Over the past year, I’d seen online postings announcing openings for staff at this restaurant last fall and also this spring, so I was aware that something was in the works for a while, but never quite sure when the doors would actually open. Kakurebou Japanese Dining is another addition to the increasingly crowded izakaya scene on Robson Street, and opened at the end of June. Two months have passed which I thought was ample time to allow them to work out any growing pains with the menu and service, and thus made my first visit only recently. Incidentally, Kakurenbo means Hide-and-Seek in Japanese, though the characters they use on their signage is not the same as for this children’s game.
The Japanese owners are reputed to have brought over seven hundred year old wooden pillars and beams, used in traditional Japanese homes and buildings, as well as a partial Japanese-style roof structure made up of interlocking clay-plate shingles (that are often seen on rooftops of temples in Japan) to create the overall aesthetic. It is certainly a visually appealing design for an izakaya, I’ve probably seen a few like it in Tokyo, that also used ancient wood within modern buildings to emphasize traditional “Japanese-ness”. The main entrance way sits next to a counter bar on the right, which apparently is used as a waiting area as well.
From there, customers file past the open kitchen on the left before reaching the open seating area filled with dark brown wooden table seating It was a conservative use of the limited physical space as the designer did not feel the need to make it feel incredibly cramped amd fill in as many seats (max. 70) as possible, compared to other izakaya in the area such as Guu (which is a more casual izakaya setting). As such, this place probably will appeal to a maturer crowd, is more date friendly, and a place where conversations don’t have to be held at a near-yell. The main back wall was turned into a piece of art, made of a layer of concrete into which a willow tree was engraved, as well as a section that had the front panels of a traditional lacquered Japanese cabinet.
Knowing our stop here was more exploratory in nature, my table of friends ordered some drinks to start off, with the choices being draft beer (Saporro, $6), some freshly squeezed fruit-based cocktails ($6.50), Shotsu-based cocktail ($7) and Umeshu ($4.50 for 1 ounce). I checked out the Nihonshu/Shochu list, there was probably about ten choices, including a good, easy-to-drink selection in the Kubota Senju (from Niigata, rice, dry). Also noteworthy was one of my personal Shochu favorites, with a wickedly fun to pronounce name, Tantakatan, which is made from Shiso leaves, and has a refreshing, light taste profile.
From the special menu, we chose the Salmon & Avocado Mille Feuille ($6.80). Cubes of lightly seared salmon were marinated in a mayonnaise sauce along with avocado and stacked in layers between some rectangular chips to re-create the image of a Mille Feuille puff pastry, and garnished with some carrots. One of my friends noted that there was a fishy scent to the salmon, suggesting it was bad, and I did pick up on this as well. Not a good start to our sampling trial.
The regular menu booklet was nicely laid out, with visual images of each dish beside a description of the dish. From this, we chose the Toro Katsu ($10.80), that came with a side salad of greens, some deep fried potato chips, and a soy dipping sauce. The tuna had an outer crust with a thin layer of breading that had mixed in with it some ground up leaves or herbs giving it a slight scent. This dish received some good praise from our table, but I found it nothing spectacular.
Lastly, we ordered a five-piece skewer set of Chicken Tsukune ($13). The volume here was pretty good, as once each meat-on-a-stick was cut up into bite size pieces, there was more than enough for the four of us. Each one had a different flavor component: plain, a spicy ketchup, a yuzu mustard, shichimi togarashi (seven flavor chili pepper), and teriyaki. While the condiment on each created a different flavor combination, the chicken itself was identical on each stick. The meat was tasty however, nicely seasoned with a crunchy exterior. For someone who loves variety, the same-ness of the meat itself perhaps got tiring even after a sample of each of the five flavorings – a mixed yakitori set would be trumped this easily. But overall, still a tasty dish.
As one would expect, the prices probably reflect the investment made to design the room. In general, most customers will probably come away thinking that the “bang for the buck” is lacking. Portion sizes are more controlled, drinks are priced a rank higher, etc. It has always been my feeling that prices charged in Japanese izakaya here in Vancouver are high, relative to the same in Japan. I know that probably sounds surprising, but my friends from Japan also always make that comment, and before heading to any izakaya in town, a meal at home or at a less expensive and more filling place is a prerequisite before going to one later for the main purpose of drinking. I think its more of a psychological thing or perhaps I just reserve my izakaya experiences for when I travel to Japan, not really sure. Lastly, the mindset of the drinking side of going to an izakaya being the priority, rather than the eating aspect, comes into play. Just as they say in western cultures that wine is meant to complement the food, in Japan, food is meant to complement the sake (Nihonshu). In this respect, I think Kakurenbou still has some tweaking to do, to match up to what appears to be a limited but decent Nihonshu/Shochu list.