When there are so many fantastic restaurants on the West Side of Vancouver itself, there’s rarely – if ever – any need to venture anywhere else for great food. However, seeking escape from the “usual” scenery one afternoon, Emme and I headed over to the North Shore for dinner. I was craving Japanese food, as usual, so we passed by and checked out a few, but ended up picking Ki-Isu simply because we were starving when we stopped by and tired of comparing to see which was best. Plus, Ki-Isu had a “restaurant”-y feel that several other Japanese places we saw lacked. (They were more take-out based places, and while I know that those take-out places can serve up really fantastic sushi sometimes, Emme likes to have a very nice ambiance when we dine out… Understandable, I think.)
We chose to sit at the “sushi bar”, since the only other option available was sitting at tables on either sides of two obnoxiously loud diners (the only other people in the restaurant) or by the door. As we looked over the menu, I could hear the waitresses and chefs speaking Korean… so to those who care about authenticity (erm, like me, for example…), this place isn’t actually Japanese-managed. I was starving, though, so Emme and I stayed put. The ambiance, aside from the noise from the other two diners, was quite nice. The place is tastefully decorated with a dark colour scheme, and the kitchen is in full view of the dining room and is also very clean and organised. The lighting was actually perfect for taking photos – at least by the sushi bar. However, it was cold inside. You’d think that because the place is relatively small, it would be easy to keep warm… but Emme and I had to pull our coats back on right after taking them off. Again – eating with your winter coat on isn’t fun!
There were two waitresses the night that we stopped by. One was extremely rude. She was inflexible when it came to asking for minor substitutions to items on the menu (even though the chefs, who could obviously hear us ordering since we were sitting at the bar, said that would be quite willing to meet our requests!). She also got irritated when Emme asked any questions about portion size or what an item was (I speak Japanese, but Emme doesn’t). In addition, not once did she top up our tea cups or water glasses, whether we asked (and we did… several times) or not. Thankfully, the other waitress stepped in to finish taking our orders after the first got annoyed when we had to change our orders since she refused to relay requests for menu substitutions (even though, as I said, the chefs were right there and happy to make some substitutions). This second waitress was extremely accommodating, and, although her English wasn’t as good as the first waitress’s, very polite. It was definitely a case of having polar opposite restaurant service… in the same restaurant.
As for the food… Emme started off with some Edamame, which… were served in a bamboo basket?? Definitely had not seen that sort of thing before… but they must have been freshly steamed, because they were warm. They cooled down very quickly, though – a warm ceramic bowl probably would’ve helped keep the heat a little better. They were good, though, as Emme said. She had a Crab Sunomono while working on the edamame, but was so quick to eat the sunomono that I didn’t catch a shot of it. It was okay, but a little pricy for the portion size that was served up. She also said it tasted funny, but couldn’t put her finger on what was off about it. Her main dish was the Beef Teriyaki Donburi, which was actually served very hot and was giving off steam when it arrived. I was already in a biased, judgmental mode because of the rude waitress and thought it would be bad, but alas – the chef’s skills are of course no reflection of the poor service. The dish was really tasty, Emme commented, and the sauce was not too heavy while adding just the right amount of flavour. However, she added that while it was indeed really delicious, it did not seem at all like Japanese food, but that it was really good Korean food. This I can actually totally understand, because, after all… a donburi is supposed to be a meal were you have something served over rice! Traditionally in a bowl, I think. So while it was a good dish, it wasn’t a real donburi at all, really. (To be fair, they did give Emme rice. But it came with her sunomono and edamame, as though it wasn’t meant to be eaten with the beef. Also, the rice… was just plain rice. It was totally flavourless and bland, while sushi rice – or at least the rice that good Japanese restaurants will serve – usually has more of a slight sweetness (probably from having a bit of rice vinegar added to it?).
As for myself, I also decided to try out a sunomono, but went with a plain one – so a Plain Sunomono. I recognised that the funny taste Emme mentioned was due to the salad not having the right sort (well, I say “right sort” but I suppose I mean “traditional”) dressing for a sunomono. It lacked the sweetness you will typically taste in a sunomono, and had a strange, faint spicy kick to it. It was definitely unexpected, seeing as sunomono dishes are usually supposed to just be cool and refreshing. Also, what happened to the cucumbers? They looked like they had been mangled in a food processor for a second or two or something. They had no crunch or taste and just fell apart when I tried to pick some up. Well… at least the presentation was very nice.
As for the Miso Soup… It was so nondescript that I can hardly comment. It was literally just miso paste with some hot water poured over top. No wakame seaweed, no tofu, and definitely no green onions.
The Kappa Maki was a much needed “pleasant surprise” and a real sight for sore eyes (or a real taste for a deprived mouth? Not sure if there’s a food version of that expression…). The rice was not real sushi rice, but these cucumbers were fresh and crunchy and the rolls at least held together very well. The pickled ginger had a weird flavour (again with the spicy kick, as though it may have been pickled with a mild type of chili pepper or something) but wasn’t bad.
By now it is hopefully clear that no, I’m not a fan of this restaurant… but I will grudgingly admit that the nigiri sushi was good. The sashimi pieces were all fresh and very flavourful (guess that’s just due to high quality ingredients though!), although not all cut in a traditional way. The hokkigai (surf clam) pieces were huge and those nigiri were definitely done in a style I’d never seen, but were really good – and I definitely appreciated the slightly larger portion size. It was kind of weird that it took so long for the sushi to come out, though. Emme’s dinner actually came out before mine… I’m not 100% sure, but aren’t sushi dishes supposed to come out first – so you can appreciate the more subtle tastes of raw dishes before eating stuff with stronger sauces and more powerful flavours? I’m not Japanese, but I know I’ve been told something like that before…
Anyway. I’m not going back. The sushi may have been good, but it was not outstanding, and I know I can get much better sushi for a much better price elsewhere. If you want non-traditional but mediocre Japanese food with a sort of Korean twist that’s served up with a side of bad service, though, go ahead and check the place out. At least the classy interior décor will keep you distracted.
Value: 3 [Decent prices.]