Welcome back to Globe B.C.'s Saturday Morning Sushi Smackdown. This intermittent series features one-on-one matches between noted sushi restaurants in the same price class and neighbourhood.
For our second challenge, Battle Kitsilano.
In one corner we have Octopus Garden, a colourful sushi restaurant festooned with quirky cartoon paraphernalia. Sit at the bar if you can. The imminently personable head chef, Sada-san, who jokes all night long and drinks beer with his customers, is a big part of the experience.
Although best known for its innovative specialty rolls, Octopus Garden is often touted as a less-expensive alternative to Tojo's for omakase (the chef's daily changing, multi-course kaiseki dishes).
It also boasts a large wine selection, which is rare for a Japanese restaurant.
On the other side of the ring is Dan Japanese, a wider-reaching restaurant with a larger selection of hot plates and an extensive daily special sheet. Owned by head chef Ken Oda and his wife, Tomoko, it is a cozy, casual neighbourhood favourite that focuses on traditional preparations and simple presentation. Dan is extremely popular with food-and-wine industry professionals. On the night we visited, we recognized five sitting at the bar. It also offers an excellent selection of premium shochu, sake and Japanese beer.
Razor-sharp edges and silky sheens indicate the skill of a master chef. Our assorted platter, served with deep-fried shiso leaves, included local wild sockeye, Japanese hamachi and sea bass from Tunisia. The latter, beautifully striped with pale fat, rapidly dissolved in the mouth. Butterfish from Hawaii was barely seared on one side, giving its gorgeously creamy, opaque-white flesh a slight tooth-pull. Farmed bluefin tuna from Nova Scotia was far less tender than the local albacore (which we had as nigiri). Sada-san said he is not a huge fan either, but offers it because customers expect it and he is not comfortable serving the endangered wild variety.
Sada-san serves his fish on rice in the modern style, with large pieces of fish (more than a mouthful) flopping over the edges. Some were so big they had to be belted down with nori strips. His rice was wondrously tender and expertly balanced with a subtly tart seasoning. The platter was presented with thin slivers of glossy ginger (pickled in-house) and a deeply umami-flavoured, house-blended soy sauce. Each fish was individually garnished with dots of wasabi, a zesty shallot-ponzu relish and crumbled salted seaweed.
Octopus Garden offers several simple maki rolls (seaweed wrap on the outside). And the chef boasts that he is the local inventor of the inside-out roll (as does Tojo-san). But the best rolls to order here are the whimsical specialty creations – the Yellow Submarine (featuring yellowtail) and Mr. Beans (edamame). We had the Dragon, a slithery beast of a roll served in a long, curvy dish with sliced octopus tentacles as eyes, whiskered sprouts shooting from the mouth and a sprouted dash of greenery for the tail.
I was slightly disappointed when we asked Sada-san for his best dish of the night and he gave us another roll. Lobster on Vacation ($30) comprises a whole lobster (tempura and sashimi) with a hollowed shell, standing upright replete with a tea light inside. It was cute and tasty. But I would have rather tried a hot plate. The nom uni sushi – a sea urchin shooter with mountain potato, quail egg and wasabi ($7.50) – was pristinely fresh and more compelling.
Chef Oda-san's local raw octopus beats any I have ever tasted. I don't know exactly what he did to it, but it was lusciously creamy. The rest of his raw fish – snapper, red-eye tuna, toro tuna (belly), scallop and albacore – were all slightly ragged on the edges and not as tender as they should have been.
The fish was lovely and petitely portioned, as is traditional, so it all fits in the mouth in one bite. The chef took care to separate the red tuna from the white octopus (again dreamy) on his platter. But the rice was a bit starchy. And if my palate does not deceive me, the seasoning had an odd aftertaste of sesame oil.
This chef does not do anything crazy. He sticks to small maki. And his spicy tuna belly, lightly rolled with wasabi, struck a perfect point of piquancy. But his soy sauce was weak.
There were many. Regulars may rave about the tuna chili sashimi with avocado and tobiko, but I thought the soy pool it was served in was too deep and drowned out the light sprinkling of salmon roe. I preferred asparagus tempura, thoughtfully skinned and flash-fried in a whisper-faint batter with curry salt for dipping. The best dish of the night was negitoro – cubed fatty tuna mixed with green onion and seaweed in a lip-smacking ponzu sauce that was house-made and bursting with bright citrus notes.
And the winner is…
Octopus Garden by a tiny margin. There is much to recommend about Dan Japanese, and I heartily suggest you try it. But this is a sushi competition. And the raw fish and rice at Octopus Garden are superior. And Sada's exceptionally friendly service (compared to Oda's slightly off-putting reserve) makes a difference.
1995 Cornwall Ave., Vancouver
Hours: Thursday to Tuesday, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. (10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday) Closed Wednesday.
Prices: Nigiri platter (eight pieces), $25; sashimi platter (six, 10 and 14 pieces, $20, $32 and $55; maki rolls ( $4 to $12), inside-out rolls ($5 to $12), specialty rolls ($15 to $28); omakase ($75 with 24-hour notice).
Dan Japanese Restaurant
2511 W. Broadway, Vancouver
Hours: Monday to Sunday, 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Closed Tuesday.
Prices: Nigiri (one piece) $2 to $6; sashimi platter (14 pieces), $25; rolls, $6 to $8; omakase ($50+ with 24-hour notice).