Hitoe Sushi… Oh, how you are close to my heart. <3
Hitoe Sushi is perhaps my favourite place in Vancouver to get delicious Japanese food and a truly authentic Japanese dining experience. That probably sounds absolutely ridiculous to those who are skeptical of the place because of its unassuming appearance, or to those who may have (for some reason unfathomable to me) had a bad experience there, but… je m’explique: Although Hitoe Sushi appeared at first — even to me and Emme — to be a run-down and sad little sushi place, we were beyond pleasantly surprised after dining there for the first time last summer. Hitoe Sushi does not look like much, and it’s not exactly in the best location, being in a much quieter section of W 4th than other more popular restaurants. From the outside, it looks like it might just be another cheap sushi joint. But in reality, it is so, so much more.
To begin with, yes, décor is pretty low-key, but… the interior is still quite cozy and welcoming. It also seems quite authentic, and traditional Japanese art adorns the wall and counters in some places (along with a little tapestry with all the frequently consumed fish on it, with their kanji and its furigana!). It is not a high-class restaurant with white table cloths and exquisite dishware, but with such great food and fantastic service, you really end up not caring about all that anyway. I guess the one phrase to keep in mind when considering Hitoe Sushi is “don’t judge a book by its cover” — or a restaurant by its storefront, in this case. The ambiance is quite soothing, as the lights in the evening are bright enough to illuminate the room (and the menu when you look at it, of course) but dim enough to create a mellow atmosphere. Obviously the noise level will depend on whether or not a family or big party of people is in there, but it is generally nice and quiet. I have seen many other Japanese people — individuals, couples, and families — dining here, which is always a good sign.
Service is outstanding. This may be because it is such a small restaurant, but you will rarely have difficulty getting refills on your tea or water and the waitresses and waiters are all very, very friendly and accommodating. There are only a couple of main servers that work there, so another great aspect of Hitoe Sushi is that you will probably be remembered if you return. The restaurant can admittedly get pretty busy around dinnertime, with what seems like a flood of takeout orders coming in over the phone and by those who come in person, but even then the servers will not ignore nor abandon you as servers in other restaurants may (that actually happened to me and Emme in Shiro!). The itamae will also be happy to recommend items if you ask, and will sometimes even take your orders directly! The staff are all personable, cheerful, and provide truly wonderful service. Oh and yes, they are indeed Japanese! So service is “authentic”, as is the food.
Putting décor, ambiance, and service aside… Hitoe Sushi will not disappoint you when it comes to the food, also. I have gone many times, but this review is just based of my two most recent experiences (so yes, I can still guarantee food quality!). Emme and I visited not too long ago, as this is Emme’s Japanese restaurant of preference in Vancouver (like me! Though unfortunately she is now almost unwilling to try any other places). It was a Friday night, and I’m actually not sure what the story is on this, but I believe that Edamame is complimentary on Fridays (and even Thursdays?), as a decent-sized serving of warm and lightly salted Edamame was presented to us after our orders were taken. In other restaurants, we have been unsatisfied with the Edamame since it seems common that tiny portion sizes of the dish are served for a steep price… Thankfully, Hitoe Sushi is not so stingy.
I always order a smattering of little dishes, but the Seaweed Salad is always a favourite. I don’t know what to comment on since the fact of the matter is that it is simply delicious. The red bell peppers may seem like an unusual addition, but they really enhance the presentation (as do the kaiware, or radish sprouts) and add a pleasantly sweet crunch to the salad. The lettuce and veggies are always crisp and fresh, and the seaweed is packed with flavour, as is the dressing. Even if you are not a big salad eater, I would still recommend this!
I enjoy ordering veggie-based rolls most of the time, too, so excuse me for being so repetitive… but both the Kappa Maki (cucumber roll) and Oshinko Maki (pickled radish/takuan roll) are consistently delicious. They are almost perfectly formed, the sushi rice nicely complements the filling (and it is real sushi rice), and the rolls have never fallen apart on me – whether I ate the rolls first or after eating other things. Again, presentation may not seem traditional, but the banana leaves are a nice touch and interesting twist and make for a more extravagant appearance. The ginger is the real stuff – no fluorescent pink, chemical-tasting ginger here. To date, I have not once been presented a poorly made sushi roll at Hitoe Sushi.
