Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the inaugural edition of Globe B.C.'s Saturday Morning Sushi Smackdown. Over the next six months, or perhaps year, this intermittent series will feature one-on-one matches between noted sushi restaurants in the same price class.
First up, the battle of Yaletown.
On one side of the ring we have the Raw Bar at Blue Water Cafe, a veteran champion of the local restaurant-award circuit. Before you place your bets, remember that chef Yoshiya Maruyama is a wild card. Do not confuse him with Yoshiya Tabo, Blue Water's long-reigning sushi master who defected to Ki Modern Japanese in the Shangri-la Hotel (and has been missing in action since the latter restaurant closed and was turned into a Keg). Can the younger Yoshi, recruited from Coast, live up to his former mentor's legacy?
In the other corner, all the way from the land of the rising sun, is Minami. This innovative young upstart is a sister restaurant to Miku, which recently relocated to Granville Square from Alberni Street. Both are owned by Seigo Nakamura, president of Toro Corp., which operates a slew of sushi joints and fine-dining establishments in the city of Miyazaki in southeastern Japan. It was Miku that first introduced aburi-style sushi (flame-seared with fusion sauces) to Vancouver back in 2008. And now Minami, which opened a year ago, is kicking out its own unconventional flavours. Will blowtorches and bamboo charcoal spark a sushi revolution or go down in a heap of ashes?
An aburi restaurant that specializes in flame-seared sushi with flashy sauces is not the best place to go for unadorned raw fish. Minami's classic sashimi is not high quality (though the price is lofty). It's almost all precut, which compromises the texture. Our platter included frozen spot prawns (with limp watery tails and greasy deep-fried heads). The hirame (Japanese flounder) was unpleasantly chewy. It was all served warmer than room temperature.
Aburi sashimi, similar to tataki, is lightly browned on the outside yet raw in the middle. But it's unseasoned and sliced thicker. The searing method – a hand-held blowtorch fired through a piece of bamboo charcoal to filter the butane flavour – imparted a slight smokiness. I've had pillowy aburi sashimi at Miku. But this trio of maguro (red tuna), kanpachi (amberjack) and sake (salmon) was slippery and flaccid. The sauces – sickly sweet caramelized onion, runny citrus-avocado and pickled yuzu skin with green onion and chili – were overwhelming.
Fish on rice
Aburi salmon oshi sushi is a better showcase for the technique. The salmon is pressed between square flats of rice. Another piece is layered over top and spread with a rich buttery sauce, a slice of jalapeno and a twist of black pepper. The chef then jacks up the flame, toasting it all into a smoky, nutty, rice-crispy square that just melts in the mouth. This is dessert sushi.
They're big and rich and quite creative. The red wave is crab and avocado rolled inside rice, all wrapped with red tuna. A dollop of masatake sauce (a sweetly caramelized onion relish laced with sesame oil) is overkill. The crunchy scallop roll, dusted with seaweed tempura, does a much better job of satisfying the craving for fish. And isn't that why most people eat sushi?
Aburi Japanese Wagyu Nigiri. Wow. This is real wagyu, more fatty than fleshy. With a brush of soy, a sprinkle of pink Himalayan salt and a blast of heat, it practically dissolves into a beefy puddle on a sweet lozenge of soft rice.
Blue Water Cafe and Raw Bar
This is classic sashimi, served cold and fresh and sliced with a razor-sharp edge. Dining room guests will appreciate that the plates are kept chilled next to a small iceberg behind the bar until fetched by the servers (unlike Minami, where the dishes all wait, wilting, under hot kitchen counters). The spot prawns, the last of the season, were plucked live from a tank. The heads were still wiggling when presented on the platter, then later taken away for a crispy flash fry. The exquisite tails were plump and firm, as they should always be.
Fish on rice
The rice is perfectly soft and fluffy so that each grain forms its own little pocket. The seasoning wasn't overly sweet (as I found at Minami). The fish, however, is almost too big for one bite. I'm not complaining. But in Japan, master sushi chefs adjust the cut to the size of the eater. The wasabi underneath definitely cleared the sinuses. Blue Water no longer uses freshly grated wasabi. Chef Maruyama said it was the owner's decision. Instead of specializing in wasabi (very rare in Vancouver), he asked the new chef to create a signature shoyu sauce. Smart decision. This is a killer umami bomb made with mirin, sake, dried shiitake and kombu (dried kelp). I could drink it straight up.
The rolls here are again clean and simple and largely unchanged from the previous chef's menu. Stamina, rolled with fresh crab, barbecued eel and smoked salmon, is probably the most decadent. Its sweet soy glaze is brushed on sparingly so the freshness of the fish shines through.
Halibut tataki. Why use Japanese flounder when local halibut is running? Thinly sliced into silky sheets, the white flesh is almost translucent. It's barely seared to body temperature and drizzled with a refreshing yuzu sauce. A sprinkling of yuzu pepper skin lends the dish citrus earthiness, while dash of tonburi (dried cypress seeds) adds tiny pops of crunch.
And the winner is …
Blue Water is the knockout champion. Minami, while undeniably creative, falls short in freshness and refinement. If you're looking for something different, it's well worth trying (especially the beef). But sushi, for me, is all about pure, clean fishy flavours. When I feel like something sweet, I go to a patisserie.
Blue Water Cafe and Raw Bar
1095 Hamilton St., Vancouver
Hours: Open seven days, 5 p.m. to midnight
Prices: Nigiri (single piece), $3.50 to $5.50; sashimi platter, $34; rolls, $10.50 to $19.50; plates, $12.50 to $18.50
1118 Mainland St., Vancouver
Hours: Mon. to Fri., 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Prices: Nigiri (seven pieces), $25; sashimi platter, $40; rolls, $11 to $18; aburi sushi, $15 to $26