It was comfortable in the sense that you did not feel out of place in jeans and a shirt. Definitely my kind of place.

In order to get the best possible breadth of “West”coast experience, we opted for the West tasting menu, which rang in at a reasonable $98. Measuring 7 courses, plus an amuse and petit fours, it seemed like excellent value for a restaurant of this quality.

However, the amuse definitely started me on the wrong foot. They brought it out, and the first thing i saw was…foam. Oh word, how i hate foam. I have nothing more to say about this.

The timing for my visit to Vancouver had to do with several factors, one of which was it was Spot Prawn season. I was looking forward to West’s take on Spot Prawn ceviche, as i feel ceviche is an excellent way to highlight the sweetness and freshness of seafood, without the overpowering “ocean” taste that many people find offputting. The dish was served with asparagus and saffron chilled tagliatelle, a potentially interesting flavour combination. Unfortunately, i was extremely disappointed with this dish. The prawns werent sweet, but milky. There was almost no acidity with the ceivche, a cardinal sin in my mind. They were completely bland. There was no hint of saffron, and the asparagus were more after thoughts than anything actually incorporated into the concept of the dish. A thorough failure.

The second course was smoked veal tongue, with pecorino and salad. I love tongue, so this was definitely a dish I was looking forward to. Impeccably presented, shaved pecorino brought an extra dimension. The texture itself was actually very different than other tongue dishes i’ve had, which was actually quite fascinating. However, the entire dish was under seasoned. Even taking bites of tongue with pecorino, there wasnt enough saltiness to draw out the flavours of the smoke and the tongue. The citrus puree, which i assume was meant to use some acidity to balance out the dish, was flat. All in all, another disappointment.

After a third dish that was disappointing (a tian of crab, couscous, and smoked tomato gazpacho), a server asked how we were enjoying things. When I expressed my disappointment, a manager was called over immediately. She asked me what issues I’d had, and I went through a (likely unnecessary, overly descriptive) rundown of my issues with each dish thus far. My dining companion, and the manager, both looked a bit shocked, but she asked if I was “in the industry”? I gave her a non-committal answer, since the question was irrelevant, and really shouldn’t have any bearing on the quality of food or service you receive. She promised to relay our feedback to the kitchen. Not surprisingly, things improved drastically from this point forwards.

The next dish was my favorite of the evening – a phenomenal piece of halibut that was perfectly cooked. Topped with clams and mussels, served with a spinach sauce on a watercress and potato salad, it was a perfect blend of fresh ocean flavour that paired well with the richness of the halibut. This dish, a regular menu item i believe, was a winner.

The last entree of the night was partridge breast with braised artichokes and rhubarb jus. Cooked a bit more than my liking, the dish was still a well-executed combination. The tartness of the rhubarb went fantastically well with the patridge. I know that rhubarb and artichokes aren’t part of a partridge’s normal diet, but i could certainly imagine them being so!

Things finished up with an average cheese course, a good dessert, and amazing petits-fours – so good, that we asked for, and received seconds. Total bill, with some wine and gratuity, was roughly $400.

I’m sure expectations played a big part in how I felt about my meal – with very high expectations, the meal definitely started as a disapointment. While it finished on a strong note, I have to say, at the price paid, I certainly did expect better. One should not walk out of a top restaurant thinking they had a “ok” experience. The concepts were all fundamentally sound, but under seasoning, or insufficient acidity are simple errors that could’ve been easily fixed by tasting what they were serving. To me, these are not errors that a top restaurant make at the top their game. Either they were having a bad night, or they have gotten a little bit sloppy based on their sterling reputation. Regardless, I expect better from a chef and a restaurant. The service, and wine program are impeccable – and I would definitely go back to order the halibut. But in terms of this experience at West, chalk it up to another fine dining experience that didn’t meet my expectations.

West Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Sushi Vancouver – Vancouver, BC

The name alone should tell you something about this place. Much like all the pizzerias (or “pizza parlors” as our friends south of the border are apt to call them) that try to outdo their rivals by putting a series of letter A’s onto the beginning of their business name in an attempt to get to the front of the line when it comes to the Yellow Pages, the generically named Sushi Vancouver is just trying to get noticed. After a pair of visits, I can confirm now that unfortunately, I think it will be for all the wrong reasons.

My latest visit was on a Sunday, typically a day when most Japanese restaurants, and a lot of others, close their doors for a day of rest. Having a craving for some sushi though, this did not deter me, and hence, my stop at Sushi Vancouver after seeing their open sign up. My first take out meal there a few months back when they first opened did not leave me with a memorable impression. I figured, it was worth giving another try to see if anything had changed, with the expectation that this is just a grab-and-dash sushi establishment.  Quite frankly, my determination to grab some sushi could have led me to just about any open door that was serving this up on this day. I know, I must learn to be more selective and know when to put a stop to my tunnel vision, as I’ve been hurt more times than I care to count.

For a multi-person sharing order, my choices were made from nigiri (hand-formed sushi) choices, two here, four there, etc. These ranged from the low end of 99 cents each for the shake (salmon), maguro (tuna) and tamago (egg) to the $1.60 for the ikura (salmon roe). By the way, the most expensive nigiri on the menu is the mirugai (geoduck clam) at $3.  In total, I think I had just over thirty individual pieces.

The restaurant itself was empty, as it was the first time I had walked inside.  Placing the order was relatively pain free as it was just giving some numbers to each piece.  Since the man behind the counter was obviously the same person who would be making it, was looking for some work to do, I figured he’s be snappy about it and get right on it.  Guess again.

From talking to his wait staff, to playing with his kid behind the bar, opening up this container and that, and searching for things in the refrigerator, I am not sure if he was truly interested in making my meal or was just treating the thing as a bothersome task.  With some loud Chinese ballad playing over the speakers, he then proceeded to start singing as if he were alone in the shower, which broke the last straw of my patience.  With his back to me the entire time, I began to really get worried about what exactly he was doing.  His arm movements suggested that he was not really smooth with creating the nigiri, each action a painfully, slow step.  The rhythmic motion of creating the shari (rice ball) and placing the cut piece of neta (topping) on top and forming the nigiri, I just couldn’t see him doing naturally.  Part of me thinks the way he has set up his counter, not allowing customers to openly see his working style, suggests that he is lacking confidence in his abilities.

After what was about a forty-five minute agonizing wait, during which time no other customers came inside, I was finally given my order to go.  The bad taste that was left in my mouth after this brutal service experience, made me wonder if I would have the appetite to eat my portion of this meal.

First glance, things did not “look” horribly bad.  Until I got to the toro (fatty tuna) pieces.  Some strange red strings were hanging from the fish slices from some of the nigiri.  It looked like thin blood veins to me.  Shocking to see this, as one piece was just covered/embedded with them.  How the so-called chef could serve these kinds of pieces to a paying customer is beyond me.  To add to my dismay, the rice was so compactly formed with each piece, that it took an extra effort to chew through.  I really dislike it when sushi’s rice is so hard that it might as well been pressed down in a work worker’s vice.  The rest of the toppings were unremarkable, just average to slightly bad.

The only saving grace was the relatively generous amounts of tobiko (flying fish roe) and ikura.

My fellow diners to whom I brought these boxes of “sushi” gave me enough dirty looks to ensure that I won’t be going back ever again.

