Take a seat at Yoshiya Maruyama’s sushi bar and prepare to be entertained.
The tall, gregarious chef will tell you the story of how he came to Vancouver from Tokyo (to be with a girl, who later changed her mind and didn’t follow him).
Full of wild gesticulations and comic facial expressions, he’ll tell you how he took the wrong bus on his first day of English-language school and got lost in North Vancouver, or how he landed his first job (by sweet-talking a receptionist into helping him write a résumé).
An incorrigible gossip, he’ll tell you why he left Blue Water Cafe (the new owners apparently wanted to squeeze in too many diners each night) and what he thinks about his main competitors: Masayoshi Baba is “so obedient and humble” (because he was a judo competitor in Japan); Maumi Ozak is “so serious and quiet” (but when dining here, he talked more than anyone else in his party).
And while you might be tempted to tell Mr. Maruyama that he might want to be a bit more discreet, you certainly won’t be bored.
There is undeniable nobility in the classic stoicism of the sushi chef. But an omakase bar – like any other bar – is also a place for social exchange. When you spend an hour hunched over a small counter, trusting the chef to serve what he (and sometimes she) thinks is best, it becomes an intimate experience. A little personality, which Mr. Maruyama has in spades, can go a long way in making the guest feel comfortable.
After working in many downtown sushi bars (including Sakana, Coast and, most recently, the new Glowbal), Mr. Maruyama opened his own restaurant in July. Slightly off the beaten path, in Renfrew Heights, the space was formerly occupied by Sushi Kimura Restaurant.
The black-and-cream decor is an understated backdrop to the chef’s animated stage presence. Although tastefully appointed with a pale wooden bar, cut-log benches and a serene rock garden in the front window, the cement-block room can get a little chilly when the space heaters aren’t working.
A simple menu is pared down to the basics: a daily changing assortment of nigiri (the fish, also available as sashimi, is almost exclusively Japanese), tempura, udon and a few standard appetizers. The bar is licensed, but the options are limited to a handful of beer, wine and sake.
The $40 tasting menu is very good value. The five-course prix-fixe comes with a small spinach goma-ae salad (sprinkled with sesame seeds that are freshly ground to extract their full flavour), jumbo prawn tempura (although the batter is a little heavier than the gossamer-thin ideal), house-made hot or cold udon noodles (packed with earthy umami goodness), creamy matcha ice cream and a five-piece nigiri set.
With such a simple menu, the nigiri is the focal point and should be outstanding. So you might be surprised to discover that the chef doesn’t treat the tasting-menu nigiri with too much reverence. He has a steady hand and slices the fish cleanly and surely, which is extremely impressive, considering how much he talks and waves those sharp knives around. The rice is well-seasoned (not too tangy or sweet), nicely loose and perfectly shaped into bite-sized cakes. But save for the tuna, the selection is all white fish (hamachi, striped jack, sea bream and red snapper) and slightly monotonous.
The chef seasons each piece with a daub of freshly grated wasabi between the fish and the rice, but leaves the application of soy in your hands. It’s a good house-made shoyu, blended with mirin, sake, dried shiitake and kombu. But the seasoning is what often separates the good sushi chefs from the great ones. So it leaves you wondering what the chef is really capable of.
You return for the omakase nigiri menu and go for the gusto – a premium 11-piece set. And even though the chef is as affable as ever, the experience is slightly disappointing.
The fish is pristinely fresh and the selection is more interesting with the larger set. But it still includes a lot of white fish and makes you wish he had added some crunchy tobiko flying fish roe or a tamago egg omelet for textural variation.
This time, however, he is way too heavy-handed with the wasabi. Rather than accentuating the fish, the Japanese horseradish assaults the sinuses. “Whoa!” you wince, after a particularly intense hit. He ratchets it down for the next two pieces, but then seems to forget.
He uses a few different seasonings and they definitely stand out. A fat, glistening Hokkaido scallop is split down the centre, squeezed with fresh lemon and sprinkled with Okinawan salt. Aji (horse mackerel) is dabbed with freshly grated ginger and green onion to balance the oiliness. Bafun uni, so much more delicate than the local variety, gets a tiny bead of dark, gelatinous nori soy sauce to draw out its brininess.
Yet it’s all too cold. Maybe this is because the chef pulls it straight from an industrial fridge underneath the counter instead of using the standard glass display case. Or perhaps it’s because the restaurant is quiet and he’s serving you in rapid succession, not giving the fish enough time to relax.
Whatever the reason, you refuse to swallow a piece of bluefin otoro without letting the fatty, pink-and-white striped belly warm up to room temperature. You already feel guilty about eating this at-risk fish, even though it’s an Atlantic species and sourced from Halifax, which recently (and only narrowly) dodged the DFO’s endangered designation.
Mr. Maruyama seems surprised when you ask if he has any moral objections to serving bluefin tuna. “Nobody turns away bluefin!” he explains, before launching back into a lively discussion about the crazy drivers in Hokkaido.
He’s slightly oblivious and that is part of his charm. Go to Maruyama for the entertainment, for the value-priced tasting menu and for the premium cuts of fresh fish. But do not expect to be blown away by his omakase menu. He simply doesn’t take it that seriously.Report Typo/Error