After having the place recommended to me, and seeing plenty of pictures online; I was tempted and knew I needed to make a trip out here myself.
The recommendation came highly from a Japanese friend (not the one dinning with us tonight). He declared the place as easily one of his favourite sushi places in Vancouver. This despite it being second only to “Tojo’s” in the “Upscale Sushi category” of “Vancouver magazine”. He finds them superior. He prefers “Octopus Garden” with its non traditional offerings along with the classics. As it is hard nowadays just to find authentic Japanese sushi and sashimi done simple and clean. I am such a person who prefers the fusion rolls and the hybrids of East meets West. Though he stands firm that here their sushi is as authentic as it gets. A possible reason why I didn’t enjoy my visit as much. He also threw in the bonus fact that this is Steven Segal’s favourite sushi place when in town. Concluding that no one can really argue with Steven Segal. Though given the quality, he was aware of and did warn that prices would not be cheap going in. With the glowing synopsis above, and long while to get here, I very was excited tonight.
Well known for their creative plating and fun interpretation of Japanese fare, while staying true to traditional practices; I was looking forward to some dishes that were both visually satisfying to the eyes and orally satisfying for my stomach.
Admittedly I shy away from the true sushi experience and often gravitate to their more western creations. I find the latter boring and am lured away by the glitz and sparkle of additional ingredients and fancy names. It is only now that I write this that it is clear I will not be a good judge of the quality of the sushi presented below. I like the bells and whistles, the add-ons and extras, that essentially go against the simple principle of Japanese sushi preparation. The perfection in freshness and the refined taste that good quality ingredients bring. With sushi the experience is tasting the fish in its raw and natural state. No dips or sauces, just appreciation for the gentle notes of a creature that was alive a mere minute ago. A little morbid. So now I can only go forward writing and documenting this experience truthfully from my perspective; as I do for all my restaurant reviews and blog posts. I write what I know and what I think to be true. This is my perception and perception is reality. Though luckily I attended this night with diners possessing more refined palettes. Sushi connoisseurs more a tuned to what good sashimi should be and how perfect nigri should taste. A well verse Japanese and a particularly finicky diner.
I was pretty lucky with parking, able to pull up and into one of the three free curb side spots just outside. Their outdoor patio seating was creative. A complimentary mix of artful decor and functional furniture. Picnic like benches, swivel stools to perch on, and a tucked away corner giving you the open air feeling of being outdoors with the covered walled element of being inside. Shelves overhead held up bottles, on your left a lucky cat sat paw up, and a open window frame with no glass before you to look out into traffic.
Despite is small and narrow front the restaurant was quite spacious inside, it opened up with a truly a unique set up. Pockets of space. Cubicle like walls and clever arranging maximized space, giving privacy in corners, and seclusion in rooms. An elevated platform led to seats by the sushi bar, and additional double tops on a boat-like setting. Structured like a boat with mast raised and hull polished. We luckily made a reservation for our party of five and were given a private room in the back for our efforts. Fully in-cased with decorative port holes, our space was themed like a submarine. One wall was a fish tank, it completed the underwater portion of the theme. A lone fish navigated these waters. Across from him was a framed replication of knots and above, a picture of their mascot. A glass box displaying typical nautical knots done in miniature. And a fire engine red octopus in black bandana, equipped with a fishing rod and two knives. He had already caught a fish and a crab in his other tentacles.
“Octopus Garden” was consistent and true to their name and theme. Octopus everything was scattered around the restaurant. It would make for a great scavenger hunt or a page in an “I Spy” book. A porcelain octopus hung by the door in navy, green, and orange; a dried octopus carcass made for disturbing wall decor; tiny octopus figurines were used as the perfect stumps for our chopsticks at rest; an octopusy pattern speckled our sauce dishes, and octopus artwork framed on display. Majority of the latter was kept in shelves and taped on the walls adjacent to their single stalled washrooms. Plush octopus stuffies; octopus action figures; and octopus fan art. The more delicate memorabilia sat in enclosed glass cabinets along with photos and achievements for the chef and the restaurant. Like when someone met famous Japanese baseballer, Ichigo. A little cluttered and foreign in language, it was hard to sort through.
