Omakase at Kimura – Vancouver, BC


Kimura
3883 Rupert Street
Vancouver, BC
(604) 569-2198

[Original (Oct 2010) post here]

Itsuroku Kimura, the itamae at his eponymous sushi restaurant Kimura, is a bit of a workaholic. After selling his previous restaurant in Santa Monica (one of a number he has owned in his long career), he moved up to Vancouver to retire.

“But I was bored of playing golf all day, so I opened this restaurant,” he told me on my first ever visit there a couple of weeks after he opened. Jazz – another of his passions – is the theme here at the restaurant. He plays it over the sound system, and his website urges you to “listen to our Sushi that Swings.”

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Lime Japanese Cuisine – Vancouver, BC


[HAS CLOSED SINCE THIS POST WAS PUBLISHED]

Lime Japanese Cuisine
1130 Commercial Dr
Vancouver, BC
(604) 215-1130

Omakase dining.  A topic well covered here several times by our writers already.  Please see Nobu (Las Vegas), Blowfish (Calgary), and Urasawa (Los Angeles).

The experience for me in leaving an often highly anticipated and quality meal in the hands of the chef, is one that I truly enjoy.  Of course, this all depends on the establishment, the existing relationship with the person behind the counter and/or kitchen, and more often than not, my budget.

For this particular meal at Lime, I was going in quite unfamiliar on the first two counts, and on the third issue, I was hesitant to go too high out of fear that my dining experience would turn out less than I had hoped for.  For me to completely release the wallet, it would have to come with some mighty strong recommendations and proven reputation.  On this night, I did not have this “security’ when I stepped through the entrance door…

With a completely empty back-of-the-room bar counter, a seat up front and personal with the cooking crew was thus easy to request and receive.  In the front half of the space, tables of pairs and groups were busy eating away, and already the noise level in the place was quite high.  It definitely had a unique vibe, one that I’d been warned of by others who remarked to me they once had live music and other acts to entertain diners.

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Nobu – Las Vegas, NV


Nobu –  Las Vegas
4455 Paradise Road
Las Vegas, NV 89169
Tel: 702.693.5090

Nobu, a Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurant chain following in the footsteps of the original ‘Matsuhisa’.  This chain – was created by Nobu Matsuhisa and Robert deNiro.  This high-end chain of restaurants has a presence in cities across the globe.

My first ever visit to Las Vegas was work related – to attend one of their massive conventions.  Lucky for me, my boss (at the time) shared a love for Japanese food, which resulted in my required attendance for dinner at Nobu.  Located inside the Hard Rock Casino & Hotel, Nobu is tucked away just off the main floor casino.  I didn’t have much time to peruse the menu – as we had decided prior to arriving that we would be having the ‘omakase’ (Chef’s choice) dinner.

They offer two different versions of ‘omakase’.  The first ~$100 included a selection of regular menu items, filtered by preferences and general likes/dislikes as questioned by the server.   The second version ~$150 included some more exotic items, and higher quality ingredients.  This posting covers two separate dining experiences about a year apart – covering both.

BASIC OMAKASE:

After enjoying a round of cocktails to get the evening started, the fun began:

The first dish to arrive was a bluefin toro tartar with black caviar.  Chopped toro sashimi, formed in a circle mold, sitting in a sauce of soy, wasabi, garlic and onion.  This was by far – my absolute favorite!  (My dining companion had issues with caviar, which they gladly accommodated.)

Bluefin toro tartare with (and without) caviar

Bluefin toro tartare with (and without) caviar

Second to arrive was kampachi sashimi, each slice topped with thin slices of jalapeno pepper.  I’ve had this (since) prepared both as-described, and with the ‘new-style sashimi’ twist – where the sashimi is drizzled with smoking-hot oil.  In both cases – the cool buttery kampachi and kick from the jalapeno, match spot-on.

Kampachi sashimi with Jalapeno

Kampachi sashimi with Jalapeno

Third dish, was a seared tuna salad.  Specifically – I believe this was seared ahi-tuna, with two small pieces of maki (snow crab wrapped with daikon), dressed with a ponzu & daikon dressing.  Unanimous decision –  this was superb.

Seared tuna salad

Seared tuna salad

Fourth, was announced as Nobu’s signature dish – black cod in miso.  Baked black cod in a sweet miso sauce, garnished with a fried shiso leaf, and umeboshi.  My dining companion selected this as their favorite at the end of the evening.

