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Restaurant Reviews Vancouver’s Raisu served up dishes too fast and too furiously

The bento box comprises compartments of delicate snacks – crunchy lotus-root sandwich, tofu patties sprinkled with grated orange, shiitake-kale salad – but how were we supposed to savour it?

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

1.5 out of 4 stars

Name
Raisu
Location
2340 West 4th Ave., Vancouver, British Columbia
Phone
604-620-1564
Website
raisu.ca
Price
Teishoku set meals, bento boxes, sushi, rice bowls $19 to $34; à la carte and udon noodles, $6 to $18
Cuisine
Japanese
Rating System
casualDining
Additional Info
Open daily, 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Reservations recommended

I don't often lose my cool when dining out. Yes, I can be harsh in my postprandial reflections and have been known to throw figurative punches while writing. But when at a restaurant, in the moment, I generally just soak up sloppy service, chaotic noise and lacklustre food as juicy fodder for the review.

Until that time I snapped at a server and almost stormed out of Raisu. The second visit was only moderately less frustrating.

How could a happy-go-lucky izakaya possibly be so annoying?

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Take a look inside Raisu

It probably didn't help that I went in with high expectations. Raisu is the fourth Vancouver restaurant in the Tamaru Shoten group. The first three are all terrific, in their own distinct ways.

Kingyo (there is also one in Toronto) is an upscale izakaya that combines rarefied ingredients (stone-grilled beef tongue, horse tartare) with artful presentation (small plates set with tea-light lanterns) and a sense of playfulness (sea-urchin and egg-yolk shooters). I always recommend Kingyo to out-of-town visitors as a sterling example of how Vancouver has elevated the casual, Japanese after-work pub and made it our own.

Suika (there is another in Seattle) is more boisterous, with lots of fried comfort foods and a sports-bar vibe. Rajio is the smallest, most casual and cheerfully inexpensive, catering to students at nearby UBC and specializing in Osakan kushikatsu skewers.

Raisu, a second-floor walk-up in Kitsilano that opened last summer, is the most ambitious member of the restaurant family. Overseen by former Kingyo chef Shogo Takenaka, the kitchen purportedly specializes in teishoku, a set meal of fried meat cutlets or fish, served on a tray that comes with rice, miso soup and pickled vegetables. But Raisu also offers bento boxes, udon noodles, sizzling hot-stone rice bowls and various sushi platters, including the immensely Instagrammable Oceans Offerings checkerboard of ornately pressed aburi.

It's a large, tantalizing menu that made me want to try everything. Unfortunately, I couldn't. A few of the larger, more elaborate dishes are available only in limited quantities. Some can be ordered in advance, others can't. But then I couldn't get through on the phone. I tried calling six times over three days – never receiving a return call – before I finally booked a table. By then, everything that I wanted to order that could be preordered was already sold out.

I was tearing out my hair before I even crossed the threshold.

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Raisu is also the most elegant restaurant in the Tamaru Shoten group. The spacious main room has a large U-shaped bar topped with a canopy of softly lit sake bottles. There is a cozy corner nook backed by a slatted wooden screen that creates a floating-sky illusion, and a wide, winterized balcony with sunken hori-kotatsu tables and heated floors. Every little detail, from the mosaic tiling to the toys in the front display cabinet – even the bathrooms with their rustic wainscoting and complimentary mouthwash – is thoughtfully designed.

On my first visit last fall, I just wanted to kick off my boots (there are shoe racks and slippers on the patio), sink into the cushioned bench, linger over jewel boxes of tempting treats and slowly sip a tasting flight of sake (the bar boasts more than 50 brands).

That wasn't to be. The food came out in a swift flurry. First, a plate of crunchy pickles. Then a dainty set of cold poached chicken drizzled with tangy mayonnaise, bite-sized morsels of herring pressed on roe, scattered with spicy micro-wasabi leaves, and a few slices of barely seared tuna bedecked with an orange scoop of briny, tautly bubbled salmon roe.

We had barely put a dent in the appetizers when along came the server with a big cauldron of thinly sliced, raw wagyu over which she poured hot beef broth. It was a dish that had to be eaten quickly before the exquisitely marbled beef overcooked and the arugula (nice peppery touch) wilted.

At this point, I asked if the rest of the meal delivery could be slowed down. But she was back in a flash with a big teishoku tray of panko-crusted pork, beef and shrimp (for which we had to grind our own bowl of sesame seeds to create a paste sauce). It was immediately followed by a clay pot of brothy rice with sea urchin, snow crab, shiso-herbed ikura and miso butter, which we had to stir to mix it all together.

There was so much food on our table for four and we were all madly picking here and there.

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"Ooh, try this miso soup," someone urged. "It's so dark and delicious, and so much daikon."

"No, get some of this crab. It's nutty."

"Where are the pickles? Can you see them over there?"

And then along came the server with the two vegetarian bento boxes I had preordered. I can't even imagine where she planned to put them. There wasn't any space.

"No!" I snapped. "Take them back."

The manager scurried over to apologize, but still seemed genuinely bewildered when I later tried to explain that fast-paced izakaya service (for which the dishes come as soon as they're ready) doesn't work for these types of big, participatory plates. And how we were supposed to savour the bento box's little compartments of delicate snacks – the crunchy lotus-root sandwich, the tofu patties sprinkled with grated orange, the shiitake-kale salad – when we already had a table full of food that was going cold?

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I gave the restaurant six months to get its act together before I returned this week. It wasn't much better.

The deluxe sashimi bowl was beautiful to behold with its dusting of gold leaf and fresh yellow marigold tucked in a tall spray of raw fish, but mostly dreadful to eat. Gummy wild salmon was dark around the edges, having probably been frozen and thawed several times. Shredded crab was dry as cotton balls. Muddy-tasting uni had turned a putrid shade of greenish-brown.

Then we waited and waited, getting increasingly annoyed by shrieking wails in the thumping music and cutlery clattering all over the floor. Our warm sake, which we were told went well with the food we didn't have, went cold. And then the rest of the meal arrived all at once, just like the first time.

I give up on Raisu. My headache has subsided, but I won't be going back.

Chef Matt DeMille walks you thought making your own beer-battered fish and chips at home. The Globe and Mail
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