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restaurant review

Left to right: Darren MacLean, chef/owner of Shokunin, Koji Kobayashi, sous chef and Karaki Masafumi, guest chef and Kaiseki master.

Of all of the cuisines that span the globe, Japan's is one that's most well-known for taking decades and decades (and decades) to master. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is an intoxicating culinary documentary about one man's seemingly never-ending quest to create a truly flawless plate of sushi, and his son's yearning to master the craft. Judging by its name, Shokunin, a contemporary Japanese establishment in Calgary, takes its mission just as seriously. Essentially, the term shokunin refers to an individual who learns to master their skills and also their spiritual being. Being the best one can be. Mastering all of the four elements and becoming the fifth.

But a quick glance at diners doing sake bombs while traditional Japanese and fusion dishes flow through the pass reveals that Shokunin's devotion to a true art form is not nearly as serious as the restaurant's branding implies. Let's drop those "fifth element" dramatics and relax just a bit, shall we?

Shokunin's operating partner and chef Darren MacLean knows how to make delectable food. He proved this time and time again at the now defunct restaurant Downtownfood.

The restaurant, his first, garnered great reviews from many people, including me, even though it suffered from a not-so-great location and an even more eye-rolling abbreviation: D.T.F. Following its closure, Mr. MacLean spent several weeks in Japan travelling. After his return, he started working on this new place, which has become a popular go-to in the Mission area of Calgary.

Did you have an abysmal meal here in February or March? I did, too. Give it another chance.

It's not unusual for a restaurants to have a rocky start. In early 2016, Shokunin was easily overshadowed by its hype and its failure to properly execute many dishes. Over the weeks, Mr. MacLean changed his front and back of house teams substantially, favouring staff who had significant experience in Japanese-style restaurants. The shift helped. Now, the eatery appears to be in full stride.

The only constant at Shokunin through all its changes has been the atmosphere. The room's design is appropriately minimal, aside from the red, white and black anime-style mural on the north wall. As such, your dining experience at Shokunin relies largely on ambience and service. It's small, seating around 40, so when it's full – and it almost always is – there's a pleasant whirlwind of table talk, clinking of chopsticks to ceramic dinnerware, laughter and smoke from the yakitori grill.

The menu, primarily consisting of shared plates, also adds to the energetic atmosphere. Pick at thin, melt-in-your-mouth slices of the duck tataki, salty, tangy and succulent chunks of chilled, deep-fried eggplant or big, crispy portions of chicken karage that you can drag through a beautiful yuzu aioli. It tastes like summer sunshine in mayonnaise form. The yakitori grill does not disappoint with skewers of hearts, necks, thighs, tails, and more, all beautifully juicy and lightly charred.

The potato salad might not seem to fit in with the other dishes, but it's an essential addition. Cool creaminess contrasts with the assertive punch of karashi (Japanese hot mustard) for a surprisingly refreshing palate cleanser.

The chef's take on gyoza is also a must-order. The thin layer of dough, crispy on the bottom, is traditional, but the filling, rich, braised beef tongue, is anything but.

After eating my way through most of the menu, it's hard to find something that's less than enjoyable to eat here.

Towards the end of your meal, request a couple of scallops isoyaki. They arrive sizzling on a small mesh grill with bonito flakes dancing around and charcoal smoking from beneath. It doesn't taste much different than a more modestly prepared scallop, but dinner and a show is always a good time.

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