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Zakkushi fires up those first-date flames

First dates are such fragile affairs. You want to impress without blowing the budget. The setting should be romantic, but not too intimate. Noise levels should allow for easy conversation. And it sure doesn't hurt if the food, decor or even serving utensils are noteworthy enough to fill awkward pauses.

After being bombarded with requests for the perfect first-date restaurant, I think I have finally found a fail-proof recommendation. Zakkushi is a cozy Japanese robatayaki that specializes in skewers of meat grilled over sizzling hot charcoal.

Whether you're out to fan a new flame or simply rekindle the embers of a slow-burning passion, this is a hot little spot that will get the fire started.

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The original Zakkushi Charcoal Grill Diner on Denman Street has been around for a couple of years. This second Kitsilano location, which opened two months ago, has the same owners and menu, but is much smaller.

With seating for no more than 30, walls covered in dark-stained wood panelling, a tiny hot-grill kitchen behind sliding glass windows and light clouds of steam in the air, it feels almost as if you've stepped into a sauna.

Off to one side of the room are two sunken tables with cushioned bench seating. (Note to would-be romantics: check for holes in your socks before leaving home, because shoes must come off if you want to sit here.)

The other side of the room boasts a three-sided communal table with a tranquil waterfall in the centre. (Hey, if you're not hitting it off, you can always chat up your neighbours).

Then there's a small wooden counter in front of the kitchen. (It's a tight squeeze so wear stretchy jeans.)

Zakkushi is a type of casual Japanese pub (an izakaya) that offers small plates for sharing and soaking up the sake. Like any respectable izakaya, the staff here will welcome you with a hearty shout when you walk in the door.

But unlike most izakayas in Vancouver, the noise level isn't deafening. Last Sunday night, there was mellow reggae music playing on the sound system.

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I suggest you start with a sour plum cocktail ($4.80), a briny mixture of vodka, soda and one fat pickled plum served with a metal stir stick for muddling. The drink actually tastes awful, but at least it will give nervous types something to do with their hands.

The specialty here is meat and there are two main varieties. One is tsukune, a ground chicken meatball wrapped around a bamboo skewer that comes with all sorts of seasoning and cost less than $2 per piece. They're grilled over binchotan, a smokeless Japanese charcoal that apparently heats up to 1,000 C and locks in the juice.

I recommend the nori mayo (lightly drizzled with mayonnaise and topped with crunchy seaweed), but skip the sticky-cheese version (it tastes like a melted Kraft slice).

The other (much more interesting) version of meat on a stick is yakitori. The pre-selected Kushi Set ($7.80) comes with five kebabs - chewy pork, chicken breast wrapped in herbs, chicken thighs slathered in a salty barbecue sauce, beef with daikon radish and ponzu sauce and the sublime combination of green garlic stubs wrapped with fatty pork belly. (First-daters had best both order the latter.)

Those with more adventurous appetites might want to try the beef tongue or chicken gizzard. My favourite was the gooey sticky rice wrapped with pork. It's like a savoury roasted marshmallow for grownups.

Vegetarian-carnivore couples need not fret about being mismatched. Zakkushi offers more varieties of tofu than I've ever seen on one menu. We were about to order the cold, homemade zaru tofu when the server steered us toward the agedashi ($4.50) and I'm glad she did. This deep-fried tofu dish is served with sweet-and-sour mushroom sauce and an aphrodisiacal eggplant (the combination of slippery flesh cooked inside a chewy skin was toe-curling).

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If the date is going well, you could always linger over small plates of grilled salmon or sirloin ($8 to $10). The noodles looked good, as did the deep-fried chicken cartilage. We thought we were ordering the latter, but ended up with squid (the menu can be a challenge to read).

And if everything's going super-swell, be sure to order a dessert -- or three. Although tempted by the Pooh Bear's Afternoon Snack (a slice of French toast with vanilla ice cream and maple syrup) and the homemade mango pudding (which comes with a big squeeze of whipped cream), we went for banana gyoza with ice cream and chocolate syrup ($2.80).

Shame they don't serve these desserts to go. They're a definite score.

Zakkushi is located at 1833 West 4th Ave.; 604-730-9844

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About the Author
Vancouver restaurant critic

Alexandra Gill has been The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver restaurant critic since 2005. She joined the paper as a summer intern in 1997 and was hired full-time as an entertainment columnist the following year. In 2001, she moved to Vancouver as the Western Arts Correspondent, a position she held until 2007. More


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