It was a relatively dull year for new restaurants in Vancouver. There were some great openings, but no four-star reviews, no highly polished groundbreakers, no master artists.
Well, there was one.
Last year, I missed Tetsu Sushi Bar and reviewed it in late December, after my Top 10 list had been published. I didn’t believe that superlative sushi could come from a small, shabby hole-in-the-wall. I was wrong and I now want to make amends because Tetsu actually offers the very best sushi in Vancouver.
It is one of the few restaurants that I crave on a regular basis, recommend to anyone who will listen and become insanely jealous when I see other people’s postings on Instagram. So that’s why I am choosing Tetsu Sushi Bar the top new restaurant of 2018 even though it opened in the spring of 2017.
1. Tetsu Sushi Bar
775 Denman St., Vancouver, 604-428-5775, @tetsusushibar
If you think Vancouver excels at sushi, go visit Satoshi Makise, who specializes in classic edomae-sushi. It will spoil you forever. Originally from Osaka, he trained at Kiriri in Richmond, but has exceeded his master.
Located next door to a Domino’s, Tetsu has three bar stools and 10 seats at tables. There is no decor save for a pet crab on the bar and the chef’s smile. The fresh sheet is scrawled on a marker board. (Prices have gone up to $80 for a seven-piece omakase.)
The fish is all flown in from Tokyo and is definitely not Ocean Wise.
The sets will almost always include kama toro (bluefin collar, thickly streaked with white fat) and seasonal specialties, currently creamy shirako (cod sperm), roe-filled kobako kani (female snow crab) and filefish in its own liver sauce.
The pieces are generously portioned and flop over hand-warmed rice, delivered in a thoughtful progression and individually garnished with daubs of shoyu, shiso, sudachi (citrus fruit), salt and lemon, honey miso and Acadian caviar. Some are torched to release the fat, others aged for 10 days. His knifework is precise, his scoring elaborate. Cuttlefish, for instance, is nicked about 50 times so the normally chewy squid blooms into a velvety marshmallow that melts on the tongue.
2. Il Caminetto
4242 Village Stroll, Whistler, B.C., 604-932-4442, ilcaminetto.ca
This upscale dining room is so shimmery and swish it looks like it sauntered off a Milan catwalk. Vancouver has never seen such a fashionable Italian restaurant – and still hasn’t. The Toptable Group’s tip-to-toe redesign of Umberto Menghi’s storied trattoria is in Whistler. James Walt’s kitchen makes all its own breads, a wide range of excellent pasta and divine gelato, but doesn’t venture into extreme terrain. This is familiar fare, impeccably prepared with premium ingredients and contemporary flair. Freshly extracted rigatoni, for instance, has a textured grip so lively it wants to shake your hand, while a luxuriant bolognese sauce is deeply flavoured with succulent chunks of wagyu, pancetta and milk-fed Gaspor piglet. The plating is often exquisite.
1590 Commercial Dr., Vancouver, 604-258-0005, uglydumpling.ca
Dumplings are just the warm up for a vigorously inventive, intensely seasonal, freewheeling pan-Asian menu filled with rarities and handcrafted passion. Think fresh soba noodles, delicate green sea urchins, dry-aged quail, jellied pork, pan-fried smelts, shirako gratin, fermented yuzu kosho and pickled persimmon. Chef-owner Darren Gee cooks with an exuberance (in a closet-sized kitchen) that is almost exhausting to watch. His dishes change as soon as the small-batch, whole-animal, wild-foraged ingredients run out. With such high turnover, there are inevitable hits and misses. But adventurous diners, lubricated with uncommon wines, limited-edition sherry and kitchen-pantry cocktails, will not go home bored. Only three months old, Ugly Duckling could become a quintessential Vancouver restaurant – if the chef doesn’t burn out.
5205 Rumble St., Burnaby, B.C., 604-434-0250, stemjapanese.ca
It’s worth the drive to Burnaby. Warm and cheerful, Stem is a traditional Japanese restaurant that anomalously lets loose with Hawaiian ukuleles strumming in the background, an extensive B.C. wine list and a long fresh sheet that digs deep into the bounty of local farms, fields and sea. In summer, there were sweet apricots tossed with fresh yuba in a creamy tofu-sesame paste, wobbly Chilliwack-corn agedashi tofu and a dashi omelette folded over layers of snow crab and cilantro. Chef-owner Tatsuya Katagiri’s farm-to-table ethos is so fervid his three-section menus suffer from a lack of focus. And the sushi by co-owner Yoshiaki Maniwa is simple. But it’s all just so joyous.
2 W. Cordova St., Vancouver, 604-559-1122, dibeppe.com
Cozy, encased in tall, wood-framed windows and oozing old-world charm, this Roman-style trattoria and cafe is the kind of place you can toss back a smooth espresso for breakfast, grab a sfogliatelle to go, then come back for mortadella sandwiches at lunch. During aperitivo, you can linger over a prebatched aperol spritz and nibble octopus crostini with creamy potatoes melted on top. Airy yet crispy, the three-day fermented dough is almost as good as Gabriele Bonci’s famed third-wave pizza. Come evening, that same dough is stretched out into metre-long slabs and steamed on stone for a fluffier rise. The holy trinity of Roman pasta – carbonara, amatriciana, cacio e pepe – are all very well done. The vermouth and grappa selections are lengthy. Wines are idiosyncratic and good value.
4811 Main St., Vancouver, 604-428-6820, autostradahospitality.ca
There is nothing outwardly remarkable about this compact model with tightly packed tables, tiny open kitchen and a stark-white room with industrial finishings. The menu is actually kind of standard – nine starters, seven pastas and just enough deviation from the usual suspects (gamey duck liver on toast, thinly shaved vitello tonnato, duck-anchovy ragu) to keep things interesting. And yet every single dish is dialled in. The rotating wine list looks like a paint-by-region collection (“classic Tuscan,” “rich, sultry Venetian”), but contains some real gems, priced right. The music is lively, the service is unpretentious and on point, the mood is bright. Great neighbourhood restaurants don’t have to be ambitious. They just have to make people happy and this one does in spades.
130 East Pender St., Vancouver, 604-428-2626, chinatownbbq.com
Food brings cultures together. This traditional Chinese BBQ shop was built to save one. Carol Lee, a celebrated businesswoman and founder of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, reluctantly entered the hospitality industry for fear that the neighbourhood’s affordable Cantonese eateries would all be swallowed up by gentrification. When Daisy Garden Restaurant was destroyed by fire, Ms. Lee scooped up its staff, rented a storefront and designed a subtly refined flash from the past with checkerboard floors and ruby-red booths, now filled with a delightful mix of hipsters, young families and low-income seniors. Golden-lacquered ducks, soy-marinated chicken and crisply roasted pork bellies on rice are the mainstays. Thick and spicy curried beef brisket is the standout. Ms. Lee, who fondly recalled the dish from her childhood, tracked down a long-retired cook to get the recipe.
8. Origo Club
110-6888 River Rd., Richmond, B.C., 604-285-8889, origoclub.ca
This beautifully appointed French restaurant, cafe and art gallery also serves a larger social purpose, albeit from the opposite end of the spectrum. The $5-million offshoot of a private club in Beijing was created to help integrate wealthy newcomers from Mainland China and introduce them to the finer points of Western gastronomy. Although service and the elaborate afternoon tea occasionally quakes under the weight of the restaurant’s lofty ambitions – and overreaching Modbar brewing system – the elegant classics served at dinner (smooth-as-butter terrine de foie gras, five-spiced magret de canard, pan-fried scallops splashed with champagne vinaigrette) are executed with exceptional brightness, uncommon restraint and a steady hand.
631 Commercial Dr., Vancouver, 604-254-5633, pepinos.ca
Caffe La Tana
635 Commercial Dr., Vancouver, 604-428-5462, caffelatana.ca
Pepino’s Spaghetti House is a fantastic night out. The group behind Savio Volpe have faithfully refurbished the legendary Nick’s Spaghetti House and turned it into a fun red-sauce joint with swinging tunes and killer negronis. They nailed the kitschy decor, but I don’t think the kitchen had much interest in the old American-Italian “warhorses.” You could almost taste the contempt in garishly oversized ravioli and rubbery rigatoni. The menu has changed and likely will again now that Caffe La Tana has opened next door. The old-world deli and grocery store features serious fresh pasta made with love – tender pockets of veal-stuffed agnolotti in reduced red-wine sauce and sausage ragu tightly clinging to silky fettucine. Packaged with La Tana, Pepino’s becomes more interesting.
10. Coquille Fine Seafood
181 Carrall St., Vancouver, 604-559-6009, coquillefineseafood.com
Elegant yet quirky, this Gastown siren gives the classic fish house a long overdue makeover in mermaid shades of turquoise and peach with shell-shaped booths, porcelain tiles and a punk-rock playlist. It’s a seductive room for wiling away the afternoon over a bottle of Bella bubble and a platter piled high with oysters, scallops, crab legs and tangy ceviche. In the beginning, the kitchen was a two-headed Hydra with co-owners Lee Cooper and Jack Chen both boldly, often awkwardly, asserting their respective traditions (classical French and modern Asian). When Mr. Chen departed in the summer, the menu gained a beurre blanc and bouillabaisse focus more aligned with sister restaurant L’Abattoir, but lost some of its innovation and finesse.