Sushi restaurants in Vancouver are too often a polarized choice between loud, cheap all-you-can smorgasbords and upscale temples hushed in reverence.
Where does one go for excellent sushi without paying an arm and a leg? Where can you take the kids without being blinded by harsh, fluorescent lighting? Where can you discover revelatory traditional specialties alongside whimsical rolls and modern creations?
Kishimoto Japanese Kitchen + Sushi Bar offers all that, and more. No wonder the Commercial Drive restaurant attracts preopening lineups almost every night.
Kishimoto has been around for several years, in various incarnations. Chef-owner Akira Kishimoto, originally from Osaka, worked at Ajisai Sushi in Kerrisdale and at Zipang on Main Street. Most of his cooks came from Lime Japanese Cuisine, a great little neighbourhood gem that closed in 2010.
If you can bear the lineups (the restaurant does not take reservations), you'll discover a handsome room appointed with dimly lit paper lanterns, heavily textured multimedia canvasses on the walls, rough-hewn pottery plate ware and a newly installed sushi bar.
The place is full of local families. Youngsters, and those young at heart, will marvel at the elaborate platters festooned with tiny butterflies carved from carrots, softly glowing tea lights and sprays of flowers made from fried soba noodles needled through fried chips and papery sheets of daikon studded with soy beans.
But the restaurant also draws sushi aficionados from across town with its fresh, local seasonal specialties, deep menu and exacting techniques.
The daily specials are more expensive than the regular menu items, but well worth investigating. A recent sheet included a mini stack of local strawberries with Japanese mountain potato and yuzu citrus dressing, and seasonal Pacific saury (makerel) sashimi with torched skin and deep fried bones. We opted for the fresh B.C. matsutake (pine mushroom) tempura, which was barely coated in a tight-fitting, paper-thin batter and deep-fried in pristine oil that didn't impart any toothy gumminess or funky flavours.
The rarely found kobujime is an ancient method of curing fish with kelp and sea salt for 24 hours. The brine draws out the moisture while infusing the fish with deliciously dark umami meatiness. Mr. Kishimoto scores the fish (we had fatty toro belly) with a crisscross pattern so the cure penetrates even deeper, giving it a slightly chewy, drier than normal texture. The large piece of fish flops over the edge of lightly seasoned rice, perfectly packed rice that doesn't crumble before melting in the mouth.
Simple salads are often a good test for a kitchen. This seaweed staple, marinated in housemade vinaigrette with translucent rice noodles, cucumber and minced daikon, was infused with a subtle smokiness and delightfully refreshing.
Our assorted platter of salmon, tuna and hamachi was presented on a block of ice adorned with flowers, which may have been eye-catching, but didn't enhance the fish, which was already served colder than desirable. The tuna, however, was impressively cut with a red to white gradient that included the deep-red, lean akami, pink medium-fatty chutoro and the pale, fattiest otoro meats.
Kishimoto offers a full spectrum of simple maki and inside-out rolls. But you shouldn't miss out on some of the chef's more whimsical creations, which are shaped into slithery dragons and crusted with cornflakes. (Similar to those at Octopus Garden, but much less expensive.) We tried the green caterpillar roll. And even thought the scant unagi filling was lost and barely detectable under the elaborate avocado skin and salmon roe, it was still fun to eat.
Otherwise known as aburi, this richly creamy sushi confection, pressed into tightly packed rice squares and lightly blackened with a blowtorch, is one of those dishes that you either love or hate. I hate it at Miku and Minami (the downtown restaurants that introduced this modern Japanese trend to Vancouver), where I find the sauces sickly sweet. But I loved the salmon version at Kishimoto, where the creamy sauce is balanced with citric yuzu juice and anchored with spicy lashes of cracked pepper and jalapeno slivers.
I went to Kishimoto for sushi. But if you're in the mood for more belly-filling comfort food, the menu has lots to offer. This is one of the few Japanese kitchens in Vancouver that makes okonomiyaki (savoury pancake omelettes made from wheat flour and plumply filled with egg, cabbage, green onions and meat or seafood). They also have fried karaage, ebi chili mayo, udon noodles, grilled yakimono, rice in hot stone bowls and many more izakaya staples.