Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Victoria's hit & miss sushi scene

I confess to being a bit of a sushi snob. It's not a disposition I intentionally set out to adopt. In fact, it was quite accidental. But I'm stuck with it, and there's little I can do about it. You see, about a decade ago, I went off to Japan, not to explore sushi or Japanese cuisine, but to work and live. Eating in Japan was by necessity, not pleasure. During that 4-year experience I discovered what real sushi was, what real sushi chefs were, and much to my surprise, I discovered that Japan's culinary range far exceeded box noodles, green tea and the California roll; indeed, much to my bemusement, the California roll or avocado were nowhere to be found in Japan! As time went on my travels throughout Japan revealed not only great sushi, but a diverse range of regional dishes and flavours that are nonexistent at most of of North America's so-called Japanese restaurants.

Living in Victoria most of my life, I'd always been like most other locals, a casual sushi fan. There was actually a time about 20 years ago when Japanese cuisine was somewhat exotic and mysterious in these parts of the West. Going out for Japanese back then was more an event than a dinner. And then the North American sushi craze took off like wildfire, which I later learned contained a lot more craze than real sushi. But I digress....

I haven’t reviewed a sushi place yet on my blog, likely because I generally stopped going to these places shortly after getting back from Japan. Once you've tasted the real thing, all other pretenders and impostors simply don't leave the same joyous taste in your mouth. That's not to say that good, real sushi - as I remember it from Japan - is nonexistent in Victoria. Decent sushi can be had in Victoria, but at only a couple of establishments. One great thing Victoria has going for it in the sushi department is its proximity to the sea. When prepared correctly by a trained sushi chef, there's nothing quite like a fresh plate of off-the-boat BC salmon sashimi. And with a healthy sockeye run heading up BC's rivers right now, this year promises to be a good one for raw local fish!

Before I list off some places I like and don't like, there's one thing you must know. Sushi chefs in Japan apprentice for years before graduating to master chef status. The skill set of a sushi chef is vast, complex and involves more than fish butchery. Of course, most people here don’t know that and are thus unable to distinguish the hit & miss varietal from the trained sushi chef versions. What I've discovered here in Victoria and Vancouver is a strong correlation between bad sushi and lack of a skilled sushi chef on hand. When the craze hit North America and BC, everybody and their dog seemed to jump on the Japan boat and open a sushi bar. I'm almost always suspicious of sushi restaurants that do not have an older Japanese native behind the bar. This is not a racial issue. It's a training issue. The best sushi chefs have apprenticed and trained for years in Japan. The lesser chefs have not. Case in point:

Ebizo Sushi, 604 Broughton Street, Victoria

Why is this place so often cited by locals as the "bee's knees" when it comes to sushi? I had lunch here about a year ago and was resoundingly disappointed. I ordered the tonkotsu ramen and an assortment of sushi. The tonkotsu ramen was a disaster of cutlet-mush and bad noodles. The sushi fish was not fresh, the roll poorly constructed, rice undercooked and lacking in that all important rice vinegar. I went a second time just for sushi to give them a second chance, and same poor quality. My experience at Ebizo bears out all the hallmarks of a place that looks quaint, but lacks the most important ingredient: a real, trained sushi chef.
Ebizo Sushi on Urbanspoon

Shiki Sushi, 1113 Blanshard Street, Victoria, BC

Owned and run by a Chinese conglomerate, Shiki had not a single Japanese chef or server in the house the night I was there. But to my surprise, the product was not bad. Maybe this mildly positive sushi experience has to do with Shiki's new Blanshard Street location and the something-to-prove enthusiasm that comes with opening a new restaurant. I asked our server where the Chinese sushi chef behind the bar got his training, and she said he'd worked for years under a Japanese chef at Japanese Village.

My complaint about the food at Shiki was that the sashimi could have been chilled a bit more, and the sushi rolls we received were guilty of that common ploy I call 'rice-padding.' That's when the sushi maker uses a small amount of fish/filling and makes up the difference by padding the roll with excess rice. Prime cut fish is costly, rice is not. Note to Shiki: Your rolls need to be a more even balance of rice and filling.
Shiki Sushi on Urbanspoon

Sen Zushi, 940 Fort St. Victoria, BC

In my opinion, Sen Zushi is the best sushi and sashimi in town. I've read some of the negative reviews, and most of those reviews have to do with menu items originating from the kitchen, not the sushi bar. I usually sit right at the bar and order directly from the chef, who is as skilled a sushi chef as you'll get in Victoria. But a warning about this and other places boasting real sushi chef masters, and I know this from talking to a couple of these chefs. They'll never admit it publicly, but they often feel, working here in Canada, confined by the “California roll syndrome.” They feel they have to dumb down their sushi to meet North American expectations. They lament the customer ignorance that fails to truly appreciate their artistry and years of training. The best sushi from any of these guys is not always listed on the menu. My strategy is to greet them in Japanese (learning a little Japanese can get you a long way in a sushi place), ask them about their hometown, butter them up a bit, find out what Japanese baseball team they like (Giants or Tigers?), lament the lack of quality sushi in Victoria (or Vancouver), then subtly ask (preferably in Japanese): “Hey man, make something special that’s not on the menu.” Their eyes usually light up, and the results for you as consumer may be memorable.
Sen Zushi on Urbanspoon

Others places

A couple of other places that boast real, trained Japanese ex-pats behind the sushi bar: Marina Restaurant sushi bar and Japanese Village sushi bar, but Sen Zushi remains the best, in my humble opinion.
Japanese Village on Urbanspoon

I got food poisoning at Kaz (next to Swan's Hotel) about 15 years ago and have not returned since.

Azuma Sushi (615 Yates St) is conveyor belt sushi, without the conveyor belt. It's cheap, low grade, and you get what you pay for.
Azuma on Urbanspoon

Sockeye Sushi (726 Johnson Street) is an interesting wild card. Owned and operated by a Korean family, the sushi here is not bad at all, and the menu has some very good Korean hot pot options. Having travelled to Korea, I can say raw fish is as much tradition there as it is in Japan, and some Koreans argue that sushi originated in Korea. I wouldn't doubt that, given that just about everything else in Japan, save for the Shinto religion, originated in either Korea, China or Mongolia.
Sockeye Sushi on Urbanspoon