Emme really loves sunomono, and got a serving of Ebi Sunomono. Again, lovely presentation — which, in my honest opinion, is actually really important when it comes to Japanese food. A lot of Japanese dishes rely on simple, very flavourful ingredients and thus one has to work a bit harder to produce something that is visually appealing as well. Well, the chefs at Hitoe Sushi certainly have that covered! As for the taste? Yes, the shrimp was fresh, soft, sweet, and just flat out delicious. The dressing was perfect, and neither too vinegary nor too sweet. There was also a nice balance between the noodles and all of the other ingredients; this is related to Hitoe Sushi not being stingy about portions, I believe! Other Japanese restaurants have presented me, in the past, with sunomono where the noodles are practically the only thing in the dish. So no, at least in my and Emme’s opinion, whichever sunomono you order at Hitoe Sushi, you will not be disappointed.
As is probably clear by now, I am indeed a sushi lover. This one particular time I decided to go with two pieces of salmon nigiri along with two other favourites, but all of the nigiri I have had at Hitoe Sushi has been marvelous. I have never come across a chewy piece of salmon, or a piece of ika that was too tough to swallow. It seems to me that all nigiri here is consistently delicious. Again, the rice is genuine sushi rice, and it is the perfect size to match the piece of sashimi that goes along with it. The salmon have always been fresh to the point of maintaining that “melt-in-your-mouth” sensation and tasting like little pieces of heaven (well, in my opinion!). The ebi is, of course, always nicely done and the hokkigai is always pleasantly fresh and never too chewy, also! I have tried tako, hotate, ika, and a variety of other nigiri here and they are always delicious, so go wild when it comes to nigiri. I haven’t experimented much in tasting their vegetarian nigiri, and the only one I tried to eat once was a kaiware nigiri, which I ordered out of ignorance… I couldn’t eat it because I didn’t realize that kaiware (radish sprouts) have such a powerful bitter taste! (Like watercress… blegh. But that is a personal preference and not a reflection of the restaurant at all!)
I realize that this post is becoming too long with me constantly touting the awesomeness of Hitoe Sushi, so I’ll [try to] be more to the point.
I have had the Sockeye Salmon Sashimi at Hitoe Sushi before, and, like the salmon on the tops of the nigiri sushi, it was absolutely outstanding. The salmon tasted so fresh and retained that “melt-in-your-mouth” deliciousness, and the deep red hue was gorgeous, as was the texture. Scallops are also one of my absolute favourite (shell)fish, and the scallops (the Hotate Sashimi) at Hitoe Sushi are, actually, the best scallops I have tasted in Vancouver, cooked or uncooked. They are thawed to perfection, a nice size, of very high quality, and have that special sweetness that you look for in super fresh seafood. The presentation of the dish is gorgeous and the taste is absolutely spot on.
Emme’s not a fan of raw fish and instead really likes ordering the Chicken Teriyaki-don, which she says is particularly good. Again, the sauce is well-balanced and is not sickly sugary or too sweet or anything like that. The chicken is tender and tasty and the entire dish looks beautiful. The dish is also somehow always served pleasantly hot, so diners who are turned off by the idea of a “cold” dinner don’t have to worry — at least not here. Another dish Emme has enjoyed on a different occasion is the Gyuu-don special of some sort, which comes with a side of miso soup. Again, this is “Emme-approved” and is very flavourful and satisfying. The caramelized onions marry beautifully with the beef, and the serving of rice is generous and actually also very good. (It is real sushi rice and quite tasty in its own right!)
I’ve gone on long enough about how great this restaurant is in this post… I would definitely recommend this place to others, and have actually done so to a couple of Japanese-food-fans that told me it was their new favourite place for sushi after trying it. It certainly doesn’t look like much, and don’t expect to be wowed by a stunning interior design or fabulous interior, but both service and food are excellent and result in a great dining experience… It would be good to keep in mind though that Hitoe Sushi really does specialize in sushi of many different varieties; it does offer some bigger dishes (there are a few donburi types offered, and you can get udon too), but sometimes I worry about bringing friends who don’t like sushi here to eat, since their options are limited. This isn’t a weakness of the restaurant or anything, of course — Hitoe Sushi does not sell itself as a full-fledged Japanese restaurant and its name obviously indicates that sushi is what you should expect when you visit.
In any case: Great restaurant. Excellent food. Excellent service. It is that excellence that keeps me (and even Emme) coming back again and again.
Ambiance: 3 [The bathroom could be a bit cleaner!]