A gentile walks into Maple Grill West Coast Kosher Kitchen and is surprised to find California rolls on the menu.
"Are they standard California rolls made with crab?" I ask.
"Yes," the waitress replies.
"Real crab?" I exclaim, thinking, "Wow, that's so not kosher."
"Yes," she says, without being the least bit facetious. "It's real imitation crab."
Oy vey! Guess the joke's on me.
To non-Jews, the concept of keeping kosher can be confusing in the simplest of delis. At Maple Grill - "a new kosher dining experience" where sushi, chardonnay and candlelight meet really bad matzo ball soup - the roaring success of this mediocre restaurant is as baffling as it is educational.
My overall impression would have been far less ambivalent had I not dined with a friend who believes Maple Grill is one of the best things to happen for Vancouver's kashrut community since the kashering of Coca-Cola.
"Have you been here before?" I ask, as we settle into the stylish dining room with its polished hardwood floors, orbed silver chandeliers and black brick walls.
Of course he's been, many times since the restaurant opened in February. For prominent kosher-keeping businessmen like him, Maple Grill is THE place to take a client. Or your family. Or a date. Mind you, beyond Falafel Plus and the Jewish Community Centre café, there's really nowhere else to go.
I know that, contrary to common misperception, there is no such thing as kosher-style food. Kosher is not a style of cooking; it's an intricate set of dietary rules that govern the growing or raising, processing and preparation of foods. The main tenets prohibit the consumption of pork and shellfish, uphold strict guidelines for the slaughter of animals, and forbid the eating of meat and dairy together.
Japanese food can be kosher if prepared in accordance with Jewish law, as can Santa Fe chicken ciabatta sandwiches, smoked salmon quesadillas, chicken wings and Szechuan chop suey - all of them appear on the Maple Grill menu.
But isn't this Milestones-worthy selection rather commonplace for what is ostensibly an upscale restaurant?
"Look at that table of rabbis over there," my friend says, trying to help me understand the appeal. "They look like they've died and gone to heaven. They can't get this type of food anywhere else. In New York and Toronto, maybe, but not in Vancouver."
Okay, so how about that sushi? Well, it's only available on Wednesday nights when two Japanese chefs are brought in to help slice and roll about a half dozen items for the special menu. Reservations are strongly recommended.
Salmon-skin maki ($7.50), though loosely rolled, has been nicely crisped and salted. It's served with quality soy sauce, hand-mixed wasabi paste (not the thin, squeeze-tube variety) and pale yellow slivers of ginger that haven't been artificially coloured.
Tuna nigiri ($2.25 each) is dry, lacking lustre and yellowing around the edges. This albacore has definitely seen fresher days.
There are only a few traditional Ashkenazic and Middle Eastern Jewish foods on the menu. We try two and they're the least interesting dishes of the night.
Ever hear the one about a bad matzo ball making a good paperweight? They must have been referring to the dumplings in this soup ($5.25), which are so dense they need a knife to break up. The chicken broth, while purportedly homemade, has a sodium-heavy, preservative-rich industrial flavour.
Ima's hummus ($6.50), processed to a glossy pablum, has only the faintest kick of garlic. Oh, are these pita wedges on the side? They're so hard and crunchy I thought they were the flatbread remains from Passover.
By the time our main courses arrive, the dining room is at capacity, the bar is filling up fast and I'm even more confused.
Perhaps they're all here for the 10-ounce rib-eye steak ($32), which, I must say, is an excellent piece of meat buried under a fragrant mountain of herbed mushrooms and onions sautéed in chicken stock and wine. Even though the cut is butterflied and cooked well done, it's as tender as butter. There really are many tasty things to be said for the ethical treatment of animals.
Turkey schnitzel ($22) is also nicely juiced, though the breading is coarse and slightly greasy. Garlic mashed potatoes are mealy, but I suppose there are limits to achieving fluffy spuds without dairy.
And the chocolate brownie ($6.50), served with a scoop of soy vanilla ice cream, is moist and rich.
"Are you going to damn it with faint praise?" my friend asks, looking worried.
Well, I understand that Maple Grill is filling a much-needed niche. The restaurant is packed and the customers genuinely look happy, no matter how many times they have to ask for cutlery or patiently wait to have their tables cleared. To them, it obviously doesn't matter that they're paying fairly steep prices for food that is sloppily thrown on the plate and hanging over the edges.
I understand all that. But I don't offer religious exemptions in this column. And I can't critique a modern kosher restaurant any less rigorously or objectively than I would a nouveau vegan or contemporary Chinese restaurant that is explicitly trying to raise the bar for its genre.
It's easy to please when there's no competition. Does that make Maple Grill a great restaurant? No, that makes it a great concept with lots of room for improvement.