Black Cod with Miso

Black Cod with Miso

Fifth to arrive was the rock shrimp tempura with creamy spicy sauce.  The sauce is a spicy mayo, where the spice heat-level is quite low.  Of all of the dishes – this was the least interesting.  Still very addictive, but it seemed a little too common for this setting.

Rock Shrimp in creamy-spicy sauce

Rock Shrimp in creamy-spicy sauce

Next a plate of Nigiri Sushi arrived – with a basic selection of items.  Well made, and presented – as expected.

Nigiri Sushi

Nigiri Sushi

Lastly – a small bento box arrived containing the dessert course.  Removing the lid, uncovered a flourless chocolate cake, green tea ice cream, and a white chocolate sauce.  The photographed dish was the special birthday presentation they provided – containing the same items – but with a nice birthday flair.

Flourless chocolate cake with green tea ice cream

Flourless chocolate cake with green tea ice cream

Overall – this dining experience does sit as one of the more memorable.   Each dish was very well done, tasted great, and all parties enjoyed every single dish!

SPECIAL OMAKASE:

Again, starting the meal with a round of cocktails, we eagerly awaited the food tour to begin:

Trio of Ceviches:  An oyster shooter (fresh oyster with a citrus sauce and an egg yolk), Lobster Ceviche & Caviar:  (not my favorite – it seemed as though they forgot to add a sauce), and bluefin toro tartar with caviar (similar to the basic omakase – one of my favorites)!

Trio of Ceviches

Trio of Ceviches

Next was a kampachi sashimi, dressed with diced shallots, grated daikon and yuzu.

Kampachi Sashimi

Kampachi Sashimi

Another sashimi dish arrived next, containing seared salmon with micro greens, dill, and a light miso dressing.

Seared Salmon

Seared Salmon

Then came the sharkfin.   I don’t have a photo of this dish, but probably for the best as I’m sure this may trigger some comments that eating this promotes cruelty to sharks.  It was prepared in such a way that it looked like a semi-opaque, gelatinous noodle, served in a shallow dish coated with a similar looking sauce.  No real discernable flavor – just a unique texture.   Not something I’d ever intentionally order or crave to eat.

Next, we started moving to some more substantial eats.  Lobster, seared fois-gras, shiitake mushrooms, and white asparagus puree.  Superb!

Lobster, Fois-gras, shiitake, and white asparagus puree

Lobster, Fois-gras, shiitake, and white asparagus puree

Then came the wagyu beef, grilled asparagus and ponzu.  Believe it or not – I was on the fence with this dish.  Was it good –  definitely yes.   Does wagyu beef taste better than all other beef – this is where I have trouble answering yes…      However, the tender, fatty beef and ponzu sauce – was an absolute perfect match.

Wagyu Beef

Wagyu Beef

Next, we were served a small bowl of asari miso (soup with baby clams), and an offering of nigiri sushi.  Compare this selection against the basic omakase, and it’s clear how they step-up to a completely different league – amaebi, escolar, giant clam, kampachi, o-toro (amazing).

Nigiri Sushi

Nigiri Sushi

Finally – the dessert course.  A nice (not too sweet) selection of biscotti, and caramel flavored quenelles of what I thought was marscarpone.

Biscotti & caramel quenelles

Biscotti & caramel quenelles

Overall – the special omakase seemed as though it was a parade of expensive ingredients, for the sake of nothing more than to try and use them…  If I’m faced with the decision between the two options again – I am almost certain I would choose the basic omakase, as there wasn’t a single item that I didn’t like.

Las Vegas is now full of celebrity-chef endorsed restaurants – but if you win a few on the casino floor and have a couple hours to enjoy a nice meal – I’d suggest giving Nobu’s omakase a toss of the dice.

Nobu (Hard Rock) on Urbanspoon

Blowfish Sushi Lounge – Calgary, AB


Blowfish Sushi Lounge
100-625 11 Avenue SW
Calgary, AB T2R 0E1
(403) 237-8588

Omakase: from the verb “makasu” which means to trust. What it means in restaurant terms is to place your trust in the chef. To serve you his best. To interpret your tastes. To create an outstanding, unique dining experience.

Lounge: “a barroom in a hotel or restaurant where cocktails are served”

Two near diametrically opposite dining concepts. What do they have in common? Blowfish Sushi Lounge.

When i’m considering places to eat sushi, I have to admit, a lounge is the last place that usually comes to mind. While i appreciate a premium drink as much as the next person, I prefer my sushi experience to be…. unadulterated. Pure. The flavours of Japanese food, and fish specifically are so fresh, I like to focus on the flavours of what i’m eating, than to have my experience, and my dollars, diluted by cocktails.

