The West Coast is a blessed coast when it comes to fresh fish and seafood, and even self-professed non-foodies mark their calendars for seasonal faves such as Alaskan king crab in March, or sweet spot prawns in May. It’s never hard to find a restaurant making the most of the ocean’s bounty—Vancouver streets are lined with more sushi joints than Starbucks—but these 10 havens of contemporary Japanese cuisine think well outside the bento box. They are united by the mastery of laser-precise chefs who prepare seasonal ingredients in all of their most crave-worthy forms—from the flame-kissed, to the miso-glazed slow-baked, to the blissfully raw with nothing more than a smear of wasabi.
The lowdown: Devote a special evening out to this intimate 24-seat space in the Fraserhood neighbourhood, which serves some of the finest nigiri in town. Chef and owner Masayoshi Babi trained under Vancouver’s famed Hidekazu Tojo for a decade before opening his eponymous restaurant four years ago. Everything is organic and made in-house, including the soy sauce, and chef Masayoshi asks only for your complete trust in ordering omakase (chef’s choice), which is the sole option here.
Don’t miss out on: Calling ahead to reserve your seat; each menu requires three days of preparation. Also, the rice is prepared using a special, Michelin-level aged red vinegar technique that took the chef four months to master.
Average price per dish: Two options only: $100 (for a 14-piece nigiri omakase, miso soup and dessert) or $130 (for a 16-piece nigiri omakase, appetizer, miso soup and dessert).
The lowdown: Legendary Tojo’s may have celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, but its energetic mastermind, Hidekazu Tojo, still presides over the sushi bar, personally greeting guests while decked out in his trademark hachimaki headband. Celeb sightings with a side of sashimi are common; past guests have included Justin Timberlake, Kate Middleton and Prince William, among others. (Tojo-san has all the photos saved in a special binder to prove it).
Don’t miss out on: Favourites like Tojo’s Tuna (local albacore tuna marinated in a secret sauce), the Golden Roll (scallop, Dungeness crab and spot prawns, wrapped in egg crepe), and zucchini flower tempura stuffed with flying fish mousse. Chef Tojo was a pioneer of the California Roll—he was the first to serve it in Vancouver nearly 50 years ago—so it’s wise to order up his version, called the Tojo Roll, bursting with Dungeness crab, avocado, egg omelette and spinach.
Average price per dish: $18–$40; omakase menu starts at $88
STEM Japanese Eatery
The lowdown: From the owners of the excellent, but now-shuttered Zest, this rustic South Burnaby hot spot sizzles with Kappo Ryori cuisine (simply, the Japanese art of cutting and cooking). Chefs Tatsuya Katagiri and Yoshi Maniwa are perfectionists, and devoutly seasonal with every ingredient, making it worth the extra travel distance to Burnaby to sample their fare.
Don’t miss out on: A palate-cleansing lobster sunomono salad with orange and tosazu jelly, then feast on a protein, such as the 20-hour yuzu soy marinated Haida Gwaii sablefish with sautéed kale and kiriboshi daikon. Vegetarians should seek out the yuzu soy sautéed organic mushroom salad with maitake, shimeji, shiitake and oyster varieties.
Average price per dish: $10–$20
Miku and Minami
The lowdown: Sister restaurants Miku and Minami are the crowned queens of aburi-style, flame-seared sushi, which owner Seigo Nakamura introduced to Canada 11 years ago when he first opened Miku on West Pender in downtown Vancouver. It eventually moved into its current location overlooking Burrard Harbour near Canada Place, while Minami acts as the lively younger sibling in fun-loving Yaletown.
Don’t miss out on: A starter of pan-seared scallops with miso pineapple bacon chutney (trust us—it works) before moving on to the star of the show: flame-licked aburi oshi sushi. The two most popular choices are the pressed B.C. wild sockeye salmon, punched up with a hint of jalapeno, and the ever-so-smoky ebi (prawn) with sour plum sauce and lime zest. For a splurge, order the Aburi Prime plate, a nine-piece indulgence of fresh nigiri (available at Miku only).
