In the tourist shops in Gastown, Vancouver’s historic downtown district, you can find lots of quintessentially Canadian eats: jugs of maple syrup, boxes of sweet BeaverTails (fried dough shaped like . . . you guessed it) and even bottles of frosty Canadian ice wine. But one big piece of Vancouver’s culinary scene is missing from this spread: sushi.
Blessed with abundant fresh fish and a large Japanese population, Vancouver has one of the most vibrant sushi scenes in North America. Sushi here is fresh, authentic and cheap. For about the price of a Starbucks latte, you can get a freshly made dynamite roll and probably have change left over for a miso soup.
But this isn’t to say that Vancouver doesn’t have plenty of upscale sushi options as well. In fact, the city is well represented on both ends of the spectrum. Often, high-end sake bars and mom-and-pop takeout joints can be found on the same block. With so many options, the challenge is knowing where to start.
To sample the best of Vancouver’s bargain sushi, I join a group of friends at Toshi Sushi in the city’s SoMa neighborhood, a residential area east of downtown. On a weeknight, there’s a line of customers stretching out the door, which is apparently the norm. But the wait is worth it. Inside, we’re treated to Japanese specialties that can be hard to find in standard sushi restaurants. I order nasu dengaku (eggplant broiled with miso), ika shoga yaki (roasted squid) and – a local favorite – the mango and salmon roll. The sushi is fresh and flavorful, the plates are artfully arranged and the squid far more tender than I had expected. After ordering a few more rounds – including a great nigiri sampler platter of local British Columbia fish – we get the bill. It comes to around $20 a person.
To get another perspective on Vancouver sushi, I head over to Tojo’s a ritzy and widely acclaimed Japanese restaurant on Broadway. Master chef Hidekazu Tojo has been featured in Gourmet magazine, guest-starred on Martha Stewart’s cooking show and even claims to have invented the California roll. Inside, Tojo’s is simple but elegant, with a long sushi bar and an adjoining dining room.
Dinners in Tojo’s are served omakase-style. Omakase is a Japanese word roughly translated as “leave it up to us.” Chef Tojo and his staff, after asking customers about likes and dislikes, prepare customized tasting menus that include everything from salads and rolls to grilled steaks and fish. Be forwarned, however, that Tojo’s expertise does not come cheap. Omakase dinners range from $60-$110 a person.
I decide instead on an a la carte option, the Tojo Roll. Made with local Dungeness crab and avocado, the chef’s namesake maki looks suspiciously like a common California roll. But inside, Tojo has tucked egg and spinach, which add an unexpected dimension. And all of the ingredients – the crab, the avocado, even the ginger – are remarkably fresh. The roll costs nearly as much as my entire dinner at Toshi, but I’ll be back for the full omakase experience . . . just as soon as the economy turns around.
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