Sushi Vancouver
3416 West Broadway
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (778) 371 1337
Hours: Mon-Sat, 11am to 10pm; Sun, 12pm to 9:30pm

Sushi Vancouver on Urbanspoon

Dunbar Pizza and Grill – Vancouver, BC

Dunbar Pizza & Grill
3348 Dunbar Street
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (604) 732-4999
Hours: Mon-Thu, 11am to 11pm; Fri-Sat, 11am to midnight; Sun, 4pm to 11pm
Delivery: Free within 7 kms on orders over $20; 7% off on pickup orders over $20

Sometimes the cultural mosaic that makes up this great nation of Canada brings with it some interesting and eye-catching combinations, especially when it pertains to food, and at times must surely be seen as blasphemy back in the native countries where the cuisine originates. Sure, there are the occasional experiments with fusion cuisine that often marries two opposing styles of cultural techniques and ingredients (East meets West, Ming Tsai-style comes to mind here) into a single restaurant entity. At other times, it is a primitive headbutt of cuisines that arises, presumably due to the hand-off of a food serving establishment to an entirely different person of another cultural background who then has the difficult task of having to maintain the original theme of the business to retain the existing client base, but who also wants to implant their own mark on their new found enterprise by injecting some of their own cooking methods and food knowledge.

I found a great example of this recently in the Dunbar neighborhood of Vancouver. A very homey, somewhat eclectic street (but no where near the level of say Vancouver’s Main Street or Commercial Drive), that flies under the radar for most of the city’s residents, is home to several restaurants with most of them being of the casual variety. With a relatively close proximity to the University of British Columbia campus, I am sure the numerous pizza, coffee and pubs that abound, make for some convenient pickings for students on the evening prowl. Just off the corner from 16th Avenue turning onto Dunbar, I immediately spotted two pizza joints. Having no idea which one was better, I simply went with the one that was easier to park nearby and I could see someone inside of. Through this unscientific decision process, Dunbar Pizza & Grill was the selection on this night.

Returning to the culinary crisscross that I was describing earlier, this place which first appeared to be specializing in only pizza, had a twist. The generic menu board posted on the wall inside clearly showed that samosas, roti, and curries were available as well. How strange I thought, until seeing the Indian proprietor behind the counter. A friendly chap, who seemed to be enjoying his television program on the nearby set, while another employee was gathering some boxes for an apparent delivery order. Small, medium, and large pizza pies could be had with any three toppings for $9.99, $11.99, and $13.99, respectively. As well, sixteen signature pizza options were listed as well.

Here’s where I thought I’d take a chance. A mix between an Italian and Indian place all in one was too much to pass up. As such, the Tandoori Chicken Special Pizza was my call; with part of me even thinking of by-passing pizza all together and going all-Indian with a Lamb Vindaloo or a Daal Amrtisari. It took maybe 15-20 minutes before it was ready to take home, and upon opening the box, I must say it didn’t look too bad. A good spread of toppings such as green peppers and onions, with pieces of the chicken peaking out from beneath the layer of cheese, and finished off with slices of fresh tomatoes.

Taking a slice out and examining the cross section, it was neither too think or too thin a base either. The edge crust was just fine as well, nice and crispy but not overly so. Taking a bite, all the flavors envisioned from the toppings were there, although the anticipated taste of the tanodoori chicken was not there. I was expecting much more stronger flavors in the chunks of meat. Could it have been a poor tandoori to begin with, or not a suitable topping for pizza and got masked by the cooking process in the oven or blanketed by the cheese too much, I am not fully sure. Lastly, I felt that the bottom base of the pizza was a bit overcooked for my liking. It had that slightly brittle consistency that is a clear sign it was in the oven for a few minutes too long.

So I’d say this particular experiment of melding two cuisines was not a rousing success. Frankly, the tandoori chicken could have just been chunks of regular chicken breast meat. For all the anticipation I had built up in my own mind as to what this match up would be like, I felt left down. It’s all my fault though. I clearly got overly excited with my imagination. Now if they had swapped out the tomato sauce for say a curry flavored paste, etc. then perhaps it would have really been something I’d never had before. I’ll try not to let my imagination get the best of me, the next time I see a culinary cultural collision such as this one at Dunbar Pizza & Grill.

