Archive for May, 2011
On another “excursion” for Japanese food for dinner – solely for the sake of satisfying my craving for sushi, again, of course – Emme and I tried out “Hi-Nippon”. We’d actually been there before, over a year ago, and while Emme said it hadn’t been particularly noteworthy on that occasion, I insisted we try it again. After all, some restaurants improve over time – whether it’s their food, service, or décor. (That said, however, some restaurants can also get worse over time in either or all three of those points… and just in general.) Unfortunately, Hi-Nippon didn’t really get better. It didn’t get worse either. But before I even proceed, I’ll just throw it out there that no, we probably won’t go back.
We were seated after standing awkwardly at the entrance for a minute or two, as the waitresses chatted in the back and only took notice of us when one accidentally glanced over. The booths are nicely separated, so you have your own little area to yourself while you dine, although you have to take off your shoes to get in one. I have to agree with Emme on the point that it doesn’t seem there is a good reason to do this… You end up having to have your feet on the same floor that you entered on anyway – and if you’re not wearing socks, it’s not the most comfortable nor pleasant experience. Nevertheless, I like the fact that you get your own booth with little “walls” around it, and the ambiance is pretty good in general as well. The only thing I might change is the way that they have random menu items plastered on the walls in equally random places. Perhaps one specials board that people can see would be more useful, rather than having the takoyaki special posted on one side of the restaurant (where some, but not all, customers can see it) and the okonomiyaki option posted on the other side. Some traditional artwork in place of those pieces of paper might be more eye-catching, though just taking those posters down would be nice enough. (Bare walls would be better than having messily written specials posted up.)
The service after we were seated was pretty mediocre. Even though we were close to where the waitresses were hanging out for most of the time, it was difficult to catch their attention to make menu orders, ask for water or tea refills, etc. They weren’t keen on explaining any menu items that were asked about and were a bit impatient taking orders. In any case, Emme and I received all of the dishes we asked for, so I can’t complain about that, at least.
Emme ordered her typical dish, Beef Teriyaki Meal, which came with a cute little side salad called the Oriental Salad, some miso soup, and also a bowl of rice. The short of it is that the salad was good, as the veggies were fresh and the dressing gave a nice tart flavour and slight hint of spice to it, and the miso soup was sub-par, with only some lonely green onion bits floating on top, one piece wakame seaweed, and no tofu whatsoever. The rice was just plain steamed rice – not sushi rice… which is fine, I suppose, as the menu didn’t give us any false pretense about it anyway.
The beef teriyaki dish itself was okay. At the very least, it was well cooked, if a little overdone and a bit too chewy. The sauce was not teriyaki sauce, but something much more pungent and not very sweet. In my opinion, the dish didn’t look very appetizing, and the sauce was too thick. In Emme’s opinion, it was too sour, and the bean sprouts had evidently been way overcooked; it would have been nice if they had maintained even a little bit of crunch, but in turn they were super soggy, along with the other scarce veggies (two little broccoli florets and a few slices of overcooked carrot, I believe). One thing that was nice was that the dish was actually steaming hot, so it was at least fresh, although there were numerous inedible pieces of fat mixed in with the beef. I thought the sesame seeds on top added a nice touch, since they gave a little bit of crunch to what was otherwise a rather soggy and “floppy” meal.
I decided to take a chance and order some sashimi: Sockeye Salmon Sashimi. Usually sashimi is a pretty way to gauge how good a Japanese restaurant is, I think? It is raw fish, so it boils down to the chef’s technique and the quality of the ingredients, really – two things that are pretty crucial in making delicious food. The presentation was very nice. But that is literally the only good thing I can say about it. It. Was. The. Worst. Sashimi. I. Had. Ever. Eaten. I have had a lot of sashimi, but this was so poorly done that it was just… ugh! I don’t want to use any stronger words of disgust in fear of being too offensive, but it was like eating slabs of flavourless, rubber tire. There was absolutely no taste. At all. This is the first time that I’ve so direly needed to use soy sauce to accompany my sashimi. I think I was doubly disappointed because sockeye salmon is one of my favourite types of fish – if not my number one favourite, next to scallops. Moving on…
I got a Shiitake Mushroom Roll on the side. I love mushrooms, and this isn’t a traditional roll (I think?) so I thought it’d be fun to try. To be to the point, it was bad. Poorly formed – amateur-ish, almost. Bland rice. Unusually soggy nori. Artificially coloured pickled ginger on the side. It was disappointment #2, for me.