Average price per dish: $15–$18 each; Aburi Prime is $58
Find it: 181 East 16th Ave.
The lowdown: Those in the know flock to local gem Toshi Sushi at precisely 4:20 p.m. to snag a spot in line before the doors open at 4:30 p.m. Tucked off Main Street in East Vancouver, what this shoebox-sized resto lacks in space it makes up for in unpretentious, fuss-free fare.
Don’t miss out on: The pressed Box Sushi with ebi, hotate salmon and avocado is balanced by the thinnest sliver of lemon. The molten-y baked eggplant and an order of Gin Tara Saikyo Yaki, AKA the most succulent miso-baked black cod in town, should also not be overlooked.
Average price per dish: $6–$15
Suika Snack Bar
The lowdown: Suika regulars love delicious food, and to have a rollicking good time. (Take note: it’s usually noisy here.) Tables lend themselves to large groups and the extensive cocktail menu helps wash down rich share plates. Eat and drink as much as you like, because every meal ends on a healthy note: a complimentary bowl of frozen red grapes.
Don’t miss out on: A searing-hot Stewed Pork Bibimbap with a side of Truffle Chawanmushi, which fuses Japanese savoury egg pudding with chicken broth, prosciutto, camembert, sundried tomato and a slice of black truffle. Jolt yourself further into ecstasy with the Chicken Kara-age accompanied by Hellz Sauce, a mixture of jalapeno, hot sauce, lemon, garlic, vinegar and tabasco—not for the faint of heart.
Average price per dish: $7–$22
Yuwa Japanese Cuisine
The lowdown: Yuwa inhabits the same West Side location that previously housed city-favourite Zest, and is already an award-winner in its own right. Opened two years ago by classically-trained chef Masahiro Omori and sake sommelier Iori Kataoka, Yuwa takes a modern approach to the kaiseiki style of dining (traditionally, a multi-course meal).
Don’t miss out on: Yuwa’s umami-rich shoya dashi mirin stock, which forms the base of many dishes, such as the hearty Chicken Tsumire-ni—chicken thigh meatballs with shimeji and oyster mushrooms. Menus change monthly, but recent highlights include gomaae with purple yam, kobocha squash, spinach and mushroom on a bed of black sesame miso, and pike mackerel tempura with plum purée. Pair it all with a glass of wine or sake from the fine list on offer.
Average price per dish: $10–$20
Sushi Bar Maumi
The lowdown: Don’t expect rolls at Sushi Bar Maumi—there aren’t any on the menu—but do familiarize yourself with the rules. Chef Maumi Ozaki’s small sushi bar seats only 10 guests, with just two seatings per night, making it a coveted reservation. Taking photos inside is not appreciated here, nor are latecomers, because service for all guests at each seating begins in unison. Nigiri is served omakase and the offerings change depending on their daily seafood shipments from Japan. Still peckish after your allotted 11 pieces? Okonomi (guest’s choice) items can be ordered for those craving more.
Don’t miss: Reserving ahead of time. And hopefully you don’t insist on a boozy dinner; the restaurant doesn’t have a liquor licence and serves green tea instead.
Average price per dish: Omakase menu of 11 courses: $75
The lowdown: A casual favourite from owners of Suika, Raisu is known for its teishoku cuisine: a set meal of either fried meat cutlets or fish, sided by miso soup, pickled vegetables and rice. It also serves up stellar sushi, rice bowls, udon and myriad more tapas-style plates.
Don’t miss out on: Start with some yuzu tuna tataki with ponzu jelly, then dive into a tonkatsu teishoku box of panko-crusted deep-fried pork. Noodle-lovers should sample an umami-rich bowl of wagyu beef shabu shabu udon—its restorative broth is made from bonito, mackerel, sardines and kelp.
Average price per dish: $12–$20; teishoku boxes are around $23 per meal