Sixty dollars per head for food alone is what I expect to spend for a 3-course dinner at one of the nicer French, Italian, Nouveau American, or Nouveau Canadian restaurants in town. I figured the appetizer would cost around $15, the main around $35, and $10 for the dessert.
If I switched cuisines and opt for a nice Japanese dinner at $60 a head, I would probably get a lot less value for my money in terms of the total dining experience. I could probably get a filling meal consisting of high quality sushi for $60 at Ajisai or Sushi Mart, but the ambience I would get at those restaurants would not match the fine dining establishments. If I were to set my budget at $60 for a dinner at Tojo’s, I would probably leave disspointed in both the amount of food and the type of food I got. At Octopus’s Garden, I would be able to get the high quality and filling omakase for $60. But again, it’s ambience would more resemble a mom-and-pop neighborhood sushi joint than a high-end, dress-up white linen restaurant serving haute cuisine.
While reading up online on whether other people had a similarly disappointing experience as my wife and I did with the sushi at Shuraku , I found out that it was affliated with an upscale, white-linen Japanese restaurant called Zest. What’s more, the menu on their website indicated that they offered both a $45 and $60 prix fixe dinner option. This combination of white-linen ambience and fair price point looked very enticing. So I immediately called to make a dinner reservation for four.
Arriving at the restaurant, I found that it did indeed offer “white-linen” ambience. There were actually white linen tablecloths on all of the tables.
The restaurant wasn’t extravagantly decorated with expensive disigner furniture, but the dim lights and it’s clean, minimalist interior design did elicit a fine-dining feel. Since we were feeling the ambience, both my wife and I decided to go with the $60 prix fixe to see if the food was also fine-diningesque.
My daughter didn’t want anything to do with a non-French multi-course meal, so she ordered her usual dynamite roll and 2 pieces of ikura gunkan sushi.
As usual, we asked her what she thought about her food. She said she liked both the ikura sushi and the dynamite roll. To quote her, both the roll and the ikura were “very delicious”. She proved her fondness for both dishes by finishing them before my son finished the first piece of chicken from his entree portion of chicken karaage.
Being an entree portion, the dish came with a substantial amount of fried chicken. Judging by the rather slow speed that my son was eating his chicken, my wife commented that perhaps my son didn’t like it. She said that the chicken felt a bit tough while she was cutting the pieces up for my son. We then studied the cross section of the pieces of cut up chicken and they indeed looked a little dry. My wife urged me to try a piece to find out if the chicken was as tough and dry as it appeared to be. It wasn’t. My first bite of the piece I had was incredibly juicy and immensely tender. I then dipped what’s left of the piece into the included sauce. The ponzu sauce added another flavour dimension to the chicken that pushed it from mere izakaya-grade karaage into fine-dining territory. After eating the piece of chicken, I tried to articulate how good it was to my wife. She, however, wasn’t ready to believe my hype.
She shot me down with, “oh…you probably ate the only tender piece they gave us…”.
I responded by…shutting up and digging into our first course of sashimi salad that had just arrived.
The salad consisted of thin slices of surf clam, salmon, and tuna atop organic greens. The dressing came on the side and I drizzled the whole cup of dressing onto my salad so that I could get as much flavour as possible on the greens. I guess they didn’t give us enough dressing because all I could taste while eating the salad was the bitterness of the greens. The dressing did not shine through as it was supposed to. Since the slices of fish were so thin, I was also unable to obtain any flavours from them. Their thinness also made their textures unrecognizable among the pile of leaves they sat atop. The only texture that I was able to make out was the texture of the surf clam. They were their usual chewy selves. I thought the chefs made an ingenious move by slicing the surf clam into three smaller pieces. This made the normally chewy-as-gum and impossible-to-swallow surf clam ingestible (and probably also digestible). The surf clam was the bright spot to an otherwise bitter start to our meals.
The next course that came was the Hassun, which was an assortment of 4 traditional Japanese cold appetizers.
My wife is not a fan of kaiseki cuisine so she gave the cold appetizer looks of utter disdain and disapproval. Upon learning what the 4 dishes were, she gave two of them the cold shoulder by pushing them onto my side of the table. Yay! More for me! I ain’t complain’.
The two dishes my wife kept were the green beens in sesame sauce and the tuna tataki/carpaccio. The tuna was the better of the two dishes. Though the slices were thin, there were drizzled in a very flavourful sauce that enhanced the already bold flavours of the bigeye tuna (I kept thinking of how big the eyes were of the fish while I was eating this dish).
The green beans didn’t agree with our Chinese-food trained taste buds because of it’s sesame sauce. The sesame sauce was exactly like the sesame paste that is used as fillings for various Chinese desserts as well as being a sweet dessert soup itself. While eating the dish, both my wife and I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were eating a dessert dish.
