“I’m bringing you guys to one of the best sushi bars in town – I just found out one of the guys in the office knows the owner and the chef!” said my slightly over-excited colleague, Marcus. The guy he was referring to was another colleague called Danny who, I later found out, had been visiting Ajisai at least once a week ever since it opened in 2001. Hidden away in Kerrisdale on W 42nd Avenue away from the buzz of downtown, Ajisai is not what you would call centrally located and not many people (that I asked) seemed to know about it. That said, it always has a huge line-up so get there early if you don’t make a reservation. We were being specially treated to an off-menu omakase by owner Hide-san and head sushi chef, Steve, so we arrived after the peak period around 9pm.
We were spoilt with attention sitting at the bar table itself directly in front of Chef Steve as he served us dish after dish – chuckling when I asked for more information and took multiple snapshots of each dish. The photos really tell the story but let me briefly outline the evening’s gastronomic delights. We started with ankimo; sliced Monkfish liver with scallion, flying fish roe and a drizzle of ponzu sauce. Monkfish liver is somewhat of a delicacy that I’ve never encountered outside of Japanese cuisine and a great way to start our meal with its creamy decadence.
With slightly more gentle flavours, we were served a mini-selection of bamboo shoots, sea urchin on a generous bed of grated mountain yam and tako with pickled cucumber. This set the our tastebuds for the night’s onslaught of dishes beginning with grilled oysters and two large plates of steak tartare and thinly sliced tai or red sea bream sashimi. Not only was preparation simple, the presentation was beautiful and the taste was exquisitely fresh and delicate. At this point, I thought I could have stopped and continued to re-order the mounds of sashimi but Chef Steve wouldn’t have any of it.
Of course not. I hadn’t noticed but he was working on a bit of food architecture using the carcass and fins of a large flying fish as his building blocks. It was his centre piece to serve up a platter of iisaki (chicken grunt), flying fish, tako (octopus) and tuna sashimi.
The only cooked dish of the evening was a piece of expertly grilled hamachi or yellow tail, powdered with diced shallots and drizzled with a light soy sauce. The flesh was cooked to perfection, gently falling off with each bite.
The night concluded with what seemed to be the most expensive combination of sushi for the evening – almost all toro (I wasn’t complaining!). A dozen negi toro maki with individual pieces of Spanish mackeral, fatty tuna toro, hamachi toro and tsubasu or seared baby yellow tail nigiri sushi.
The whole experience set us back about CA$80 each which is definitely on the high end but then in Vancouver, what isn’t expensive? Given the quality of seafood, it was well worth it. According to my new colleagues of a week, this was the first time they has ever seen me smile (which is of course a lie) but testament to the quality and taste each dish we had that evening. There’s few words you can use to describe sashimi so I tend to think emotions and facial expressions do it more justice. The only other time I’ve smiled uncontrollably was after my visit to Tsukiji Fish Markets in Tokyo and this was definitely on par – trust me, it’s worth the short drive into the quiet neighbourhood to try it!