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Top sushi chef wasted with Ki's formulaic menu

Ki Modern Japanese

1121 Alberni St., Vancouver


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$170 for dinner for two with sake, tax and tip

Cuisine: Sushi

Yoshi Tabo strikes an impressive pose behind the luxe sushi bar at Ki Modern Japanese. With his long silver hair swept back into a magnificent ducktail, the legendary chef stands aloft the gleaming teak and textured-granite platform – sniffing, slicing and nodding directions to apprentices – with a quiet authority that should assure diners they are in the confident hands of the only Vancouver-based sushi master capable of giving Hidekazu Tojo a run for his money.

Ki Modern Japanese is the latest mini-chain from David Aisenstat (king of The Keg, Shore Club and Hy's). This is the third Ki in the group, which includes Calgary and Toronto. The stakes were higher here, what with Vancouver being so fanatical about its sushi. So Mr. Aisenstat made the bold move of luring Mr. Tabo away from the excellent raw bar at Blue Water Café.

What a sad waste of talent.

Ki's Vancouver menu is almost an exact replica of those found at the other locations, one that has barely changed since the Toronto branch opened to middling reviews six years ago. Save for a few selections of locally sourced fish, there are no dishes here he can rightfully call his own. Why hire a top gun to oversee a formulaic assembly line?

The restaurant's signature "modern makimonos" are still the same overly complicated, confusing fruit bombs designed for "people who don't really like Japanese food," as my Toronto colleague Joanne Kates described them way back when. Spicy avocado, with pineapple, tomato and chives wrapped in cucumber slices, has nothing in common with the pure, fresh flavours upon which Mr. Tabo has built his reputation.

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Unagi and crab maki are easier on the palate (sweet yakitori sauce nicely enhances the smoke in smoked salmon), but for $19, it had better be. On the other hand, a kiwi-tuna roll combined with mango, cucumber, miso paste, spicy tomato salsa and seemingly everything else under the contemporary sushi-bar sink is so indistinctly messy it is promptly sent back, and graciously removed from the bill.

Discerning diners will stick to classic raw seafood, which – on good days – can be impeccable. Toro (fatty tuna), served soft and slippery at room temperature, as it should be, is as smooth as butter. Unagi (freshwater eel) is topped with the traditional yet rarely seen complement of toasted Sichuan peppercorns. Hamachi (yellowtail) is cut with razor-sharp edges.

Nigiri is patted onto lobes of sticky rice that has been squeezed into the ultimate sweet spot between too tight and too loose. Sandwiched between the fish and the rice are small dabs of freshly grated wasabi that, unlike the nasal-burning fake stuff, hits the tongue with a sharp spike of heat before quickly dissipating into vegetal sweetness.

But on other not-so-good days, hamachi sashimi with jalapeno is sliced thick and fuzzy, anago (saltwater conger eel) is mushy, and uni (sea urchin) reeks of ammonia, a telltale sign that the fishy gonads have been hanging around too long.

There is no excuse, especially not in a sushi bar this expensive, for seafood that is anything less than pristinely fresh. Was Yoshi asleep at the wheel?

Yet in fairness, it should also be noted that Ki went through a rough opening ride. A few weeks after the restaurant launched last May, Mr. Aisenstat was violently assaulted in his condominium lobby by an intruder wielding a steel pipe. The massive concussion he suffered put him out of commission for two and a half months.

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Now that the owner is fully recovered and back in charge, he promises to put Mr. Tabo's underused talent to work with some "very cool" dishes that will soon be introduced at all three locations.

Mr. Aisenstat says he is also contemplating changes to Vancouver's poorly designed sushi bar, where the heavy, cocoon-like bucket seats and imposingly thick backsplash make it difficult for diners to chat with each other, let alone the imperiously elevated sushi chefs.

But as Mr. Aisenstat wholeheartedly agrees, no restaurant is supposed to have "off" days. Why then is Ki's vegetable tempura so mouth-coatingly greasy and blandly under-seasoned? (This dish is also sent back and deleted from the bill.)

The hot dishes come from a kitchen overseen by corporate chef Armand Savet, who rose up the ranks through Hy's and now also runs the company's swank steak-and-seafood Shore Club (recently expanded to Ottawa and Toronto).

Does a Western, chain-trained steakhouse chef know anything about the delicacy of Japanese food? One doubts it after tasting his miso-marinated black cod. The fatty Alaskan sablefish is hard to screw up, but the sickly sweet "orange drizzle" that accompanies the dish is an overwhelming pool of marmalade.

Yuzu-marinated rack of lamb, cooked perfectly pink and juicy with a crispy char and pleasingly acidic apple-mint sauce, is a better bet.

But what does it say when one of the best dishes at a sushi restaurant is a plate of grilled meat?

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