Obviously this meal would be too scarce in terms of veggies for a veggie-lover such as myself, so I also ordered Vegetable Soba in Soup. Another disappointment. At first glance, it may seem as though there were lots of veggies… Let me dispel that illusion and say that was not the case at all. There was a thin layer of veggies on the top — spread across the surface so as to conceal the unbelievable and unnecessarily large amount of noodles underneath. The vegetables were okay – fresh enough, and the bowl was not so hot as to overcook them immediately – but the broth had no flavour. Flavourless meals do not appeal to me. Especially when the vegetables need some sort of tasty accompaniment. I could only sadly reminisce about the fantastic-tasting broth at Ichiro.
Hi-Nippon may have seemed promising with its decent décor and extensive menu, but the food itself is miserable and the service is no better. On this particular occasion, the food was almost below average. It’s very standard, sub-par Japanese fare, in my and Emme’s opinions. I honestly don’t get why there is so much praise for this place. Maybe because the décor seems semi-authentic? Or because the menu seems quite extensive? Or perhaps even because it’s not that expensive? Whatever the case, it gets a thumbs down by me. Despite my initial excitement upon looking at the menu (“Ooh, I’ll have to come back to try all the more exotic-sounding dishes!“), I was quite sorely disappointed. There are far better Japanese restaurants in the vicinity for me to dine at, if I want quality – even if those other places have more limited menus.
Value: 3 [Low prices for low quality.]
When M, N, and I go out for dinner, we have a tendency to go to Japanese restaurants or little hole-in-the-wall sushi places. Perhaps each of the three of us has our own role to play in that constant decision, but I’m pretty sure that it is mostly due to the fact that I take any opportunity to eat Japanese that I can… M and N are both more compliant than Emme is, when it comes to eating Japanese. The reason for that is obvious: I drag Emme out to eat Japanese food with me at least twice a month – sometimes more, if I can – and M and N don’t go out to eat it as often. That being said, however, M and N do get tired of my tendency to always suggest Japanese for dinner, and so one evening we set up a dinner at a Thai restaurant: Wimaan Thai. I any case, I wanted to retry going out for Thai food, since my last experience (at SalaThai) wasn’t exactly a positive one.
I think M and N probably drew different conclusions about Wimaan Thai, since they’re not as nitpicky and selective as I am when it comes to restaurants and food quality, but I wasn’t particularly impressed with Wimaan Thai, either. M started off with some spring roll creation, called Paw Pia Wimaan, which were stuffed with vegetables and vermicelli. M thought they were great, although the sauce was really the selling point. The rolls were nice and crispy, but a little bit greasier than necessary.
As is my undying habit, I got a salad – the Wimaan Salad. It is what it is. The vegetables were nice and crisp and fresh. I think the sauce was what really was supposed to make or break the dish… Unfortunately I wasn’t all that fond of it, and ended up putting some of the chili sauce (that came with my main dish) – or sambal oelek, I think it’s called? – on the salad to kick up the flavour.
Speaking of my dish… I got Tom-Yum-Goong, which I’ve been wanting to try for a while, since I am an avid lover of seafood and have only recently come to like spicy things. I was sorely disappointed with what I got, unfortunately. There was nary a prawn in sight in my far-too-oily bowl of tasteless grease. Loads of mushrooms, a skimpy amount of cilantro, and two prawns were what I found… in addition to a boatload of oil. It was neither hot nor sour, which is what I heard tom yum goong should taste like – since it is often just called “Hot & Sour Soup” at restaurants. You can bet I added some of that chili paste stuff (in the little pot behind the soup bowl, in the photo) to attempt to make it more appealing. No such luck.
