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Red Dragon Roll at Tom Sushi in Vancouver, B.C. Jan. 28, 2020.

Jackie Dives / The Globe and Mai

  • Name: Tom Sushi
  • Location: 1175 Davie St., Vancouver
  • Phone: 604-336-0855
  • Website: tomsushi.ca
  • Cuisine: Japanese
  • Additional information: Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
  • Rating: Cheap Eats

  • Name: Manoush’eh
  • Location: 620 Davie St., Vancouver
  • Phone: 604-440-4402
  • Website: manousheh.ca
  • Cuisine: Lebanese
  • Additional information: Open Monday to Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
  • Rating: Cheap Eats

According to a recent article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “the American restaurant review has officially entered its midlife crisis.” Up here in Canada, I can certainly relate.

Then I came across a story about Yelp’s ranking of the top 100 places to eat in Canada in 2020. A Vancouver restaurant, Tom Sushi, had placed second.

Holy moly! I’d never even heard of this place that 50-odd Yelp reviewers had deemed second best in all of Canada. And it’s in my own neighbourhood. Maybe I am out of touch.

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I did some research, as professional journalists are wont to do, and discovered that the first-place winner for 2019 was also from Vancouver. It’s a Lebanese flatbread joint called Manoush’eh, also on Davie Street, only a few blocks down from Tom Sushi.

Good Lord. All this divine eating in my midst and I had no idea.

So off I went, first to Manoush’eh with my friend John from the gym.

First impressions? It’s certainly cozy, both in size (three tightly squeezed tables) and room temperature (from the fire-burning oven). And it is obviously popular. There was a line out the door.

Salmon Jalapeno Aburi Hako Roll and Red Dragon Roll at Tom Sushi.

Jackie Dives / The Globe and Mai/The Globe and Mail

Three regular customers, who were just about to vacate their table, welcomed us warmly. They proudly pointed out the framed Yelp award on the wall and advised us to order Lahm Bi Ajeen, a thin-crust flatbread spread with spiced ground beef. “But add cheese,” they urged.

John, who is normally quite talkative, didn’t have much to say while we were eating.

“Well, I don’t want be negative,” he hummed and hawed.

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Who does? It’s a fallacy to think restaurant critics derive pleasure from dumping on anyone. Especially when the owners, as I later discovered about Manoush’eh, are Syrian refugees.

I tend to give more leeway to the little guys who strive for excellence and hold the big restaurant owners and chefs – those with brand names and budgets to pay for slick publicity and influencer marketing – to higher standards.

Readers who have followed me over the years will have figured this out. They might not always agree with me, but at least they know what to expect.

Yelp? It’s far from clear how this little hole-in-the-wall was deemed the best place to eat in all of Canada.

I asked another friend, one who also came to Canada as a Syrian refugee, what he thought of the place. “Meh,” he replied. “The cheese is too salty. Go to Zaatar w Zeit. They have a proper manoushe.”

Tom Jeon, the chef-owner of Tom Sushi, is confused by Yelp’s methodology.

Jackie Dives / The Globe and Mai

When I asked Yelp’s senior communications manager in Canada how the rankings are determined, she quoted her own press release: “Yelp’s data-science team pulled the top restaurants by ratings and number of reviews in 2019 across the U.S., with representation based on each place’s share of top-rated restaurants nationally, then curated the list with the expertise of our community managers.”

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I guess the same methodology is applied to Canada. But when I asked for an interview with Vancouver’s community manager, she sent back more cut-and-paste answers to my questions and told me I could attribute them to “a Yelp spokesperson.” Do the community managers even exist?

Tom Jeon, the chef-owner of Tom Sushi, is confused by Yelp’s methodology.

For example, a few weeks before the Best 100 in Canada list was published, Tom Sushi was ranked as No. 9 on Yelp’s Vancouver list. It jumped ahead of the higher-ranked restaurants, the spokesperson explained, because there are different methodologies covering different time periods.

“I am actually shocked about this situation,” Mr. Jeon said when I went in for dinner that night. “If you ask me, this is not the best sushi restaurant in Vancouver.”

On this point, I agree.

It’s a nice-looking restaurant. Think Moxie’s of sushi – stacked-slate walls, dark leather booths, blond wood tables and bars. And exceptionally clean. The bathrooms are spotless.

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Hamachi and Saba nigiri.

Jackie Dives / The Globe and Mai

The service was genuine and gracious, especially from Mr. Jeon, who I came to adore after several e-mail exchanges and a long phone interview. His parents sent him to Canada from South Korea, alone, when he was only eight years old. He started working as a dishwasher in a sushi restaurant when he was 14. The next year, he left his third home-stay family and quit school because his parents back in South Korea had fallen on hard times. This is his first restaurant. He works hard. His customers obviously love him. I have nothing bad to say about this man.

But his sushi? Meh.

He offers a large selection of premium fish for a small neighbourhood place. The uni and bluefin are priced very affordably because, as he explained, he wants to give his customers the opportunity to try something new.

The uni, unfortunately, wasn’t spanking fresh and had developed a slight fishy funk. The nigiri rice was cold and nubby. The pressed aburi (flame-torched) sushi tasted overwhelmingly of gas, which can happen when the blowtorch flame isn’t deflected or filtered with bamboo charcoal. The rolls are smothered under excessive squiggles of spicy mayo and sweet unagi sauce.

The prices are very reasonable – sushi rolls start at $8.95, or about half the price of the rolls that recently launched at both Cactus Club and Joey.

And his customers seem happy.

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So good for Mr. Jeon, who did not pay a penny for the Yelp honour and saw his search history on Google Business shoot up by 300 per cent overnight.

But second place to eat in Canada? Give me break.

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