In Japanese, omakase means to entrust or protect. When ordering an omakase dinner, you are entrusting the chef to choose what you will eat in a succession of small plates drawn from the freshest ingredients available.
This is our first visit to Sushi Kimura Restaurant in Renfrew Heights, and the waitress is surprised that we are willing to put ourselves in the hands of chef Itsuroku Kimura so soon.
"You trusted him," she says, admiring our sense of adventure.
First course: A large sampling of small bites that include two chilled Hama Hama oysters from Washington State; an oyster, raw quail egg and sake shooter; crunchy jelly fish; pickled lotus root; steamed kabocha squash, a thumb-sized cube of gelatinous pig ear; and monkfish liver pâté.
Although Vancouver has an abundance of good sushi, good omakase is hard to come by. And it's usually very expensive. At Tojo's for example, you can expect to pay at least $100 a person for a seven- to nine-course meal (much more if sitting at the bar); at Octopus Garden, the omakase menus are $60 and $100.
Here at Sushi Kimura, omakase starts at $30 per person. For $40, we are treated to seven courses of outstanding quality. Trust him? This meal is a steal.
Second course: Five sweet, creamy lobes of fresh golden uni (sea urchin gonads).
Mr. Kimura cracks the spiny shells and presents the delicate roe with lemon wedges, sea salt and small dipping bowls of extra virgin olive oil. "Good harmony," he says. "No soy sauce."
Originally from Kyoto, Mr. Kimura spent most of his career in California, where he was the owner and head chef at four sushi restaurants in and around Los Angeles. He has also run restaurants in Mexico City and Shanghai. He moved to Vancouver after retiring because the air quality is better than in L.A.
"I fished, I played golf, I got bored," the amiable 65-year-old says of the short-lived retirement plan. He opened Sushi Kimura last May and is now back to working seven days a week in a restaurant that is packed almost every night thanks to word-of-mouth. He hopes to start cutting back soon to five days a week to regain a bit of balance. "It's a nice story for me," he says. "But I'm tired. I want to go fishing."
Third course: Kobe carpaccio
Mr. Kimura hunches over a big, boneless rib eye (it's about 1.5 kg) that has been pan seared on high heat for approximately two minutes. He slices five thin rounds of the bright-red rare meat, fans them across a plate, stretches them out with the tip of his knife and pours a peppery demi-glace over top.
"Kobe," he says.
"You mean wagyu?" I reply, referring to the less expensive crossbreeds that are more readily available in Canada.
"No, Kobe," he insists, explaining that he gets the prized Japanese beef from a friend who owns a food company in California. While not the highest grade (which is as fat as butter), the meat is meltingly tender, thickly marbled and delicious. I still have trouble believing that he's practically giving real Kobe away on a $40 menu, but I guess I'll have to trust him on this one.
Fourth course: New-style flounder sashimi
The skinny slices of flounder are cooked in the style made famous by Nobu Matsuhisa, with piping hot sesame and olive oils drizzled over top. Mr. Kimura garnishes the white flesh with shiso leaf, julienned jalapeno, yuzu juice and soy before sizzling.
As with most of his fish, this Japanese flounder was imported fresh from the famous Tsukiji market in Tokyo. Most of the sushi in Vancouver, about 90 per cent, is flash-frozen. Only the best sushi chefs use fresh fish that they brine and salt themselves. That said, no fish - neither fresh nor frozen - has been imported to Canada from Japan since the March 11 earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster.
Fifth course: Prawn yakitori (grilled on a skewer) on a brûléed bed of thick sake-miso sauce, alongside a bowl of chawan mushi, a silken steamed egg custard served in a deeply savoury dashi broth.
"What do you think of the sushi in Vancouver?" I ask Mr. Kimura. "Everyone has his own style," he shrugs. "I don't pay attention. Except in Shanghai. That was a weird city."
Mr. Kimura's style is loose and easy. He plays smooth jazz every night and has a cut-out bass in the bathroom. His knife work can be a bit ragged and his plating isn't perfect, but he's incredibly friendly and the ambiance is pleasantly chill. Don't sit at the bar if you're in a hurry to get to a movie. As the motto on the restaurant website reads, this is "sushi that swings."
Sixth course: Assorted nigiri (red tuna, tuna, salmon, hamachi, snapper)
This sushi is so moist and tender it melts on the tongue. Mr. Kimura uses A-Grade Haenuki rice, which is slightly chewy and lightly seasoned with vinegar. He packs it perfectly - not too loose, not too compressed. He molds each piece with a green dot of wasabi in the rice and a glistening brush of soy over the fish, negating the need to stir and dip. Just pop it in your mouth and enjoy.
Seventh course: Mango and green tea ice cream
Is it insensitive to eat sushi while Japan is going through such a devastating national crisis? On the contrary. No one knows yet how the earthquake and tsunami will affect food supplies, but here in Vancouver, we are already seeing signs of paranoia and irrational consumer fears about seafood radiation contamination. This is an excellent time to support the Japanese diaspora and put your faith in a chef you can trust.