M, on the other hand, went with a chicken curry, which was probably a safer choice (well, for individuals not allergic to coconut, at least). Her Gaen Kiaw Waan looked and smelled far more appetizing than my dish, although I could detect the distinct scent of coconut. M said it was good, and had plenty of flavour despite the fact that she had asked for it to only be mildly spiced. Also, as is her personal preference, there were far more chicken pieces than vegetables, although the chicken was tough and chewy. (Still… She got all those chicken pieces and I got TWO prawns! Come on! I was definitely a bit sore about that…)
N ordered off of the menu of specials: Gaeng Phed Gai and chose spinach out of an option between spinach and some other vegetable that I can’t recall, but one that N and M both agreed that they dislike. (Chances are that I like it, haha.) In all honesty, N’s dish looked the tastiest, and in my opinion she looked the most pleased upon eating it. I refrained from trying both of their curry-like dishes since they both had coconut (and, of course, I’m allergic). She would’ve rather had a bit more chicken, as the bowl was stuffed with plenty of [overcooked] spinach, but the sauce was very good. Not too heavy, nor oily at all. The coconut flavour was most pronounced in this curry, and complemented the curry flavour beautifully. For some reason, her chicken was not overcooked and tough like Marie’s — although there was less of it — but the veggies in her dish were soggy, sad-looking, and limp.
If I were to give my best guess, it would be that Wimaan Thai has really great curries – and perhaps some other types of dishes that we didn’t try, like the famous Thai dish, pad thai – but not-so-great other dishes. It’s completely hit-and-miss. I like consistency in the quality of food at a restaurant, so I probably won’t be revisiting Wimaan Thai to taste-test their other dishes.
Aside from the food, the service wasn’t particularly good. The restaurant was completely empty when we went, and there were two waitresses… but they mostly hung out at the back of the restaurant, chatting to each other and ignoring us. After we had our orders taken, we didn’t get top-ups for our water glasses until the food was delivered. Then after that, never again — which was tough for me to accept, since I was trying to give my food more flavour with chili and simultaneously trying to cool off my mouth with cold water. (Yes yes, I’ve heard that’s supposedly not how you’re supposed to cool off your mouth, and that you’re supposed to do it with milk or some dairy sort of food of some sort…) Our waitress spoke very poor English as well, and was very hesitant to answer questions or alter dishes according to our preferences. Communicating their spice levels of preference was a bit frustrating for M and N, I think… just because the waitress didn’t seem to approve of the fact that both M and N were asking that typically spicy dishes be made milder. She wasn’t exactly friendly or cheerful, either… and the other waitress didn’t even want to come anywhere near our table, even if we were asking for service when we couldn’t catch the attention of her colleague.
The ambiance was nothing special. It was a bit depressing, if anything. The restaurant was unexpectedly large, but was dank, dark, and a bit musty. Décor is minimal, and some of the few decorations are a bit tacky. It just felt like there had been, at best, a half-hearted and lazy attempt to make you feel as though you were in a Thai restaurant, what with a couple of random Thai decorations on the wall. That was about it, though. There was no ambient music, and the lighting was poor. Like I said: dark and kind of depressing.
Perhaps with a bit more colour and some upgrades, the idea of eating at Wimaan Thai would be a bit more appealing. As it stands, though, it’s not a place where I want to dine again, given its hit-and-miss dishes, unimpressive service, and general lack of a “nice” ambiance.
Always on the lookout for new Japanese places [with good food, of course], it was hard to ignore Hapa Izakaya with all the good things written about it online and recommendations from friends. It also has a great location, and seemed super promising, especially because the place was fully booked with reservations when we visited. Luckily, Emme and I are in the habit of dining relatively early and managed to get a table after giving our word that we’d be out within two hours.