The interior of the actual washroom was as decorative: more octopus patterned memorabilia and artwork depicting underwater life. Most curious was the interpretive piece in the woman’s washroom. Hundreds of women with black and yellow bee bodies preparing to sacrifice themselves in order to sting one man bent over with butt crack protruding. Was this a stab at men in general? Get it? Stab!?
According to my Japanese guest the restaurant was as authentic as it gets, with Japanese specific mannerisms and common Japanese practices. The temperature was set to a chilled crisp. The sushi chefs were dressed in trademark uniforms and the servers in authentic kimonos. The latter with head gear on point: clothed bandanas and a rope with hood to keep their hair out of our food. The room even “smelled Japanese” according to him. A fragrance he couldn’t describe, yet knew of all too well.
The menu was a short list, majority of which focused on nigri served in two piece sets. A true testament to its authentic accuracy. Less like your Americanized sushi parlours. Their listing included fresh “tamago”, an egg omelette tediously layered in house; “unagi” and “anago” eel found in fresh and salt waters, respectively; and Quebec “fois gras” served with mango. Though as I mentioned earlier I lean towards the adaptations on the traditional and prefer my sushi in rolls topped with the stranger the better.
The tea wasn’t complimentary, ordered by cup or pot these were unique brews. “Pear green tea”, green tea naturally flavoured with pear. It smelled as delicious as the actual ripen fruit. Brewed perfectly it was a good mixture of pear and green tea. A more fruity tea.
“Sada’s Own’ Nomu Uni Shooter”. A unique experience like this I was all over, but made the mistake of being greedy and ordering a jumbo shot at $12 while my guests were satisfied with the original serving at $7.50. I got double the sea urchin, mountain potato, quail egg, rice, and wasabi at less than double the price. This was not smooth like a shot. Calling it a shot leads you to thinking this could be taken in, in one gulp. Instead it was thick and bubbly like cold porridge. An interesting texture slimy with the raw yolk and grainy thanks to the rice, it would have been smoother if colder. Big in fishy sea urchin after taste I had to take a breather and come back to my jumbo helping. The regular would have been a good amount, satisfying, a complete taste. Filling for what it looked like, I eventually tried to go back but couldn’t. It instead went wasted.
As an amateur food photographer I was disappointed by their lackluster presentation. A serving lacking interest and a roll mixed in clusters. Four pieces of one roll stacked beside four of another in a string. Two parallel arrangements sandwiching another roll.
“BBQ wild sockeye salmon”, veggie and salmon as an inside out roll. The presentation wasn’t as expected. We were given the option of having it as a cone or in a roll “inside out”. We imagined vegetables wrapped in rice so was disappointed by the salmon and vegetables wrapped in white rice and seaweed, in that order. I understand the salmon is expensive but there was hardly any of it. More rice than anything, more cucumber and peppers than fish. At $9.50 a disappointing foreshadow of things to come. And with the barbecuing and saucing of the salmon you couldn’t really enjoy the freshness of the piece anyways.
“House special wagyu beef” made with premium wagyu beef and oba leaf. Oba, similar to shiso, is a herbaceous Japanese mint. It’s strong flavour accented well with the spicy seasoning of the well marbled cut of beef. Raw, fresh, and tender this was my favourite roll, that most closely matched its $14 price tag.
A specialty roll made with “Hand-peeled Dungeness crab”, tobiko, and mayo, then topped with avocado. The crab was light, creamy, and naturally sweet. You could clearly taste its refined definition compared to that of imitation crab meat. It is just a shame that it was hidden by the intense peppering of the fresh avocado. At $12 I wanted more out of this fancy California roll.
