While it may seem to run counter to common business sense, some of the best Japanese restaurants in Japan are ones that remain hidden.
Whether it's an unmarked neighbourhood izakaya housed in an extension of a family home in Shizuoka, a bustling underground kitchen in an out-of-the-way apartment in central Tokyo, or ramen joints in the documentary Ramen Heads that remain anonymous in fear of being discovered, it's a way of preserving the truly important elements of culinary experiences before high demand and popularity chip away at quality, affordability, and enjoyment.
While not as extreme, Vancouver has had a few establishments of this nature, of high-quality Japanese restaurants opening up in off-the-beaten-path locations. One example was the former Zest Japanese Cuisine, which relaunched as Yuwa Japanese Cuisine in September. Tucked away off Macdonald Street on 16th Avenue in a quiet residential neighbourhood, it attracted a clientele as a destination restaurant in an unlikely spot.
Similarly, when former Zest executive chef and wine director Tatsuya Katagiri sought to open his own establishment with co-owner and chef Yoshiaki Maniwa, also formerly of Zest, he chose a spot that may seem out of the way. The duo launched Stem Japanese Eatery on December 15 at 5205 Rumble Street off Royal Oak Avenue, a low-key area within walking distance of the Royal Oak SkyTrain station. It's about a 10-minute drive from the National Nikkei Museum and Cultural Centre, a main focal point for the local Japanese Canadian community.
In an interview at his new premises, Katagiri says he spotted the location while travelling from him home in New Westminster to his former workplace. Despite the distance from where he used to work, Kataigiri says he is already drawing clientele from the Kitsilano and Arbutus neighbourhoods that he used to serve, in addition to Burnaby and Coquitlam.
The 1,500-square-foot space, which seats up to 36 people, features a smartly appointed wood interior informed by Japanese minimalist décor. Katagiri, who hails from Tokyo, explains that they sought to move away from fine dining to create a casual, neighbourhood-oriented dining environment. Consequently, the menu features a rich assortment of izakaya-style dishes that will change with the seasons.
A prime example is the goma tofu agedashi ($9.90). Katagiri explains that although it resembles tofu, it's not actually tofu. It's made with kuzu (arrowroot powder), soy dashi broth, and sesame paste, mixed with goma (sesame). As the seasons change, so will the colour of the dish. Right now, it's yellow, due to his use of butternut squash purée. But come spring, it'll be green, thanks to asparagus; then red in the summer, courtesy of heirloom tomatoes.
Going back to dashi, Katagiri says that's one of their most common ingredients on the menu, such as in their made-to-order dashi tamago (omelette) with soy-braised mushroom ($8.90).
Katagiri says rather than fusion, his recipes are kuzushi, or offer subtle twists.
For instance, starters cover familiar favourites with fresh spins: gobo kimchi, or burdock with kimchi paste and bonito flakes ($4.90); chilled, spicy konnyaku potato cake with lotus root ($4.90); and onsen tamago with dashi espuma, Koshihikari rice, tamari-braised mushroom, and black truffle oil ($6.90).
The winter fresh sheet is rife with intriguing items, such as persimmon tempura, with prosciutto and black sesame balsamic ($7.90); B.C. uni (sea urchin) shooters, with salmon roe, nori shoyu, Japanese mountain yam, and quail egg ($10.90); miso-braised wild B.C. boar, with burdock and shimeji mushroom ($14.90); and monkfish karaage, with ponzu and daikon radish ($12.90).
There's a sheet of seasonal sashimi (ranging from $16 to $32), nigiri-sushi ($2.50 to $9.80), and temaki ($8 to $14). As if that's not enough, there's also a limited availability of omakase (chef's menu), comprised of eight to nine courses for $79 (only eight orders per day). In fact, the menu is so overflowing with options that return visits are inevitable.
As izakaya dishes are designed to accompany alcohol and as Katagiri is a wine aficionado, the beverage menu features a roving selection of wine, beer, sake, shochu, and cocktails. Although Japanese food is traditionally paired with sake, Katagiri wanted to highlight B.C. wines and, in fact, the restaurant's name is derived from vinology.
The choice of "Stem", Katagiri says, is a reference to stem of wine glasses and grape vines. However, he explains that since he feels it's important to respect and appreciate not only his patrons but everyone who works with them, he considers the restaurant a conduit between his customers and the winemakers, farmers, suppliers, and others.
Hence, their motto: "We are the stem, you are the flower".
Maniwa adds that it also refers to how they want to put down roots and grow in the neighbourhood.
Some may prefer it as a best-kept secret, but this dining spot is one that will benefit from recommendations as it affirms its position for destination dining. In fact, it's definitely one to watch, as it already appears to be poised to blossom in the years to come.