So the fact that Blowfish Sushi Lounge is my favorite place for sushi in town, and that I strictly order omakase from chef Tomo Mitsuno, is a bit of surprise to myself. I won’t hold it against you if you’re surprised as well.

Blowfish Sushi Lounge is a bit of an ill-conceived concept. High-end sushi, paired with high-end lounge. It’s unfortunate really, as the two don’t seem to mix well, and the prominent bar and fancy lounge like atmosphere hide some of the best food in Calgary. Don’t get me wrong, their cocktails are innovative and excellent – but the two just don’t seem to be a natural fit in the same space.

The menu at Blowfish is typically a bit of a fusion-take on classic sushi. Nigiri is served in pairs – one piece, served in the classic form for nigiri, albeit with a bit too much rice, and the other is a modern interpretation. Most often, the modern interpretation is specially seasoned and then seared with a blowtorch. Both forms are surprisingly good. The change in texture and flavour that the quick, high heat imparts is surprising. It brings a whole new elements to the classic nigiri. Along with the requisite “creative rolls” that the Calgary market loves so much, the menu is rounded out with a smattering of tempura, sashimi, maki, and other cooked dishes.

The reason i order omakase at Blowfish, instead of off the regular menu, is for several reasons. First off, im definitely more of a traditionalist when it comes to Japanese food. I’m definitely not a fan of the fusion rolls, prefering clean, fresh flavours. Also, typically, omakase utilizes the freshest of ingredients that the chef has on hand. Because i have had some serious quality issues with many of the popular sushi establishments in town (namely Globefish and Uptown), i prefer to trust the chef to provide me with his freshest ingredients available. I’ve had fresh Uni, some amazing chu-toro from a fresh Maguro, some nice kanpachi, and other ingredients that don’t always appear on the menu. Secondly, i get to experience some of the creativity of the chef, which is not always clearly expressed in a set menu. Chef Tomo Mitsuno is a classically well-trained Japanese chef, who has experience in a multitude of disciplines, not just sushi. In his typical omakase offering, he utilizes a combination of skills to create an enticing, unique dining experience.

Of course, the serious draw back to omakase is cost. Costing anywhere from $40 and up (i topped out at $100 in one serious glutton session), omakase is not for the budgetary faint at heart. You can definitely eat at Blowfish for less, in fact, their prices, which started off expensive, are now quite comparable to the other higher end sushi restaurants in town. My opinion though, is if you want to enjoy fresh fish, then it’s worth splurging on the freshest fish in Calgary. And Blowfish definitely has that.

In terms of what to expect, I can’t really tell you much. Each omakase experience is tailored to the individual. Knowing that my preferences are in fresher, lighter foods (other than the occasional Japanese Izakaya dish that i crave), I generally get lighter, fresher foods. For example, one meal started with a crab meat salad served on greens, with fresh fruit, citrus, and a uzu-sesame dressing with balsamic vinegar. A great way to start a meal.

The highlight of all meals at Blowfish is the nigiri. From top to bottom, wild salmon, hamachi, maguro, butterfish (escolar), and a seared farmed salmon. The fish is fresh, firm, and tasty. Each piece is topped with a complimentary condiment – many times, this is far superior to the straight up soy and wasabi condiment. My only complaint is sometimes the pieces are a touch big, and to accommodate the bigger pieces, the rice is often too large a serve. This isnt always an issue, but it can be.

Dish after dish of sushi applies for me. Tobiko, kani, seared beef, chu-toro, and ebi.

Sometimes, i get a small smattering of rolls. In this case, beef, scallop, kimchi, and prawn are the principle ingredients. He usually serves this to me after my 15th piece of nigiri, as he wants to fill me up, rather than have a sushi-gorging monster sitting in his restaurant all evening.

I’ve experienced a near infinite variety of other dishes – in fact, i’ve never had the same experience there twice. It’s been different every time. I wish i had the time and space to report on all of them, but you’ll just have to go and experience it for yourself.

Blowfish Sushi Lounge is a hard place for me to review. I find it difficult because the inherent differences between omakase and ordering ala carte can create two totally different dining experiences. I have ordered off their menu before, and it was decent, but no where near the same kind of experiences i’ve had ordering omakase. The creativity, and the freshness are what make what would otherwise be a good dining experience a great one. Chef Tomo has a good understanding of my likes and dislikes, and this helps tremendously as well. However, i have taken many friends there, and they have had amazing experiences as well. A lot of it just requires a healthy sense of adventure, and taking some responsibility for communicating your likes and dislikes.

