Welcome back to Globe B.C.'s Saturday Morning Sushi Smackdown. This intermittent series usually features one-on-one matches between contenders in the same price class and neighbourhood. This week, we're matching two restaurants that – although several bridges apart – share lauded reputations, lofty prices, contemporary philosophies and the last letter of the alphabet.
Let's hear it for the Battle of the Zeds.
On one side of the ring, we have Zen Japanese, perhaps best known for becoming the first Ocean Wise sushi restaurant in the Lower Mainland when it joined the Vancouver Aquarium's sustainable seafood program in 2009. Dark and sexy, the West Vancouver room has stayed on top of local dietary trends: it now offers a wide array of gluten-free sauces and rice-less rolls for the filler-faced housewives and buff gym monkeys who frequent the bar (or so it seemed the night we were there).
In the other corner, all the way from the gustatory dead-zone of Kitsilano's West 16th corridor, is Zest Japanese Cuisine. "Am I fantasizing or is that Alice Munro and Farley Mowat?" my Can-lit loving companion whispered. Wishful thinking. But the cherub-cheeked and woolly bearded couple sitting beside us did choose an excellent B.C. wine (Kanazawa's 2011 Nomu) from the restaurant's multi-award-winning list. And their knit-natural, scholarly demeanour felt precisely in tune with the chef's dedication to locally sourced, seasonal ingredients.
Nigiri Uni is the litmus test for any sushi restaurant. If the urchin gives off the faintest whiff of iodine, it isn't fresh. If served too cold, you won't taste its natural sweetness. If served too warm, the sought-after creaminess melts to mush. Zen passed with flying colours. The lobes were impeccable, the rice nicely dense. Seared scallops were lightly touched with heat, just enough to soften the meaty fibers, and served with a dot of chili salsa that brightened the buttery richness.
Rolls Had I been served this fish taco roll at the end of a long night after imbibing too much beer, I probably would have worshipped the whole gooey mess of wilted lettuce leaves, mashed avocado and mango salsa. But at the beginning of an early evening, the albacore tempura buried in the middle tasted like factory-farmed chicken. And the thin rice-paper wrap was nothing more than a transparent illusion of healthiness drowned in a muddle of citrus sour cream, sweet ponzu reduction and dill oil.
Sashimi In most sushi restaurants, sashimi is served first, before stronger flavours taint the palate. Not here. Even though we ordered our sashimi, nigiri and roll at the same time, the raw slices of fish arrived last. Shame, because after that flabby fish taco roll, we couldn't fully appreciate the succulent hamachi, squid and wild salmon toro. Mind you, we could still tell that the funky garlic puree adorning the albacore was offensively overpowering, that the scallops tasted industrial-grade, as if they had been soaked in water, and that the salmon roe was rubbery.
Showstopper It should have been the popular Prawns Three Ways. But this greasy trio of grilled teppanyaki, paté-stuffed whitefish and deep-fried popcorn shrimp roll did not impress. We actually preferred the sweetly sauced beef udon – the cheap Bolognese of Japanese cuisine, which pretty much sums up what I think of this place.
Zest Japanese Cuisine
Sashimi It wasn't served first, but that was because we ordered it later. And it didn't really matter because the fish was so fresh and sharply cut it all melted in the mouth and brightened the palate. Buttery hamachi toro was served scored on one side for extra tenderness. And the amberjack was tapered so it curled on the plate and felt satiny against the tongue. The platter was served with bitter chrysanthemums and freshly grated, extremely pungent wasabi, which is rare to find in Vancouver these days. My only complaint – across the board – is that the fish was all a tad too cold. Initially tight, the flavours exploded when we gave them time to warm up.
Nigiri Not the best dish of the night. We asked the chef to choose three selections, and he again gave us big eye tuna, which we had as sashimi. (Why not snapper or uni, which both looked gorgeous.) The geoduck had a thick snap, which some might appreciate, but I thought it could have been cut thinner. The wagyu beef was cold and chewy. But the rice was exquisitely seasoned and fluffed so that the tongue tangled around each granule.
Roll The grilled sablefish roll was a pricey item from the daily special sheet ($25), but was well worth the splurge. The fish was marinated in citrus soy sauce to balance its velvety richness and rolled with enoki mushrooms that were barely sautéed and still crunchy. Topped with feathered avocado and a subtly spiced wasabi mayo, it all came together perfectly.
Showstopper There were several. Kani miso (Dungeness crab served with its green tomalley) was cold and clean with a cucumber-fresh finish. Persimmon tempura, wrapped with prosciutto on a darkly nutty black-sesame balsamic sauce, was pleasantly firm without a hint of the sourness usually associated with this winter fruit. Ankimo (steamed monkfish liver) lived up to its reputation as the silky foie gras of the sea with acidic tingles of ponzu vinaigrette and yuzu zest.
And the winner is….
It wasn't much of a contest. Zest is the superior restaurant by far. Not just because of its gracious service, excellent wine list, and extensive fresh sheet. For a contemporary restaurant, Zest stays true to the traditional Japanese values of balance and finesse. Zen, on the other hand, was a disappointment. Not good value for the money.
Zen Japanese 101-2232 Marine Dr., West Vancouver 604-925-0667
Prices: Nigiri, $1.95 to $4.95 apiece; sashimi platter, $28.95 (15 pieces); rolls $3.25 to $19.95 ($11.95 for the fish taco roll); prawns three ways, $14.95; beef udon, $9.95.
Zest Japanese Cuisine 2775 W. 16th Ave., Vancouver 604-731-9378
Prices: Nigiri, $2.80 to $4.80 a piece; sashimi platter, $29 (16 pieces); cones and rolls, $6 to $23 ($25 for grilled sablefish); persimmon tempura, $8; katsuo tataki, $17.
Special to The Globe and Mail