“Yellow submarine”. Yellowtail, oba leaf, asparagus tobiko, and tempura bits, with mango on top. At $28 this is the most expensive roll I have ever had, sharing it between four others made the cost tolerable. Though was it worth the inflated price tag? Presentation wise the vessel matched what you expected a “submarine” roll to look like. The novelty that its name was a Beatles song along with “Octopus Garden” was not lost on us. The sushi was certainly different. Here the herby nature of the leaf distracted from the gentle nature of the fish. Similarly we found the mango too distracting, but at least it balanced out the herbs. It might have been worth it given the cost of premium ingredients used, but I didn’t think it amazing enough to ever want again. Honestly I prefer more common rolls for cheaper. Though there is something so novel about enjoying a submarine named roll in a faux submarine.
“Spicy Tuna Z” made with spicy tuna, tempura bits, and mayo, with avocado on top. At $12 this was the most flavour packed roll. A deep spice that singes your tongue, coupled with the cooling effect of tobiko eggs popping upon impact in your mouth. If you like your spicy foods, this one gave you a lingering heat that lasts the duration of your meal.
The sushi purists of our group had to sample some of their finer nigiri. Including some rarer seasonal offerings sold at market price.
We were shocked to find out that the “Bluefin tuna o-toro’s” market price was $20. Lesson learned you always ask what the market price is before ordering. No shame in asking. At $10 per piece this was now the most expensive item to be had this evening. According to the two, needing to validate their purchase, the fish itself was worth the tag. It was as rich and as fatty as its cost. It went down easy with its smooth texture. Both would love to eat it again. Although it may not feel worthy of its price, it was certainly worth the try.
“Waru, butterfish”. What is butterfish? Rumour has it that this fish has the ability to cause explosive bowel movements in its diner. Though neither of my guests reported such an incident. True to its nickname the fish was smooth like butter. Described as eating satin it was very comparable to the o toro before, but at $13 less.
“Tako, octopus”, if you come to a place with octopus in its name you expect more octopus on the menu, so they felt compelled to try their only octopus offering. Compared to the others before this was nothing fancy. Chewy like rubber, with a hint of sweetness and barbecue smoke. At $6 for the set it fell into the category of second less inexpensive nigiri.
We considered dessert and asked for the menu. None was to be had so our server removed the chalk board from its peg and brought the daily updated list right to our table. I appreciated the gesture and her willingness to go over and beyond. Although interesting, given the reception of our meal above we decided not to gamble on an unsure thing and moved dessert to a different destination.
Given the size of our party and our willingness to splurge I expected additional service. More check ins, if any. Cloistered away in a covered corner, hailing our server was a struggle. So when we ordered our add on of nigiri we also asked for the bill, not knowing when we would see her again. Initially the bill came as a whole, but after tedious attempts at splitting it, our server stepped in, offering to split it. Good thing because I wasn’t about to pay for $20 worth of market price fish I didn’t have. This became a running joke of the night and won’t soon be lived down.
Would I come back? – No.
Would I line up for it? – No.
Would I recommend it? – Yes.
Would I suggest this for someone visiting from out of town? – Yes.
Coming to and going in I was really excited. After seeing photos and hearing rave reviews my expectations were heightened. So I was disappointed in standard presentation and felt the taste of most did not marry up with price spent. Though it was nice that each roll ordered held up on its own. We barely needed soy sauce, so it was surprising to be given a whole bottle and so much accompaniments in ginger and wasabi to enhance an already pretty tasty roll. I enjoyed everything and wouldn’t mind eating it all again. I just didn’t feel like I got my money’s worth. So wouldn’t pay for any of it again. Though once again, I do stray away from the traditional and simple fish on rice. So when I pay $28 for a roll I expect more than what I can get from a fast food sushi chain. Whether it was worth the cost of ingredients or not, I left hungry and hardly satisfied. I feel I could have enjoyed others, elsewhere, for less. In short this isn’t the sushi place for me. But for purists and sticklers of quality this is a must try for you. True to the Japanese experience you can’t get anything closer than this in its price range. Don’t deny your cravings.
1995 Cornwall Avenue, Vancouver BC, V6J1C9