At the end of the day, Blowfish Sushi Lounge, along with Sushi Bar Zipang and Wa’s are the only places in town im happy to eat sashimi/nigiri at. That says a lot. If you want a great dining experience, give the omakase a try. If you’re in the mood for fresh fish (and cocktails!), then I can heartily recommend Blowfish. If cheap, affordable sushi is what you’re in the mood for, there are many other options in town for that.

Blowfish Sushi Lounge on Urbanspoon

Urasawa – Los Angeles, CA


Urasawa
218 N Rodeo Drive
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
(310) 247-8939

Urasawa on Urbanspoon

There are a multitude of reviews on Urasawa all over the Internet, and even more great photo streams minutely detailing each and every course. Instead of a full review, replicating what others have already done a fantastic job of, I wish to take a different approach. While i will discuss my experience there, I want to discuss it within the context of discussing the power of food, and how a single meal can shift your entire paradigm. Awaken the spirit. Sometimes, a dining experience is so pure, and so perfect, it transcends sustenance. It transcends art. It becomes a defining moment in your life.

First, some quick background. Urasawa is the restaurant that was formerly Ginza Sushi-ko, the Beverly Hills restaurant that Masa Takayama cuts his teeth on. Lured away by Thomas Keller to join him in NYC in 2003, Masa Takayama packed up his knives and left. His apprentice, Hiroyuki Urasawa, took over. Other than a slight change in approach, everything else stayed the same. The space, the price, and the quality. While many people were concerned about whether the apprentice could step into his master’s shoes, in short order, he proved he was more than capable of providing the same kind of transcendent experience.

Hiroyuki Urasawa is a chef classically trained in Kaiseki, and he has brought this influence to his restaurant. While both men serve an Omakase meal, Ginza Sushi-ko was a traditional Sushi-ko, while Urasawa serves part Kaiseki, part sushi. A meal at Urasawa will consist of around 30 courses. Some cooked dishes, and a lot of nigiri. Show up hungry, as the three hour extravaganza has defeated many lesser appetites!

So i first went to Urasawa in February, 2007. A significant, life-altering event had recently occurred, and it had managed to permeate its way into the rest of my life. I found no solace in work, friendships, or food. This was quite the departure for me, as my passion for food has been one constant through my entire life. However, over the previous 6 months, i had been growing increasingly discontent with the food i had been eating. No matter where you went, it was the same restaurants serving the same food – or trying to. Sous-vide this. Braised shortrib of some animal. Foam this. With varying degrees of success. There was no originality. Creativity. No one was doing anything inventive – nothing inventive in terms of a fresh approach to food anyways. Chefs would play with their food. But i wasnt interested in foams, gelees, or other food comme science project concepts they were developing. I recognized the importance of their work. I just didn’t want to eat it on a daily basis.

My brother and I had been talking Urasawa for a while. I finally decided to pull the trigger. I called him up, pushing the Urasawa agenda.

“LA, it’s not that far”. “$400 bucks isn’t that much for a meal”. “The experience of a lifetime!”

I’ll be honest. I wanted to get away. And do something fiscally irresponsible. It was the safest form of self-destruction i could manage. My brother, feeling sympathetic, agreed to tag along for the ride. A much greater pragmatist than I am, he did check with me to make sure i knew what i was doing. I didn’t really know, but i wouldn’t let on. I’m stubborn that way.

I call to try and make a last minute reservation. Surprisingly enough, Hiro-san picks up the phone. “No reservations for the day you are requesting… maybe a different day?”. I mention i am flying down to LA specifically to eat at his restaurant, and those two days were the only ones available. He seems surprised, but still cannot do anything for me. I hang up, disappointed. My brother consoles me – many other places to eat after all! I think he’s secretly relieved at not having to fork over the cash.

The next day, I get a call back from Hiro-san. Apparently, they’ve had a cancellation, and he remembers my desperate plea. I hadn’t left my number with him, because he said there was no chance we could squeeze in on short notice. Yet he called me back anyway. He can squeeze us in. Late seating. Non refundable deposit required. We’re in!

On the day of, my brother and I show up at the appointed time. The entrance is discrete, and provides little foresight into the experience that lies behind the Urasawa curtain. We are greeted by name as we enter, and taken to our seats immediately.

My brother had brought a couple of excellent bottles of wine with him, and they were taken and put on ice. We were brought some nihonshu menus, and they looked too good to turn down as well. We ordered a small bottle. Service was impeccable all evening. Quick, quiet, efficient.