Dunbar Pizza & Grill on Urbanspoon

Blink Restaurant and Bar – Calgary, AB

Blink Restaurant and Bar
111 8 Avenue SW
Calgary, AB T2P 1B4
(403) 263-5330

Restaurants don’t often get second chances. But sometimes a little luck, and the power of a strong review, can help save a restaurant doomed for failure. For Blink, they started off as a “Supper Club”. This restaurant/club combination was extremely trendy a few years ago, but never really took off here in Calgary. Generally speaking, it ended up being the worst of both worlds – a space not totally suited to being a club, and a place not really executing perfectly as a restaurant. With tepids reviews and scathing remarks about the service, it looked to be another in the long line of restaurant failures in Calgary. However, a new chef (Andrew Richardson from Araxi), a format change to strictly a restaurant, and an enRoute award as number nine top new restaurant in Canada in 2007 managed to get things back on track. From Supper Club to a focus on fresh local ingredients, Blink, perilously close to failure, managed to get back into the collective consciousness of Calgary diners.

The space was always very nice – hip, modern, yet fairly cozy. I find it doesn’t have the same noise issues that Divino has – where it is very difficult to hear someone sitting across from you. Of course, it’s never as busy as Divino either (which shares a similar layout…long and skinny), so that may have something to do with it. However, i’ve been comfortable there in a suit, and in jeans and a shirt. It’s a fairly versatile space.

One of the biggest complaints regarding Blink’s original concept was the service – and I’m pleased to announce that these issues have been fixed. Blink was initially lambasted for its poor service and terrible attention to detail, but the new chef has brought a much more professional attitude to the table. Service was efficient, friendly, and thoughtful, though a tad slow sometimes. We were, for example, discretely moved away from our table by our server after we mentioned we were a bit bothered by the lady who had bathed in here Chanel No 5 before coming to dine, with our companions at the next table none the wiser – an impressive feat. He thought we’d appreciate a “window view”…far far away from the lady in question.

Anyway, enough about my scent aversion, let’s talk food. Falling into what sadly constitutes middle of the road pricing, Blink offers some creative, high-end cuisine at much more reasonable prices than many other counterparts in town. On the given evening, I owed a friend dinner, so we splashed out a bit more than we normally would. A soup, 2 appetizers, and 2 entrees qualified as our meal. A lot of food, but an excellent way to sample a variety of things.

The soup was a seasonal soup ($9), which happened to be cream of corn (peaches and cream) with pancetta and some chive oil emulsification. The corn was sweet, and had been well strained, so you didnt end up with those annoying bits of kernel stuck between your teeth. The pancetta added the right amount of fattiness and flavour, resulting in great, balanced taste.

We ordered yellow fin tuna tartare ($13.50) as well, which was a decent sized serving of fresh tuna, and a heaping bowl of fresh fried potato chips. The tuna, while fresh, wasn’t properly balanced. Well-seasoned, it nevertheless lacked the requisite amount of acidity needed to balance out the dish. It tasted a tad too oily, especially on the chips, and failed to bring out the freshness of the fish itself.

The twice baked souffle ($12) on the other hand was fantastic, though a bit richer than my personal preference. It was an excellent dish to share though. Made of white grace cheese, it was fluffy, yet full bodied, but played well with the walnut and frisee salad that accompainied the dish. A triumph in harmony and flavour.

Our entrees followed with a reasonable pause to digest. My friend ordered the chicken, lemon and garlic roasted chicken ($28) served on cous cous, and I had one of Blink’s signature dishes – the double duck ($32) – duck confit served with the roast breast.

The chicken, which i had sampled in a previous visit, was tender, moist, and flavourful. The accompaniments were a bit light, but the size of the chicken made up for it. For a chicken dish, it was quite good. But compared to what was on the rest of the menu, i’m not sure i would order it again. It is, after all, just brined chicken.

