- 280 Carrall St., Vancouver, British Columbia
- À la carte, $6 to $12; sushi, $15 and $25; omakase, $45, $60, $75 and $90 (one-day notice required for the latter)
- Rating System
- Additional Info
- Open for lunch Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, Monday to Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Reservations available for bar seating.
It was an eerily quiet snow night in Gastown. The crowds stayed home as the city was slowly buried under white slush. Yet the stillness in the streets provided a fittingly dramatic backdrop to this dimly lit kappo restaurant where we had the cozy bar all to ourselves. Sipping thimbles of sake, we stared agape as the chef seared a blackened crust onto a ruby-red slab of lean horse tenderloin with a hand-held propane torch that blazed like a wire-caged floodlight – or a burning rendition of Lucille from The Walking Dead.
Whoa, that Searzall is one cool contraption. Developed by Dave Arnold, a culinary scientist from New York, it is a bulbous metal attachment that converts a blowtorch into a cordless broiler by diffusing the flame through a wide-mouthed, mesh-covered nozzle.
Fire and ice. Sizzle against silence. A centuries-old Japanese dining tradition meets a modernist kitchen tool. The effect was mesmerizing, but the results were more often than not, tragically blasted with subtle torch taste – off-putting whispers of acrid fuel that licked almost every morsel of octopus, duck breast and shishito pepper the Searzall scorched.
Fortunately, for us, there were many more raw, pickled and steamed dishes – all pristinely prepared and cleanly flavoured – to lap up over the long, leisurely rollout of a 12-course omakase (eight courses on a second visit).
Kozakura is Vancouver's first kappo bar, an interactive dining experience in which the chefs cook in front of the customers, usually at a sit-down counter. And like most Japanese restaurants in this city, it is a bit of a hybrid, landing somewhere between a casual izakaya (offering small plates, sushi platters and bento boxes for lunch) alongside the more ritualized progression of a seasonally attuned, multicourse kaiseki meal (in the form of $45, $60, $75 and $90 omakase, or chef's choice menus).
You might recall this narrow sliver of a speakeasy-style lounge from its days as the Italian-themed Notturno, when the charcuterie and pasta plates were all similarly prepared behind the bar and the cocktails were mixed by a charismatically curmudgeonly bartender named H. Kozakura was an unexpected, yet smooth pivot for owner Bill Robitaille when H moved to Toronto. In terms of set changes, all he really had to do was hang a traditional noren curtain on the front door, replace the blackboard wall menus with inkblot art, fill the back bar's vermouth-aging barrels with ponzu and swap out the meat slicer for the Searzall. Well, there was obviously much more thought behind the transition, but the room doesn't look or feel all that different.
Mr. Robitaille, who was always the quiet workhorse behind the sous-vide machines and H's oversized personality, now plays backup to Keith Allison, the Japanese-born, Vancouver-raised chef de cuisine who previously cooked at Sea Monstr Sushi and Dan Japanese. Although far less prickly than H, Mr. Allison can be just as animated when wielding his flaming torch, puppeteering a thawing blackhead sea bream and singing along to the disco soundtrack of a David Mancuso playlist.
If you go for the full-blown, 12-course, $90 omakase menu, be sure to make a reservation at least one day in advance. It might include, as ours did, a frothy white-miso soup fattened up with emulsified foie gras that coats the mouth with a silken sheen. Or a few shaves of Burgundy truffle to gild an already lovely, loosely quivering chawanmushi egg custard that is amply studded with tender chicken thigh and plump sidestripe shrimp. And maybe even a thick lobe of foie gras, unfortunately seared with a lingering whiff of propane that obliterated a pimply tongue of sea urchin laid over top.
But to be quite honest, the eight-course, $60 menu will do just fine. Relax into your cushioned stool and warm up with an aperitif (the lightly acidic, apricot-tinged Senkin Muku sake makes a nice opener) because you'll likely still be there for a couple of hours.
Though the lineup changes frequently, most menus open with a seasonal salad, beautifully composed with pickled radishes, raw baby carrots, blistered peppers and more than a dozen variety of micro greens lightly swaddled in a puréed-ginger dressing. (Interesting, the vegetables don't pick up nearly as much gas from the Searzall torching, which makes me think that the burnt flavour in the meat and fish might have something to do with their fat component.)
The meal will also include a sashimi course, which Mr. Allison slices with razor-sharp edges into meaty bites. If you're lucky, he will have Hokkaido scallops on hand that he has very slowly defrosted to maintain a satiny smooth texture.
There will also be one of several mushi custards steamed in clay pots. Or perhaps you'll get the kani pon, a generous clump of Dungeness crab strewn over a bed of seaweed and terrific pickled cucumbers that are so salty they seem to pry open every single taste receptor in the mouth, all the better to amplify a finishing drizzle of house-aged ponzu that smacks you like a crashing wave of sour citrus, sweet mirin, murky soy and sea-dredged bonito. It's a shockingly good combination.
There will then be several more courses of fish and meat. The sanshou steak – rare slices of ribeye dribbled with a mentholated pepper sauce – could be great if the edges weren't crusted with the Searzall. That noxious taste of gas will, sadly, keep creeping up all over the menu. For some reason, it doesn't penetrate the sablefish, which is marinated for three days in Saikyo miso and sake lees. Perhaps the slick coating offers a protective barrier.
I hate to dwell on that damn burnt taste, which the chefs swear they don't detect. But for me, it kept marring dish after dish.
The ume chazuke will be served just in time, a soothingly sour balm of sticky rice soaked in dashi broth flecked with pickled plums, roasted rice pearls, seaweed and refreshing shiso leaves.
And finally, to finish, a perfectly creamy cup of green sencha pudding topped with a sticky layer of caramel. The chef could easily crackle the gloss into a crusty crème brûlée. Be thankful that he doesn't.