Since Fat Burger closed its 1950s diner style location at 1995 Lonsdale Avenue, the venue has seen a number of new occupants.
The first out of the gates was the odd Ole Wings and Tapas, a short lived hybrid restaurant that served à la carte meat skewers, Korean barbecue chicken and other items, requiring the diner to check boxes on a paper menu, selecting proteins and their respective preparations.
Ole must have fine tuned their concept as I notice the business now operates downtown on Robson Street.
Stack Grill was up next, a Jekyll and Hyde operation that doled out familiar casual lunch fare during the day and then meticulously plated, creative, near fine-dining items in the evening, all in the largely unrenovated, old school diner space.
Tawara Sushi was next, bringing with it some renos that better suited the cuisine. It shared the same owner/chef as Stack Grill but did an about-face on concept. Even by sushi restaurant standards, Tawara’s menu was awfully ambitious, featuring all the sushi standards, the usual suspects of accompanying dishes like tempura, gyoza, sunomono, and gomaae, and then teriyaki dishes, noodles, donburi, combo meals, soups and a full page of truly out-there sushi rolls (maki) that involved ingredients that sounded like they were selected by a panel of evil judges on a cooking competition show: “Your sushi roll needs to incorporate Girl Guide cookies and cherry cough drops, and you need make it while blindfolded.” Okay, I’m exaggerating, but not by much.
Tawara was part of a new wave of sushi places that pushed the boundaries of what could reasonably be called sushi, by traditional standards. Sushi Bella on Lonsdale and East Second Street had pioneered this approach on the North Shore some years before, fashioning intricate, impossible-to-pick-up-with-chopsticks maki using unconventional ingredients like chocolate and banana, mango, bacon, Dijon mustard, or asparagus.
Jordan Sushi down the street from Tawara opened around the same time and had a similar approach. Some maki were even doused in brandy and set aflame before being set down on the table. I drew a line in the sand right around then, pronouncing myself a purist and largely avoiding these unwieldy, though undoubtedly imaginative and colourful, maki that felt to me a corruption of the minimalist sushi esthetic.
But you know what? People grow. Maybe it’s being a parent that has helped me lighten up a touch and realize that I am not the designated keeper of cultural tradition nor the appointed defender against culinary exploitation. If you want a Skor Bar in the centre of your sushi roll, who am I to tell you that such an abomination is about as far away from “real” sushi as pulled pork poutine?
Sushi options abound in this city and the number of places that still turn out delicate, understated and traditional fare is sufficient enough to ensure that we don’t end up in some post-apocalyptic dining wasteland with nothing but mutant rolls and deep fried cream cheese being passed off as sushi.
And so, when I was presented with a lovingly assembled “tower” of seafood at Sushi Umi, 1995 Lonsdale’s latest inhabitant, I kept an open mind as my taste buds processed the combination of crab meat in wasabi mayonnaise, delicately diced tuna and salmon sashimi, avocado, basil pesto, balsamic reduc-tion, and crispy fried slivers of garlic.
The union of Asian and Mediterranean culinary traditions is not new and in some cases, it works well. Like here, for example. The delicate, clearly exceptionally fresh fish was enhanced, not burdened, by the light herbal flavours of the preparation. The creamy crab meat had a nice spicy undertone courtesy of the wasabi, and the garlic gave the whole dish, which tended towards the soft in texture, a welcome, subtly integrated crunch. Some cucumber or daikon might have been good in there too.
I ordered a fair bit of food at Sushi Umi for my hastily assembled group of fellow diners and myself. We enjoyed a nice selection of nigiri, including smooth and creamy uni (sea urchin roe), buttery ika (squid), melt-in-your-mouth fresh hamachi (yellow tail), and a couple pieces of the always peculiar but pleasantly chewy and ethereally flavoured hokkigai (surf clam).
While it quickly became evident that Sushi Umi serves ultra fresh fish across the boards, that fact seemed particularly supported by an order of outstanding toro sashimi, the tuna belly revealing an understated, impossibly reserved flavour and gorgeous, rich texture. I claimed the lion’s share of this dish for myself and barely touched the accompanying ginger and wasabi, let alone the soy sauce.
An assortment of vegetarian maki on the vegetarian platter (Veggie Combo A) featured a notably tasty yam tempura roll, a fitting star of the plate given Sushi Umi’s exceptional tempura, of which we sampled both a veggie version (with yam, squash, eggplant, and asparagus), and a remarkable prawn version. The tempura batter was ultra light, perfectly crispy, and appealingly golden and lacy.
And then it came, the roll that had made my eyes roll on the menu, the Tom’s Roll. It was big, bulky, and awkward to eat, but I must confess, I also found it very pretty, and most importantly, truly tasty. Tom’s Roll starts life as a California Roll (cucumber, crab, and avocado). To the outside of that is added a layer of torched salmon, tuna, and prawn. Then comes chopped scallop in spicy barbecue mayo. Next, a drizzle of sweet and savoury onion sauce. Finally, rings of jalapeno peppers. As I type these words I am reminded of the most excellent Taco Town commercial parody from Saturday Night Live. If you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to check it out.
Tom’s Roll shares with that comedy sketch the notion of pure, unabashed excess. Where it departs from comedy, however, is in the thoughtful combination of flavours that actually work on the palate and ensure the roll is not a gimmick, but a viable dish patrons are likely to seek out again. I might very well do just that, or maybe cast my net even wider next time and choose another of the 30 or so non-purist rolls on the Sushi Umi menu. That is, if it hasn’t been reinvented as a Brazilian barbecue joint or vegan noodle house next time I visit.
Our meal, which was more than enough for the five of us, was $93 before gratuity.
Sushi Umi. Facebook.com/SushiUmiLonsdale. 604-770-1737.