When everything was ready to go, we were slowly served our dishes, one at a time. Hiro-san was serene. Friendly. Very accommodating. He moved like a dancer, quietly, and efficiently, prepping the meals for all the diners. A few words of instruction. A quick description. Back to his knife. Something about his presence, and demeanor, struck me as different. He was not a sushi nazi (Sushi Nozawa), nor was he insincerely humble. He loved what he did, and it showed.

Later that weekend, he confided to me that while he is doing ok, he is not really in a position to take a vacation. While he charges a lot, his overhead is tremendously high as well. A prolonged shutdown would require him to close the restaurant. He loves what he does – he lives to prepare food. And he cooks food the way he wants to, and that is his reward in life. This is the kind of man I want to feed me. He’s not in it for the glory. Nor for the money. But for the love of it. “No time for relationships” he laughs. “I work out to ensure i can deliver a quality meal day in and day out, and i cook”.  Single-minded dedication.

The dishes come out at the same stately pace. Long enough to appreciate. Not long enough to get bored of waiting for the next dish. Agedashi Tofu. Uni. Shirako. Gold leaf. Foie gras. Lobster. Beef. Toro. Fish of all kinds. Shellfish. Ingredients of the most amazing kind and quality. All delivered with a clear purpose and flavour. “Do you have kanpachi?” he is asked? “No. Not the best season for it. Best in summer.” He serves what is best, when it is best. A very Japanese approach.

Dish by dish, I am blown away by the simplicity, yet sheer power of each flavour. Texture, flavour, size, all perfectly balanced. Everything is taken into account. And with each subsequent moan of pleasure, each bite exploding with pure flavour, I feel myself, awakening. This is how food is supposed to be. It’s so simple really. Just like life. Why must people make it so complicated?

By the end of the meal, I’m a little more than tipsy. Partly on the wine, but mostly on the experience. I was shown a new way of understanding food. Simple was better. A clear purpose. Great, quality ingredients shouldn’t be manipulated into something we didn’t recognize, but allowed to speak for themselves. There was an entire world out there of places that were trying to reach for this ideal. The small, simple dishes. This was what I had been looking for, and didn’t even know it. I loved food again. And i was ready to attack this new challenge with vigor. A whole new way of looking at the food i ate. And a whole new way of appreciating it.

My brother gets into an argument with Hiro-san over the best Dim-sum in LA. We’re invited to Dim-sum on Sunday so Hiro can prove his point. He’s right, of course. My brother grudgingly agrees. “This is better.” Of course, does dining with an all-star chef mean we get better food? Perhaps.

We part on polite terms. I don’t believe he knows the impact he has had on me – i probably don’t understand it at the time either – but it doesn’t matter. He left an indelible mark on me. Long after my memory fades, and my memories of each dish are ancient history, I will always remember one thing: his passion. Through his food, he was able to rekindle my passion, and adjust the way I looked at dining. My curiosity and adventurous spirit was back. I was ready to tackle food again, with a born-again perspective on taste.

I have dined at Masa, Tsukiji, and a multitude of restaurants all over Japan, and i have to tell you, Urasawa is better. Sure, it was a vulnerable time for me. And yes, clearly, there must be places that do it better with fresher ingredients in Japan. But the entire situation was a perfect storm. I have had no better restaurant experience in my life, and if you can feel half of the elation i feel regarding this meal, then i know you will have had the most amazing experience. As far as i’m concerned, $400 is a small price to pay for the experience of a lifetime. There is no price you can put on the value of happiness, and a renewal of something you are passionate about.  And if I had to do it all over again, at twice the price, I still would.

Addendum:

Dinner at Urasawa is not dinner. It’s an experience. I have no wish to go into a blow by blow on each dish, but I don’t think it’d be fair not to mention a few dishes. I’ll leave you with some of my favorites.

The traditional kaiseki sashimi course, served on an ice block. The most perfectly marbled o-toro on the left, the best Tai i’ve ever had in the centre, and amazing ama-ebi on the right.

Shabu Shabu with freshly killed lobster, Wagyu Beef (i believe this beef was from Yonezawa, from the Yamagato prefecture), and Foie Gras.

The true test of a Japanese Sushi Chef’s skills lie in the Tamago. And surprise, surprise, Hiro-san passes.

His cooler of “goodies” – purchased fresh from the market every morning that he opens. Urasawa opens by reservation only, so there is never anything leftover from day to day. He orders what he needs, nothing more.

Im hungry. Off to eat!

Urasawa on Urbanspoon