The double duck was a bit more to my liking. The confit definitely fell apart on the plate, and the breast was done with a very crispy skin, but slightly overcooked meat underneath – it had ended up a touch dry. Which, when compared to the lusciousness of the confit, really stood out. With potatoes and cabbage, it was a much heartier serving. Good flavours, but I think i prefer the braised short rib i had the first time i was there. However, overall, a big issue remains for me – the entrees were not nearly as interesting, nor tasty, as the appetizers. The risk-taking attitude that they approach the appetizers with, suddenly disappears into the “safe and familiar” when delivering the entrees. A problem i’ve found in many fine dining establishments these days. It’s frustrating getting to choose between risotto, duck, beef, chicken, fish, and short rib all the time. That lack of innovation plays it a bit too safe for my liking.

Overall, avoiding the nitpicking, I have to admit i was surprised by Blink. Even with the format change, I didnt expect them to be able to pull it out of the fire. I honestly didnt even expect to like it. However, I feel that they’ve managed to establish a strong new presence serving good, fresh local fare at reasonable prices. It’s not my favorite restaurant in town, but i certainly would have no complaints if I found myself there again. Next to Divino, they offer a good alternative with a different take on fresh ingredients. Their appetizers are fantastic, and the space is really quite nice. They probably deserve more business then they are getting, but with the aborted start, it’s not surprising that people may be hesitant to go back. As for my issue with the mains, the menu changes seasonally, so I can understand that some dishes won’t appeal to everyone. But with a few modest changes, upping their game on the entrees, they may hit on the formula for developing a long history of prolonged success. I hope they find it.

Blink Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Chambar Belgian Restaurant – Vancouver, BC

Chambar Belgian Restaurant
562 Beatty Street
Vancouver, BC V6B 2L3
(604) 879-7119

Open 5:30pm – 12:00am

Belgium. How such a small country, with a hat tip to the French, ended up being top quality producers of some of my favorite consumables is honestly beyond me. Chocolate. Waffles. Mussels and fries (moule frite). Beer. These are not just good offerings. These fall well within the realm of comfort food for me. Of course, Belgium food is much more than frites, chocolate, and waffles. With access to fresh ingredients and the sea, and with a storied food culture, the essence of Belgian food is adaptability delivered in a clear, unpretentious style. Food for the gourmet, and the gourmand. This approach to food is at the core of the menu offered at Chambar.

Chambar is a very well-regarded restaurant in Crosstown Vancouver. Known for their particularly beautiful space, foodies have been raving about the unique combination of great affordable food, wonderful space, and excellent service. Showcasing local art, the impeccably decorated space manages to pack in a lot of seats, without feeling claustrophobic. Even with the high density of diners, Chambar manages to have great energy, while simultaneously having an intimate feel. I know I don’t comment much on decor, but i have to admit, i love what they’ve done with the place.

Let’s start with the best of the best- the beer selection is phenomenal. Exclusively Belgian, they had bottles I’ve never seen in North America before, even at the esteemed Torornado. Lambics, lagers, wheat, blondes, golds, trippels, trappiste beers – what a selection! I wish we could’ve stayed to sample them all. I do love my Belgians!

Not feeling completely hungry after a late lunch and an impromptu bubble tea visit after a hot day at Kits beach, we settled on a few beers and the Belgian classic, moule frite. Mussels are available in three flavours – coquette (white wine, bacon, spring onions), Vin Blanc (white wine, celery, leaks, and pepper), or the best sounding of the lot – Congolaise (tomato coconut cream, smoked chili and lime, cilantro). We ordered the Congolaise and the Coquette.

