The disarmingly jovial Sada Hoshika, chef and owner of Octopus’ Garden (1995 Cornwall Avenue), has a firm opinion on what makes good sushi. “Rice is always al dente—not too hard, not too soft,” he says during a chat at the restaurant. Plus, look for real wasabi, high-grade, crispy seaweed, and fresh fish. Sushi may be made with simple ingredients, but subtle differences in quality make Octopus’ Garden stand out from the pack. This spot and other mid-range sushi restaurants (where most regular rolls range from $2.50 to $12 each) prove that good sushi doesn’t have to be a special-occasion treat.
Hoshika, who trained at the Tsuji Cooking Academy in Osaka, has been expertly crafting sushi at Octopus’ Garden for over 20 years. The laid-back Kitsilano restaurant is known for its imaginative specialty rolls, like the Yellow Submarine, which features yellowtail, oba leaf, asparagus, mango, tobiko, and crunchy tempura bits. (Hoshika claims to have invented the dynamite roll.) Let Hoshika convince you to try the nomu uni shooter, a delicious appetizer of sea urchin, grated mountain potato, sushi rice, quail egg, and wasabi.
The rice at Ajisai (2081 West 42nd Avenue) more than passes the sushi litmus test, with perfectly balanced sweetness and vinegary acidity, as well as firm individual grains. The restaurant, tucked away from the busyness of Kerrisdale’s 41st Avenue, is worth a visit for the rice alone. But sushi connoisseurs come for chef/owner Hide Ikeda’s lovely Osaka-style pressed sushi rectangles (oshizushi), which are topped with delicate slices of seafood, like unagi (eel) or smoked salmon.
Without a full kitchen, sushi is clearly the star here, with an extensive menu that includes everything from vegetable rolls and cones (try the yamaimo ume roll with mountain potato and umeboshi pickled plum) to a special futomaki with prawn, shiitake mushroom, squash, egg, fish powder, and spinach. Nigiri sushi, like the versions with toro (tuna belly) and kampachi (amberjack), exhibit deft knife cuts and creative presentation.
Offering simple yet exquisitely crafted sushi, Dan Japanese Restaurant Bar (2511 West Broadway) is run by chef Ken Oda and his wife, Tomoko Oda. Arrive at opening time and sit at the bar, and you can watch Tomoko hand-write the specials while Ken finishes up his prep. Both are welcoming hosts who lend the room a homey calm. A slide show of Japanese scenery and landmarks is projected on the wall behind the bar, reminding you of the cuisine’s origins.
The compact menu consists of well-prepared rolls such as dynamite, yam tempura, real-crab California, and a particularly recommended one with squid tempura and umeboshi. Regular nigiri and sashimi options include anago (saltwater eel) and sockeye salmon, and daily selections might be madai (sea bream) sushi, sashimi, or usuzukuri (thinly sliced sashimi with ponzu sauce); or aji tataki (chopped mackerel sashimi mixed with ginger and green onion).
Another couple serving high-quality sushi are Jyan Kishimoto and chef Akira Kishimoto at their eponymous restaurant, Kishimoto Japanese Kitchen + Sushi Bar (2054 Commercial Drive). Expect a modern space with sushi that’s artfully plated for a beautiful visual effect. The couple takes their ingredients seriously, making even their vinegar from scratch and using premium Tamanishiki rice. “The rice makes the difference. We’ve tested different rice at different price points,” explains Jyan at the restaurant.
Especially popular is the oshizushi, one with spicy tuna and sesame and seaweed powder, on top of crispy, deep-fried sushi rice, and another with asparagus, creamy mayo sauce, yuzu juice, and cracked black pepper that’s all lightly torch-seared. Besides traditional rolls, like the one with pickled mackerel, shiso, and umeboshi, there are specialty creations like the HamaChili roll with hamachi and jalapeño on the outside and avocado, chili miso sauce, and cilantro inside.
Zest Japanese Cuisine (2775 West 16th Avenue) offers a refined eating experience, with an elegant dining space and fresh, seasonal selections. During an afternoon visit, owner/chef Yoshiaki Maniwa prepped the fish he had bought for the day while he chatted. “Our sushi is not fast food, all-you-can-eat style,” he said.
Diners come for the five-piece omakase (chef’s selection) sashimi, or signature rolls like the Tuna Amigos roll with B.C. albacore tuna, green onion, tempura bits, and spicy miso sauce. Or, there’s the Ocean Pacific roll with prawn tempura, asparagus, smoked salmon, seared mozzarella cheese, red and yellow pepper, and creamy wasabi sauce. The restaurant prides itself on its wine program; Maniwa likes to pair sushi with Kanazawa Nomu, a Viognier and Sémillon blend from Oliver, B.C.
He feels that “Vancouver-style sushi is unique and different from any other place,” in that high-quality, reasonably priced sushi is readily available—as long as you know where to go.