Inexpensive sushi is easy to find in Vancouver. But inexpensive sushi that’s well made with fresh, quality seafood”¦ That’s another story. So when one of Vancouver’s top chefs compared the quality of Kitsilano’s Temaki Sushi to that of Tojo’s Restaurant at half the price, I practically hung up on him and put on my coat.
I was surveying chefs for the Straight’s annual Golden Plates issue, asking them to name the best restaurants in Vancouver. To ensure that they would speak freely, we promised their responses would remain anonymous. I can’t say who voted for Temaki, but this celebrated chef called it the best Japanese restaurant in the city, citing its “unbelievable” quality of seafood and value for the price.
I had been to Temaki before. The restaurant is fairly close to the Straight offices, but a bit too far to be convenient for picking up lunch. Yet I had gone at the urging of another well-respected chef, who had voiced similar praise for Temaki in an interview for the 2008 Golden Plates survey a year earlier.
Drawn to the bargain lunch specials, I had ordered one of the bento boxes, consisting of a California roll, chicken teriyaki with rice, three gyoza, green salad, and miso soup, for $6.95. Countless sushi joints offer similar deals, but their greasy chicken teriyaki and rice-heavy rolls invariably disappoint.
Eating lunch over my keyboard, I deemed the food pretty average. It didn’t impress me enough to stop working and give it my full attention, or prompt me to go out of my way for it again.
But with two reputable endorsements, I had to give Temaki a fair shake.
When I arrived for dinner early one Friday night, the place was packed. It’s a comfortable restaurant—nothing fancy, but with enough style to make it pleasant. Rather than wait 20 minutes for a table, we grabbed stools at the U-shaped sushi bar, which turned out to be a wise decision. Watching a good sushi chef in action can be great entertainment, and there’s no better appetizer than food made fresh in front of you. Sitting at the bar also lets you preview your options: if something looks good, just ask for one of the same.
Temaki’s menu is a standard mix of maki and nigiri sushi, sashimi, and hot items like tempura and udon soup. Prices are reasonable: a California roll is $3.25; a piece of wild sockeye nigiri costs $1.60; and 10 pieces of assorted sashimi go for $12.95. You can eat dinner for under $12, but it’s also easy to spend more than double that, especially if you knock back a beer or sake or two.
On that night and subsequent visits, I tried a variety of sushi, as well as several temaki (cone-shaped rolls you eat with your hands), for which the restaurant is named. The fish was indeed fresh, and the sushi well constructed. In contrast to the unremarkable California roll, a real crab roll was luscious, and a deal at just $1.25 more. The B.C. roll also stood out for its crispy, delicate salmon skin, in contrast to the flabby scraps many sushi joints use.
A sure sign of quality was the rectangular block of tamagoyaki (rolled egg omelette) on display beside the gleaming fillets of sockeye and tuna. This one wasn’t processed to a Golden Arches yellow like at other establishments that order it in premade. At Temaki, it’s made fresh.
A tamago slice came with my chirashi don ($12.95), which was beautifully presented. I watched the chef assemble it, artistically arranging delicate slices of seafood on vinegared rice in a round lacquer bowl, curving the salmon into a rosette.
Along with quality, presentation sets Temaki apart. “We put a lot of care into what we do, instead of just putting it out,” owner and sushi chef Hilary Nguy tells me in a phone interview. Other places throw together slapdash sushi, and the sloppiness extends to the taste, too.
Nguy has worked as a sushi chef for 15 years. When he expanded Temaki a year and a half ago, he hired another sushi chef, Omura Akira. Evidence of the chefs’ skill comes through in their careful, deliberate motions. In order to put out a good product, “You’ve got to really like making sushi,” Nguy says.
According to Nguy, 90 percent of Temaki’s customers are regulars. The lunch crowd I saw had a strong contingent of students and office workers, likely attracted to the bento-box specials. The friendly, efficient service makes Temaki appealing as well.
But I suspect it’s not the chicken teriyaki that impressed the chefs who recommended this place. Rather, it’s dishes like fresh uni (sea urchin) gorgeously presented in cucumber cups ($11.95), or the sashimi trio of daikon-strip-wrapped sockeye, tuna tartare, and seared tuna with mango and spicy citrus sauce ($10.95). Invest a little more at Temaki, and I bet you’ll get gratifying returns.