The origin of Vancouver’s deep love for aburi sushi

Seigo Nakamura transformed a Japanese side dish into a local obsession

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      Seigo Nakamura took over his father’s food and beverage business in southern Japan when he was only 22 years old. He became in charge of a very small sushi restaurant that was on the brink of bankruptcy. A couple decades later, he’s turned it into a successful gourmet rotating-sushi chain, SushiTora, that is constantly expanding. For Vancouverites, his name won’t ring a bell, but you’ll definitely recognize his restaurant ventures here: Miku (70–200 Granville Street), Minami (1118 Mainland Street), and Gyoza Bar (622 West Pender Street).

      Aside from being the head of Tora Corporations Inc. in Japan, Nakamura is also the mastermind behind Aburi Restaurants Canada, which oversees the well-loved Coal Harbour and Yaletown dining establishments. He’s responsible for introducing Vancouver to aburi (flame-seared) pressed sushi, which can easily be identified by its perfectly seasoned rice, and thin slice of fresh seafood (salmon is the most popular) topped with secret signature sauces. An order of six pieces will set you back $17, but that hasn’t stopped diners from feverishly indulging in it.

      This cult-favourite menu item was first put on our city’s radar in 2008, when Nakamura opened Miku. How did this type of melt-in-your-mouth sushi become a full-time obsession around town in just a few short years?

      “Aburi-style sushi was never a signature item in Japan. It was always a side item,” Nakamura told the Georgia Straight in an interview at his waterfront restaurant. “It’s just a simple combination of fresh sushi and rice, so I thought about how to take it further than just the traditional combo.”

      Seigo Nakamura introduced Vancouver diners to aburi sushi.
      Tammy Kwan

      He took into account that not everyone has an adventurous palate, which meant that many traditional Japanese culinary creations would have a hard time winning the hearts of those who grew up eating mac and cheese, burgers, and pasta. He imagined an aburi concept that would combine the best of Japanese and Canadian flavours, focusing on bringing something new but mouthwatering to local palates. Going through trials and errors with his kitchen team resulted in a best-selling item that’s repeatedly mimicked by other eateries.

      “It took a long time for me to come up with our style of aburi sushi,” explained Nakamura. “One thing that our company always thought about was how to bring traditional sushi to Vancouver that can be accepted. Our kind of aburi sushi can be loved by all kinds of people in the world, and I can see it expanding beyond Vancouver and Canada.”

      Even though the public would probably be content with just salmon and ebi (shrimp) aburi sushi, the restaurateur believes that flame-seared sushi has plenty of room for growth. For him, it’s not just about satisfying appetites with a few items that never rotate off the menu. Nakamura wants to be the leader in aburi cuisine and consistently serve up innovative and delicious aburi dishes.

      Aburi prime features flame-seared nigiri omakase.
      Miku Restaurant

      Last year, Miku launched aburi prime. Essentially, it’s an omakase (chef’s selection) creation that features premium flame-seared nigiri that can include everything from otoro (pink fatty tuna) to Hokkaido hotate(Japanese scallop) to A5 Japanese wagyu (Japanese beef).

      “When I try to introduce something, I think about creating something that already exists into something totally different in the city,” said Nakamura. “I always think about global flavours, but I always want to respect the local tastes and palates.”

      It’s been a decade since aburi sushi made waves around town, and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Countless other sushi restaurants in Metro Vancouver also offer a variation on this popular concept on its menus, but none can really compare to the ones that are constantly being made at Miku and Minami.

      One would think that a sushi proprietor would feel enormous pressure from competitors trying to copy his original product, but it doesn’t bother Nakamura in the slightest.

      Miku's aburi salmon oshi sushi has been mimicked by many sushi restaurants around the city.
      Miku Restaurant

      “I haven’t really thought about my competition. I focus on what we can do here. If we think about others, we may get lost in that conversation,” said Naka­mura. “We always try to be consistent with our flavours and products. A great restaurant gets a lot of good feedback from customers, [and] having good trust and relationships with customers is also important.”

      He’s got a lot on his plate (figuratively and literally) the next few months, because he’s preparing to launch new restaurant concepts in Toronto and Japan. After that, he’s setting his sights on expanding his aburi empire to Asia, and then to the rest of the world. To top it all off, he’s also writing an autobiography-meets-culinary book on aburi cuisine and how he worked his way up to become the owner of two prosperous food and beverage corporations on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean.

      If you’ve never tried aburi sushi, you’re seriously missing out.

      “You might have certain expectations when it comes to what you think sushi will taste like, but our aburi combines everything you love about sushi as well as Canadian cuisine,” added Nakamura. “Come and try it, you’ll be surprised.”

      Follow Tammy Kwan on Twitter @ch0c0tam and Instagram @ch0c0tam.