Surprisingly enough, I was extremely disappointed. The sauces were decent, but didnt carry enough intensity of flavour – they were definitely watered down. They needed to be reduced by about 30-40%. The frites and aioli were good, no complaints there.  The mussels however, were of a size and quality that I wouldn’t serve in my home, let alone at a highly regarded restaurant for $21 a plate. They were stringy, tough, many unopened mussels, and frankly, just not very good. If i was not feeling slightly ill from heat stroke, exacerbated by the beer, I would’ve sent the whole order back. Granted, while we were dining in what many traditionally consider to be “shoulder season” for mussels, i’ve found that with aquaculture and trans-pacific shipping, there really is no season when you cannot get great mussels. Every month is a good month for moule frites.

Throughout, the service was fantastic. The whole experience wasn’t helped by my heat stroke, as i was slow to order, and definitely a little pokey, but the server was patient, and attentive, even with a large section and the never ending requests for water. On service and atmosphere alone, I would go back to soak it all in.

In discussing and reading more on Chambar, I get the impression that the moule frites are not considered to be big hits with many Vancouver diners. Some camps believe Chambar falls into the “appetizers, beer, and atmosphere” kind of experience. Others are very effusive in their praise for the entrees. But if a chef who trained in a 3 star michelin restaurant is turning out exceptional food, why can he not deliver something as simple as mussels? To be fair, yes, it was a Friday, and they were *extremely* busy. It wouldn’t surprise me if they had gotten a rush on mussels, and were doing what they could to keep up. But for a signature dish, I was expecting a lot more care and attention. After all, as every home cook can attest to, good mussels are not tough to make at home. I’ll reserve judgment and give them a pass for now on the strength of service, beverages, and atmosphere alone, which truly were memorable in a year of outstanding dining experiences. But I hope the food really is better than the moule frites i tried, because if not, that would really be a grand disappointment.

Chambar on Urbanspoon

Tenhachi Japanese Restaurant – Vancouver, BC

Tenhachi Japanese Restaurant
1125 West 12th Ave. (1st floor of the Shaughnessy Village Hotel)
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (604) 742-0234
Hours: Tue-Sun (closed Sun); Morning, 7am to 11:45am; Dinner, 5pm to 9:30pm

Tenhachi Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

True Japanese cuisine of the home-style variety in its purest form.  That is what Tenhachi places its focus on throughout the Japanese side of their menu (being located in the lobby of a hotel, some Western dishes are made available too), in clear contrast to the numerous restaurants serving up popular North American-Japanese staples such as chicken teriyaki and the like.  In addition to further differentiate themselves from the crowd of Japanese restaurants in town, Tenhachi emphasizes natural and organic ingredients, made clear through their operating motto of “Karada ni ii tabemono” (Food that’s good for the body).

Since opening their doors back on June 1st, 2007, Tenhachi has slowly built a loyal following, especially among the ex-pat Japanese community living in the city.  By offering an authentic taste of home, it is a welcomed reprieve for those living abroad by allowing them to get genuine meals to cure those cases of homesickness that arise.  And for local Vancouverites, Tenhachi offers a glimpse into another realm of home cooking, Japanese style.

The list of “higawari” (daily changing) and regular menu items presents a refreshing set of options for the knowing and/or adventurous crowd, of Japanese dishes not commonly seen in North American-based Japanese restaurants.  This is especially true for the fish dishes.  Tenhachi proudly proclaims that they get direct-from-Japan fresh fish delivered by air freight to their kitchen twice a week.  You can even ask them to order specific fish should they not have it on the menu, they will do their best to see if their suppliers in Japan can provide it.  For local fish, wild sockeye salmon tops the available choices.

The importance of quality ingredients doesn’t stop there.  The rice they use at Tenhachi is also specifically chosen.  The brand, Tamaki Gold, is a variety of the Koshihikari grain, and is considered the best available quality among those grown in North America.  They use this in all of their teishoku (set meals) and okwarai (refills) are free!  The miso used in their cooking, notably the miso shiru (soup), is fully organic.  For their salads, this trend continues with the use of only organically-grown local vegetables.  Lastly, the cha (green tea) is also purely natural, a top grade variety from Shizuoka prefecture in Japan (this region is well known for their high quality tea growers).