A quick note, to those who care about this (like me): This place is authentic. The kitchen staff and the waitresses are all Japanese. If you take a peek at their website, as well, you’ll see that they’ve won all sorts of awards, one of the most recent being a Georgia Straight Golden Plate Award for “#1 Best Izakaya”. (Kind of redundant having “#1” right next to “best” but whatever. Moving on…)
The izakaya is really quite classy, in terms of its interior and even its exterior. The store’s sign is simple, but simplicity done in good taste. The lack of neon signs advertising “Take out” and missing menu pictures make it clear: Hapa Izakaya is good enough to draw customers in without all of that. It was pleasantly warm inside, and the lighting was dim enough to give off the impression that it is truly an izakaya – a Japanese style bar. Décor is, like the storefront, simple but elegant.
From when we walked in without a reservation to when we were served, the service was consistent and our waitress was attentive and helpful. We were served tea and water and only had trouble getting refills after our food had been served. This is the case in a lot of restaurants – so many, in fact, that I’m beginning to wonder if servers are told to all but abandon tables that have already been served… Anyway – the service was good up until we were served our meals. All waitresses were friendly and polite, and the one that mixed our Ishiyaki bowls was nice enough to stay for a couple of minutes and tell us about the restaurant when we asked. After that, though, we were essentially ignored.
As for the food… It was fantastic. I love Japanese pickles, so obviously I had to get the Oshinko to start. Pretty standard Japanese dish, and yes, it was tasty – although nowhere close to being the highlight of the evening.
While I started on my oshinko moriawase, Emme got some Teriyaki Meatballs to start. These were very good. Thoroughly and perfectly cooked and seasoned. They were very flavourful and lacked the sickly sweetness taste that some teriyaki sauces impart on food. The mushrooms added a nice aesthetically pleasing aspect to the dish, enhancing the presentation of something that isn’t really all that pretty… and, at the same time, they were tasty on their own, too. (Bonus~!)
Being the big veg-eater that I am, I got a dish that combined two of my favourite things to eat: sashimi and salad: the Sashimi Salad. I have to say, I was amused by this salad for quite a while before actually chomping down. I love eating sashimi, but rarely do I get to see the “faces” of those sea critters that I consume… so I couldn’t help but sort of funny but sad to have my dinner looking at me [with dead eyes, mind you]. No, I’ll probably never be a vegetarian, because I love the taste of seafood so much, but anyway… The salad was delicious! The “soy herb dressing” was a fantastic accompaniment and added a wonderful flavour profile to the raw greens and seafood, which were both incredibly fresh. Seriously, do they have a tank of live prawns in the kitchen? These little guys were the freshest, sweetest, and most tender prawns I have ever had the joy of eating.
For our main courses, Emme and I both decided to get one Veggie Ishiyaki each. The waitress guaranteed that it would be delicious and filling — and she was right. A server mixes your rice with its toppings (root veggies and mixed mushrooms, in this case) – as you can see in the pictures – at your table in a very hot bowl. (Seriously, don’t touch the bowl.) Not only was this pretty entertaining and kind of impressive in a way, but it also ensured that the rice in the bowl crisps up a bit, giving an awesome texture to an already tasty dish. It may look kind of oily in the picture, but it really wasn’t. It wasn’t heavy enough to make you feel like you had a rock in your stomach, but was filling and a pleasure to eat. Both the rice and the veggies are plentiful – so the flavour combo is pretty spot on. Both Emme and I loved our ishiyaki bowls, although neither of us could actually finish them and ended up bringing a small amount of leftover rice home. The waitress didn’t seem surprised that we didn’t finish, at least. Definite thumbs up to this dish — generous portions, delicious, and reasonably priced.
Overall, we really enjoyed our experience, although the service did take a dive after we had been served and more customers started to flow in. This is quite customary in popular restaurants, though truly great service is consistently attentive from the time the customer comes in until they actually pay the bill and leave — in my opinion, at least. With the fabulous ambiance and fabulous food, I suppose I can hardly complain. Worth noting is the fact that, despite being a popular izakaya or bar with a large assortment of alcoholic beverages and drinks, it never really got too loud, which both Emme and I appreciated… although it can take a while to get used to the shouting that goes on between the waitresses and the kitchen staff, haha. It bothered Emme when we first entered, but you do eventually just become accustomed to it and tune it out – probably because you’ll be too busy enjoying a great meal. That said, it is obviously a very popular place, so make reservations ahead of time!