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Maumi Ozaki keeps the fish coming, so long as you dine by his rules

Customers arrive at Sushi Bar Maumi in Vancouver.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

3.5 out of 4 stars

Name
Sushi Bar Maumi
Location
1226 Bute St., Vancouver, British Columbia
Phone
604-609-2286
Price
Appetizers, $4 to $15, omakase nigiri, $40, $60 and $90; omakase sashimi, $30 and $45; $3 to $13 per piece
Cuisine
Traditional Japanese Sushi Bar
Rating System
casualDining
Additional Info
Open Mon. to Sat.; three set seatings at 6, 7:30 and 9 p.m.; reservations essential (call after 2:30 p.m.); children not allowed; $20 min. order per person. no rolls or alcohol; takeout available if ordered in advance

Does Sushi Bar Maumi take reservations? Absolutely. Reservations are, in fact, essential. But booking a seat is more of an interview – some might say interrogation – than a courtesy.

To begin, you must call in person, after 2:30 p.m. The restaurant does not take online reservations because there are so many rules to which you must first agree.

Chef-owner Maumi Ozaki goes through the list by phone:

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"We have a minimum $20 order per person."

No problem. I plan to order the $60 omakase menu for two.

"Two adults?" (No children allowed: There have been accidents.)

No children.

"We don't make rolls."

Okay.

"We don't have a liquor licence, so no drinks." (They tried to get one.)

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Tea is fine.

"If you can't make it, please call us back to cancel. We only have 10 seats."

Got it.

"You have until 9 p.m., an hour and a half to eat." (There are three set seatings: 6, 7:30 and 9 p.m.).

Remember the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld? Maumi-san is the Sushi Nazi. And those who are willing to obey are in for a huge treat.

Sushi Bar Maumi is just a humble hole in the wall; yet, it is probably the only restaurant in Vancouver that offers a truly authentic, traditional sushi experience – not to mention a staggering array of fresh fish, imported five times a week from Japan.

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Originally from Japan, Mr. Ozaki trained for 16 years at Fuji Sushi in Coquitlam. Hitoshi Itoga, his master, closed the restaurant two years ago to help his son relaunch Robson Street's Sushi Itoga (formerly Sushi Mart, and easily one of the best value-sushi restaurants in the city.)

Mr. Ozaki and his wife, Yumeko Kon Ozaki (an accomplished hip-hop dancer), struck out on their own and opened Sushi Bar Maumi two years ago. They have slowly streamlined their menu, eliminating rolls and other modern embellishments to focus on omakase, a daily changing set meal selected by the chef. Earlier this month, they renovated the restaurant by expanding the bar and doing away with tables.

To call it a restaurant is a bit of a stretch. It's just one big wooden bar in front of an open kitchen, more like a theatre-in-the-round with Mr. Ozaki at centre stage. The theatre curtains are made of plywood and the bathroom doubles as a storage closet. The place is so small that diners waiting for the later shows have to stand outside until the earlier audience has cleared. The rules are posted on a sign in front of the door – in case you forgot the phone conversation or are silly enough to try to wander in unannounced.

Mr. Ozaki works behind the bar, looking very serious, as everyone takes their seats. His bubbly wife, the laughing Thalia to his stern Melpomene, offers pots of green tea to customers and takes the orders.

The chef stares intently at the handwritten bills in front of him, silently calculating the timing of each dish. He begins pulling out the fish, tray after tray, from the refrigerators underneath the bar. Some fish have to come out sooner than others so they all warm to the proper temperature.

Wielding a long knife with the steady sureness of a swordsman, he trims edges of silver skin off needle-nosed sayori, slices glistening fat scallops into thick rounds, scores mackerel with fine cuts and pounds thin pieces of abalone with the heel.

He lines the prepped fish into rows as we start picking a grilled kampachi collar with our chopsticks. Simply adorned with toasty char marks and a sprinkling of salt (no sauce), the bony hunk of yellowtail neck meat is one of only several appetizers available. There are a few types of fish heads (or collars, if you're lucky), an assortment of tempura (go for the fresh sea eel or silver whiting, fried in a clean, crunchy, light-as-feather tempura batter) and a wonderfully rich and smoky miso soup, chock full of grilled fish bones.

The master is ready to serve. He starts firing out the nigiri, one piece at time, in a progression from light to oily, each morsel seasoned with its appropriate garnish or slick of house-made soy sauce (there are four blends).

The rice is body-temperature warm, and not overly tangy or sweet. There isn't the slightest trace of mashing. If you concentrate, you can feel every individual grain against the tongue.

Spot prawns are buttery soft, almost gelatinous. Contrary to common wisdom, the chef keeps the heads on until he's almost ready to serve, which allows the enzymes to tenderize the flesh.

Chewy cuttlefish is lightly salted. Greater amberjack (as opposed to wild greater amberjack or regular amberjack, which are also listed on the extensive fresh list) is pale pink, with a light soy sauce sinking into the flesh's micro folds. Chicken grunt looks like raw chicken, with a slightly reddish tint and light briny flavour. Hokkaido uni, smaller than the local varieties, comes with a tiny dab of wasabi on top of finely pimpled lobes.

The fish keeps coming in a dizzying flurry – crunchy, tender, slippery, melty, marinated, grilled. Some are painted with sour pickled plum sauce, others with a fishy kelp blend. Some are garnished with salt, others with finely grated ginger. It's impossible to keep track of which is which, especially with all these unusual species. What the heck is a unicorn leatherjacket?

Don't bother with the sashimi. The omakase selections don't offer much variety (almost all white fish) and are purposely overpriced because the chef would rather not serve it. "It goes with sake and we don't have sake," he later explains.

And steer clear of the premium menu if you're concerned about the extinction of bluefin tuna. (There are many cuts available, none of it Ocean Wise-approved.)

I find myself falling into a hypnotic trance as I watch the chef move through his practised steps again and again: dip fingers in bowl of vinegar water, clap hands to shake off excess water, grab a ball of rice in right hand, shape it in the palm, transfer rice to left hand, dab it with wasabi, apply fish, press together, place on counter, stroke soy sauce, apply garnish, present it to customer (first in Japanese, then in English), repeat as we eat.

His thick torso is so flexible. Those hands, so muscled and strong. He has the poise of a ballet dancer. I have to get this on video.

Uh oh.

He stops and puts his knife down.

"No, that is not good etiquette," he scolds.

Oh, right. I almost forgot. He's the Sushi Nazi.

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