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Restaurant Reviews Handmade noodles a shining star in Vancouver’s Kinome Japanese Kitchen

The dashi egg omelette.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

2.5 out of 4 stars

Name
Kinome Japanese Kitchen
Location
2511 West Broadway, Vancouver, British Columbia
Phone
778-379-1925
Cuisine
Japanese
Additional Info
Open Wednesday to Sunday, 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations recommended.

Soba should be the star of the menu at Kinome Japanese Kitchen. The handmade buckwheat noodles should be prominently featured on the front page, right between the omakase (chef's tasting menu) and the kitchen's list of select ingredients, which include local organically farmed or foraged vegetables, grass-fed beef, half-polished organic brown rice and freshly shaven, smoked-bonito dashi stock. Instead, the chef's three types of cold noodles are buried at the bottom of the third page.

Sure, in this type of setting, soba is typically served at the end of the meal. And Kinome is obviously a restaurant that respects tradition. But it is also one of only two places in Vancouver that offer fresh, handmade soba. (The other is Van Soba, a small weekend operation tucked into Tama Organic Life, a macrobiotic health food store and delivery service in North Vancouver.) So why not sing the soba loud and proud?

Chef Ryoma Matarai is a modest young man who spent three years learning the revered art of soba making in Tokyo, where he went to soba school at worked at Gonpachi, a rustic yet well-known soba and yakitori restaurant (and supposedly the inspiration for a Kill Bill setting).

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Upon returning to Vancouver, he worked at the dearly missed En Restaurant for three years, and then at beloved Dan Japanese Restaurant, which he took over and relaunched as Kinome when the previous owner moved to Japan.

Kinome looks very much the same, with its long wooden bar by the kitchen and rustic earthenware pottery. The room is still casually elegant, as is the food, although there are a lot less fried dishes on the menu and more attention to organic practices. The kitchen doesn't even have a garbage bin; everything is recycled.

Chef Ryoma (as he prefers to be called) makes his soba in Kinome's upstairs loft. His menkiri knife (bigger than a cleaver) was custom-made in Japan to fit his body weight. Because he chooses to use local buckwheat flour from Anita's Organic Mill in Chilliwack, he's had to adapt his recipe.

The local buckwheat is very roughly ground so he sifts it with 20-per-cent Japanese buckwheat flour, which is finer and also has more moisture. He then blends that mixture with 20-per-cent regular flour for a touch of gluten. Making noodles that don't fall apart without the stickiness of gluten is tough in the best of conditions. Vancouver's hot, humid weather of late has made the process even trickier.

"Sometimes you add too much water, sometimes it's not enough," he says by phone, explaining that he measures by touch.

In the open kitchen, he cooks each batch for 60 seconds and shakes it in a basket under cold water to "shrink the soba." ("I don't know what the word is in English," he laughs.)

The noodles are served cold on bamboo baskets with a variety of dipping sauces, including a warm duck broth, to which you later add a teacup of cooking water and drink like soup to get all the good minerals. The noodles are so perfectly square, the edges so cleanly, my friend and I had trouble believing they weren't cut by machine.

"They're not perfect yet," the chef says. "I'm still practising. Always practising."

Beyond soba, there are other reasons to visit. The omakase menu is advertised as five to six courses for $50. But a friend who went recently said he received eight courses. "A total steal," he raved.

Changing daily, it usually includes a selection of sashimi – some local, some imported from Japan like the curiously translucent, glass shrimp (shira-ebi). Why not use all local seafood? "We like to eat it, too," the chef explained. "That's what we crave."

If you're lucky, the chef's menu will include thinly shaved beef tataki splashed with icy cold ponzu sauce and a sprinkling of tiny yellow chrysanthemum petals. And perhaps the assertively fresh and tickly sweet goma-ae salad tossed with asparagus, spinach, kale and maple-glazed cashews.

If the menu doesn't include the dashi egg omelette, be sure to order it à la carte. Be patient. The egg mix is carefully folded in eight to 10 thin layers on very low heat. It takes 10 minutes to make. The dish is so soft and delicate, with a touch of bitter mitsuba herb at its centre, it will make every other tamago egg sushi you've ever tried taste like a processed rubber roll.

A few things could use more attention. The grilled salmon, layered with an otherwise thick and lovely kinome sauce, is overcooked. Kinome is a minty floral herb that smells like violets. It's hugely popular in Japan, but not available here. The chef gets his from his mother's garden.

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The deep-fried kale and prawn karaage is a holdover from the Dan menu. And the frying oil, which saturates all the craggy bits and coats the mouth with a gummy film, tastes like it hasn't been changed since the old owner left months ago. (The chef says the oil is changed once a week, but that's obviously not frequent enough.)

Yet these are small complaints. Over all, Kinome is a welcome addition to the Vancouver dining scene. We have plenty of high-end Japanese restaurants, but not many that offer affordable, high-quality omakase in such a relaxed setting with such attention to detail – and that make their own soba.

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