I had a double dose of the remaining two appetizers all to myself. The first was the ankimo. It was drizzled in ponzu and came without any other added accompaniments. I had just eaten the worst.ankimo.ever one day earlier in the guise of a gunkan sushi, so I was relieved to see it presented in a traditional manner. Once I had a bite of the ankimo, I really wanted to return my wife’s portion back to her. It’s lack of flavour and it’s extremely dry texture was only slightly better than the version I had at Shuraku the previous day. It had none of the silky smooth and tender texture that is usually associated with good versions of the dish. It was bad but not inedible. I bit the bullet by quickly gulping each piece with a mouthful of water.
The last appetizer was the chilled braised mirugai (geoduck). This dish sounded very interesting to me. The only kinds of geoduck I’ve had were either raw or quickly blanched. I have never had a braised version of the dish. I was totally expecting exciting new flavours and textures when I ate my first piece, but I was met with the flavours and textures of mushy, canned imitation abalone. The best part of the geoduck is it’s juicy and crunchy texture. The braise job ruined this great texture and instead created a mushy and dense texture that was very unpleasant. The failure of this geoduck demonstrates that sometimes it is not a good idea to mess with something that is already amazing.
By the time the tempura came to our tables, both my wife and I were not hopeful that we would receive anything close to a high quality fine-dining meal.
The presentation of the dish showed that they at least got one of the cliches of fine-dining down: The irony. Putting a “deep fried on a stick” course in a $60 prix fixe is such a gutsy and brilliantly conceived idea that I wanted to shake the hands of whoever was behind this dish…But in all seriousness, this was actually a very tasty dish. Every item was perfectly fried. The batter was crispy without being oily and all the vegetables retained their fresh, crisp textures inside their battered skins. The tempura shrimp felt like they just came out of the ocean, with their meat providing a juicy snap to every bite of my teeth.
For her main protein, my wife chose the grilled sablefish with yuzu sauce.
The dish sounded great. The pairing of the aromatic and acidic yuzu with butter-smooth grilled sablefish sounded like such a good idea. I had a taste of the fish and I thought it was well-cooked. The fish was as tender and butter-smooth as imagined and the sauce had sweet and acidic flavours that went well with the fish. The problem that both my wife and I had with the flavours the dish was that this dish tasted exactly like miso-marinated black cod with a little lime juice on top. Neither one of us could find any yuzu aromas in the dish. My wife also said that there was a big difference in the seasoning of the two pieces of fish she received. Whereas the piece I tasted was perfectly seasoned, the other piece was so over-salted that my wife was unable to finish it.
In contrast to the inconsistent fish, my protein of diced ribeye steak had consistent flavours and textures from my first bite to my last bite.
The dish was called diced ribeye steak on the menu, but what I had in front of me was sliced ribeye steak. The temperature of each slice was a perfectly tender medium rare. The soy-butter sauce was beautifully understated. It enhanced but never masked the rich flavours of the ribeye. The bed of assorted Japanese mushrooms also added a subtle umaminess that further enhanced the overall flavours of the dish. This ribeye dish was definitely haute cuisine worthy.
After our proteins, we received an assortment of nigiri sushi.
We were given uni, hirame (flounder) marinated in kombu, bigeye tuna, local (sockeye?) salmon, and hamachi. They were pretty generous with the uni, giving us about 1.5x the amount of what other sushi places serve. The uni was clean tasting, with non of the unpleasant ammonia flavours that usually plagued local uni. It, however, was not as sweet as we had expected. It was better than most versions we have had locally, but not nearly as good as the uni we had at Tojo’s(I really hate to use an item from a ridiculously expensive and so-not-worth-it $300/head meal as a comparison). The hirame also had a beautifully clean flavour that was further elevated by aromatic hints of kombu. The sushi rice below it was perfectly seasoned with a nice, unobtrusive texture while holding room temperature.
This perfect sushi rice also complemented the flavours and textures of every other piece of fish we had. The salmon was firm and fresh; the bigeye tuna had big, bold, and almost bloody (a delicious kind of bloody) flavours; and the hamachi was as unctuous as bluefin otoro. Every piece of sushi we had were beautiful pieces of culinary artwork, and definitely worthy of the haute cuisine moniker.
After we finished our meals, my wife and I asked each other the $60 double question: Was this meal worthy of being a fine dining meal and was it worthy of it’s $60 price? To the first question, we both answered ‘yes’. This was as fine a dining environment as it gets in the local Japanese restaurant scene. White linen tablecloths were on every table and we did feel the ambience of fine dining. For the most part, the food was well-executed and we were certainly full by the end of the meal. All the dishes we received were nicely presently and our servers always attended to our requests with a smile on their faces. Sixty dollars certainly seemed a reasonable price to pay if we took everything into consideration. So yes, it was worth the $60…it’s just that, for the $60, we would rather be eating the omakase at Octopus’s Garden even if it means contorting our figures to fit into the boat table next to the sushi bar.