Eid-ul-Adha has just wrapped up, Hanukkah is about to begin and Christmas is right around the corner. It's time to give thanks to the divine culinary diversity with which Vancouver is blessed.
First, a confession: In my hunger to feast at as many different tables as possible this year, I haven't been as vigilant as I should in following the one style of dining at which our city truly excels - the Japanese izakaya.
When foodies from elsewhere descend on our shores, they are often flabbergasted, delightfully so, by the seemingly avant-garde, tapas-sized dishes served at these boisterous gastro-pubs.
But after you've lived here long enough, these ubiquitous eateries tend to fade into the woodwork. So when Irashai Grill opened in Coal Harbour last winter, I pretty much ignored it. I wasn't even lured in this summer, when the restaurant did a publicity push, touting itself as a modern, high-end izakaya that was different from all the rest by virtue of its "inventive dining options" inspired by classic French and Italian techniques.
As regular readers will know, I'm highly suspicious of fusion cuisine.
And this grab-bag description hardly inspired much confidence, especially when I finally walked in one Friday night and found myself in the middle of what looked like a sports bar.
The room certainly is modern, what with its soaring ceilings, neon lights and hot-red leather booths. And it is busy, at least in the front lounge, which is packed with hockey fans watching the Canucks game on a bevy of wide-screen TVs.
The dining room, separated from the bar by a wide, glass wine cabinet, is more subdued. Shimmery drapes and thick carpeting do a capable job of muffling the noise. But the so-called upscale ambience is spoiled by two additional TV sets that are annoyingly distracting, even though they're turned to mute.
No one shouts " Irasshaimase," the customary greeting at an izakaya. Then again, none of the staff here, save the executive chef, is Japanese. The rest are Chinese, including the owners. While some say Chinese ownership of a Japanese restaurant is a clear warning to stay away, these proprietors do have a decent track record. For 15 years, they've operated the casual Irashai Sushi in Kerrisdale, which still attracts nightly lineups.
Executive chef Ikoma Kenjiro's bio is still awfully vague. Even after I ask for elaboration, the publicist says only that he began his culinary training in Japan, where he worked at unnamed French and Italian restaurants for more than 13 years. General Manager Ray Mok apparently practised East-West fusion cuisine in some of Hong Kong's "finest" (also unspecified) establishments.
We put their "collaborative union" to the litmus test by starting with gomaae ($4.50), an ostensibly simple side dish that can quickly determine if a Japanese kitchen is hitting high or cutting corners.
Is the spinach bright green, barely wilted and well drained? Check. Are the sesame seeds freshly toasted to release their natural oils and nutty aroma (check), finely ground (check) and blended with just enough sugar and soy to create a creamy, semi-sweet paste that is neither lumpy nor watery (check, check, check). Irashai Grill passes with flying colours.
Now for something a wee bit different. Daikon salad ($7) looks fairly traditional, with its ribboned slivers of white radish and carrot, topped by a delicate tangle of peppery radish sprouts. But rather than being pickled in rice vinegar, the vegetables are lightly splashed with a Pommery-mustard dressing that tastes comparatively weak and restrained. Mind you, the salad is served as its own course, not a palate cleanser on the side, so perhaps it needn't be as sharply astringent.
As part of Irashai Grill's "five-star experience at three-star prices," service is staggered, Western-style. The dishes are presented one at a time and all artistically plated on oversized flatware that would make it fairly impossible to pile the table high, as is typical in a more casual izakaya, even if you wanted to eat that way.
Gindara yuan yaki ($14) proves the chef really does know his way around a French kitchen. This beautifully moist, perfectly grilled piece of sablefish is robed in a creamy, finely emulsified yuzu-miso beurre blanc. The tartly citric yuzu fruit, which is also zested overtop, is an inspired touch that balances the fish's rich oiliness without overpowering its delicate flavour.
The chef's not bad at Italian fusion either. The sauce for spaghettini alio olio ($15) is boosted with pesto and a teeny splash of soy. (I always add stock to my own, so I appreciate the depth of flavour.) And the noodles are as toothsomely tender as the plump prawns and scallops they're tossed with.
Aigamo duck ($16) is less successful. The seared breast is served with a nice teriyaki reduction that tastes like it's been sweetly goosed with mirin. But aigamo, a cross between a domestic duck and a wild mallard, needs more that just a quick tataki-style flash in the pan to render the fat and tenderize the meat - unless you happen to enjoy extremely chewy textures.
But it isn't until we arrive at the sushi rolls that I'm truly blown away.
We order the poison spider volcano roll ($14) almost as a joke. The combination of asparagus, soft-shell crab and cream cheese, baked under a melted blanket of orange cheese squiggled with a super spicy red miso sauce, sounds absolutely atrocious. This roll really shouldn't work. Yet it does, amazingly well. The heat of the sauce cuts through the cheesy richness. And the crunchy asparagus makes a beautifully grassy foil to the sweet brininess of the deep-fried crab. The cream cheese is fairly innocuous, except on the ends of the roll where it's slathered a little too thick.
All in all, I'm impressed. This is the dish I keep raving about to skeptical friends for weeks afterwards - well, this and the excellent green-tea crème brûlée.
By the time we ask for the bill, the hockey game is over and the place has cleared out. Most of the staff members have changed into their civvies and are discussing which late-night bar they're all headed to later.
Although I'm reluctant to call Irashai Grill a high-end restaurant, it does clearly offer a "new experience" in Vancouver's repertoire of Japanese-fusion cuisine that is more refined than most.
Irashai Grill: 1368 West Pender St., 604-688-8697.