The teishoku options include popular choices such as braised fish with options for this including the popular Miso Saba (miso flavored Mackerel), and the more exotic such as Hirame (Flat Fish/Sole), Karei (Turbot), Itoyori (Golden Threadfin Bream), Tachiuo (Scabbard Fish), and Kawahagi (Thread-sail Filefish) were the special ones flown in from Japan and available on the menu this day.  Yaki Sakana (grilled fish) with choices such as Mackerel Pike, Mackerel, Salmon, Katsuo (Skipjack Tuna), Kanpachi (Amberjack/Yellowtail), etc were available, and some of these could also be prepared as braised.  Other dishes such as the Hire Katsu (deep fried pork cutlet), Buta Shogayaki (grilled ginger-flavored pork), Aji Fry (Fried Horse Mackerel), etc. were also noted.

Including a bowl of steamed rice, miso soup, and two kobachi (side dishes) and one tsukemono (pickled dish) and with prices hovering around $13-$15 for most of these teishoku choices, it makes for a very reasonable, healthy and nutritionally well-balanced meal.

I wanted to introduce Tenhachi to my dining companion on this evening (a recent new transplant to Vancouver, and someone who can appreciate solid Japanese food) to give him a chance to see a relatively unknown but distinctive restaurant as he gets to know the city’s dining scene.  We opened our meal with a sampling from the appetizer section, a Matsutake (Pine Mushroom) Tempura.  A good six, seven pieces arrived in the basket, with me noticing how tender and meaty the matsutake were, and my dinner partner noting the strong pine scents coming from each bite.  A superb tempura, not at all overly battery, and cooked at just the right temperature of oil to make it neither too soggy or too crispy on the outside.  I would recommend this dish to anyone who enjoys tempura, and is seeking a change from the usual fare of shrimp, carrots, broccoli, etc, that you often find in tempura combinations.

The teishoku dishes beckoned us, and seeking some rarer fish options from the special menu, I went with the Karei braised in a sweet soy-based sauce, with my friend choosing the salt grilled Kawahagi.  I only had a small taste of the latter, but came away surprised at how flavorful the simple looking whitefish was.  My dining companion remarked that he was quite satisfied with his meal, going to show you that taking a chance on an ingredient you’ve never heard of does work out from time to time.

If you’ve ever seen either of these species of fish, you know they are not physically attractive.  With their flat structures and buggy eyes, they don’t look at overly appetizing.  Thankfully, once fileted and prepared in the kitchen, the piece of fish becomes a delicious central part of a teishoku.  My braised Karei was cooked in just the right balance of the traditional Japanese trio of soy sauce, sake and mirin.  Often, the latter sweet ingredient is used in too high a portion and it becomes almost dessert-like in sweetness when done poorly, and thankfully Tenhachi was not victim to making this sugary-sweet.  The meat was flaky but not dried out since it had been braised, and fell off easily from the bone contained within.  Karei has relatively larger and fewer bones in its structure, so it certainly makes for easier pickings.  I know many a fish lover dislike eating cooked fish for the painstaking need to remove all the delicate and difficult to see bones in some fish, so the Karei makes for a welcome option for those people.

West 12th Avenue is normally a busy commuter road in Vancouver, but after 6pm parking right out front of the building is free.  The restaurant is not easy to spot while passing in front.  Don’t expect much from the decor, as I am assuming its the remnants of the previous hotel restaurant, but don’t let that disappoint you, as the food will more than make up for it.  And if you are up to checking out a Japanese-style breakfast, you can enjoy those from as early as 7am.  Lastly, an interesting bit of information.  Tenhachi offers a unique 10% discount.  This can be had only if you mention upon paying your bill, the secret phrase and designated number, that changes every two weeks, and is available via a certain source.  I’ll leave the rest to your investigative skills…

Tenhachi Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon