- Dosanko Restaurant
- Location: 566 Powell St., Vancouver
- Phone: 604-251-2020
- Website: dosankorestaurant.ca
- Cuisine: Japanese yoshoku
- Prices: Dinner appetizers, $5 to $15; mains, $14 to $23
- Additional information: Open Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. (11 p.m. Friday and Saturday). Reservations accepted.
- Rating system: Casual dining
In figure skating, it’s the straight jumps and tight twists that lead to a smooth landing. In music, it’s the steady, rhythmic bassline shoring up a melody that gets your toes tapping. In poetry, it’s the subtle resolutions of syntax, metaphor and diction that make a finished poem sound, in the words of William Butler Yeats, “like the click of the lid of a perfectly made box.”
And in cooking, it’s the seasoning – a rub of salt, a dash of pepper, a splash of vinegar – that will either make a meal bloom and shine bright or fall flat on its face.
The latter, I’m crushed to say, is how I feel about Dosanko. There is so much to love about this restaurant and reasons to cheer for its success. And yet the food just leaves me wanting in so many fundamental ways.
Dosanko is a Japanese restaurant specializing in elevated yoshoku cuisine – homestyle comfort foods such as demi-glazed hambagus, cheesy milk toast, panko-breaded pork cutlets and fried-rice omelettes. These Eastern versions of what we in the West might consider truck-stop classics were first introduced to Japan in the mid-19th century after the U.S. Navy arrived.
It’s not the type of food that a gourmand would ever seek out in Tokyo. This is inexpensive fare that sustains budget travellers at Japanese Denny’s. Or what a friend’s grandmother might whip up if you were invited over for lunch. But here in Vancouver, where gourmet ramen is ubiquitous and cheap and cheerful izakaya pubs have morphed into a fancy night out, yoshoku appears perfectly primed for modern gastrofication.
Dosanko is a proud family affair owned and solely operated by Nathan and Akiyo Lowey, an earnest husband-and wife duo with two adorable children, who can often be found running around the spacious, wabi-sabi, plant-filled dining room. Born and raised in Regina, he was most recently chef-de-cuisine at the award-winning Campagnolo and Campagnolo Roma. Born and raised in Sapporo, she used to run front-of-house operations at ShuRaku Sake Bar and Bistro and the legendary Tojo’s.
It was apparently love at first spoonful, 10 years ago, when she cooked him a hearty, Hokkaido-style meat stew. When he later took time off to take care of their kids, his cheffy versions of her unfussy family dishes became a huge hit on social media.
To fulfill the dream of opening their own restaurant, the couple poured their entire life savings (and a small amount raised from an Indiegogo crowd-sourcing campaign) into a cozy storefront with exposed-brick walls, a top-of-the-line kitchen and dirt-cheap rent on a sketchy block of the Downtown Eastside. Surrounded by poverty, sidewalk tent cities and open-air drug usage, this is an off-the-beaten-track location where several promising restaurants, cafés and pop-ups have previously gone to die.
But it is also just down the street from Canada’s oldest Japanese-language school, where the Loweys’ kids take classes, and it is heartening to see them try to revive a small bit of heritage in this decrepit historic district. Last Saturday afternoon, almost every guest was Japanese. They also do a steady weekday business with a fashionable crowd who work at the nearby head offices of Aritzia, Inform Interiors and Herschel Supply Company. With low overhead and no outside help, they are making ends meet.
And they’re certainly not taking any shortcuts. The kitchen uses only the best ingredients – organic, locally sourced from small farms and non-GMO whenever possible. Mr. Lowey buys and butchers whole cuts of pork, duck and fish, using all the wiggly, gnarly, cast-off parts in stocks, meatballs and daily (ling cod collar!) specials. He makes everything from scratch, including his own miso, shoyu, dashi and koji.
Koji is an edible mould, and a mainstay in Japanese kitchens, which is grown by inoculating trays of partially cooked rice with its spores and allowing the sweetly mushroomy, slightly grapefruit-smelling fur cakes to ferment for about a week. Koji breaks down starches, turns proteins into amino acids and has all sorts of wondrous transformative properties. (Mixed with yeast, it makes sake.)
Mr. Lowey dries his koji into a powdered salt and uses it to marinade and season everything. He even uses large hunks to cure a beautifully fatty, house-made prosciutto in less than half the time it would usually take (six months).
But perhaps he is relying on koji too heavily. Because almost everything he cooks seems to lack a little something.
Duck udon broth, simmered for eight hours, sweetened with beets and served with hand-cut noodles and pan-fried duck breast, is flat. It needs salt.
Minced pork-and-beef hamburg, mackerel and pork cutlets are all dry. Have they been salted or tenderized?
Salads have no moisture or tang. Goma-ae made with kale is so fibrously starchy it’s like biting into a roll of paper towels. The kimpira, with burdock and carrots, appears to be missing two of its essential ingredients – sweet mirin and salty soy.
Deeply caramelized sauces are overly sweet across the board. The miso sauce in which the mackerel is simmered is so thickly reduced and sticky it tastes like caramel.
Good seasoning shouldn’t be obvious. It lurks in the shadows of stockpots, sauces and table-ready platters to deepen, temper, maximize, harmonize and sharpen other flavours.
But like a phantom limb, its absence becomes painfully apparent. Dishes don’t taste complete. The mouth doesn’t water. And when all the other elements that make a great restaurant are in place except for this one crucial kitchen link, well, it can be totally heartbreaking.
There is still a lot to like about Dosanko.
Drinks – which include some very esoteric natural wines, flights of Japanese whisky and house-made pops mixed with bay leaves, shiso and sour-vinegar shrubs – are cutting-edge trendy.
Desserts, which include a 17-layer matcha crepe cake served with preserved quince and unsweetened whipped cream, are totally on-point.
Ms. Lowey’s service is incredibly attentive and sweet.
The omu-rice, a Japanese omelette so creamy-soft in the centre it tastes like béchamel, is a thing of beauty.
Perhaps Mr. Lowey is trying to do too much. Take the fryers, for example. The oil is the perfect temperature to produce a golden crisp on the panko-crusted pork cutlets. But it’s not hot enough for vegetable tempura, which is so greasy it drips like a broken faucet.
If he simply pulled back a bit, pared down the menu, stopped being such a purist and just took some time to taste and tighten his seasoning, Dosanko’s shaky leaps and loose notes could easily click into place.