Spend a few minutes online searching for popular opinions about Westview Plaza’s Hamaei Japanese Restaurant. Wading through hundreds of posts on various platforms, a clear picture will begin to emerge: people think this is one of the best sushi restaurants in the Lower Mainland, let alone on the North Shore.
There is a lot of superlative language surrounding Hamaei, from claims about the freshness of its fish to the idea that it is unrivalled in its Japanese authenticity. As a print columnist, I am wary about digital hype; it is so easy to manufacture and so often is based on little to no concrete evidence or experience. A string of vaguely phrased, positive or negative reviews of a business concentrated over the course of a week or two, for instance, screams of manipulation. Conversely, when you see consistent messaging, spread out over time by voices far and wide, there is often at least a kernel of truth to what is being said.
In the case of Hamaei, to which I was first introduced back in 2003 by a chef friend of mine, the hype is entirely justified. The small, unassuming restaurant, in its unlikely location just a stone’s throw from McDonald’s in an aging North Shore strip mall, doles out some of the best sushi you can find anywhere. Hamaei’s supply sourcing (which includes regular shipments directly from Japan) is clearly extremely disciplined, resulting in staggering freshness across the board . Sushi preparation here is meticulous, translating into elegant, bite-sized morsels of sashimi, nigiri, and maki, and not the unwieldly, please-unhinge-your-jaw style of fare that too often prevails in our market. The last time I reviewed Hamaei, back in 2013, I extolled the virtues of its excellent omakase offering, a multi-course feast in which the diner puts her fate in the hands of the chef, who personally selects the best of what the house has to offer at that moment. Hamaei’s omakase requires a reservation, but it is well worth experiencing.
While my latest Hamaei experience, with my wife DJ, focussed heavily on sushi, the restaurant nevertheless offers a robust menu of other Japanese fare, including both creative and traditional items like grilled kanpachi (amberjack) cheeks, steamed custard, marinated black cod, and, on the evening of my visit, grilled lamb chops and fiddlehead tempura. The sashimi fresh sheet included rarely seen items like aori ika (big fin reef squid), hou bou (sea robin), and megina (large scale black fish).
We kicked our meal off with a light and fresh mound of gomaae, or quick-blanched spinach with toasted sesame dressing. The spinach was tossed in the dressing (unlike at many places where the dressing is spooned on top for the diner to mix), evenly coating the leaves without bogging them down.
From there I segued into a kani sunomono salad, a cold glass-noodle dish with seasoned rice vinegar, cucumbers, and a remarkably generous portion of Dungeness crab meat, featuring hearty, in-tact large claw portions of the sweet, briny meat.
An order of pristine sashimi followed, including fish from the evening’s fresh sheet. Two morsels of madai (red sea bream) were particularly great, tender but not buttery in texture and packed with a pleasant depth of flavour. Two hamachi slices were melt-in-the-mouth succulent, as were two morsels of outstandingly fresh, subtly sweet and complex scallops. Salmon, cuttlefish, tuna, and surf clam, all very fresh, rounded out the dish. The sashimi presentation here is simple and refined, with a few shisho leaves, a bouquet of red dulse, pickled ginger, lemon, and wasabi.
Up next was a colourful assortment of nigiri and maki. Two pieces of bright red tuna looked like they had been painted atop the rice, so vibrant was their hue. As a general observation, I’d say the Hamaei kitchen needs to be commended for their grasp of the concept of bite-sized nigiri, each piece representing a single, manageable mouthful. Additionally, while adequately cool, none of the fish was outright cold, allowing for the flavours to really shine through and making for a much more enjoyable sensory experience. I have encountered nearly-frozen fish at sushi restaurants on a number of occasions and that level of cold simply shuts down the flavour profile of the fish and makes for an arduous meal.
The red tuna was exquisitely silken in texture, while two more pieces of madai, topped with thin ribbons of ginger, reinforced the quality of this fish. Three pieces of aji (in this case, Spanish mackerel) were packed with the signature oiliness and firmer texture of this fish, and were greatly enhanced by the dollop of freshly grated ginger and slivers of scallion with which each was topped.
DJ tucked into a kanpyo maki, a roll made with rehydrated ribbons of desiccated calabash squash, an ingredient most commonly seen in the popular futomaki, a thick roll that also often contains tamago (seasoned omelet), cucumber, and mushroom. The kanpyo was delicate in flavour and velvety in texture. A yam tempura roll was perhaps the one uncharacteristic dish of our meal, with uneven, larger-than-bite-sized rounds from which some of the accompanying ingredients – in particular the avocado – fell rather easily in transit from the plate to the mouth.
Now, about the aforementioned fiddlehead tempura: it was outstanding. I am sorry to report that we are at the end of fiddlehead season and by the time you read these words, that appetizer special is almost certain to have disappeared from Hamaei’s menu for another year. However, given the restaurant’s tendency to employ seasonal ingredients, I am confident there will be something else unique worth trying.
I finished the meal with my version of dessert: two pieces of nigiri made from delicate, light, and ethereal uni (sea urchin) all the way from Hokkaido. Hokkaido uni is much smaller and, to my palate, considerably more nuanced in flavour than our local uni, which anyway is only in season in the colder months. Each uni nigiri was $9.
Our meal was $110 before gratuity.
Hamaei Japanese Restaurant, 620 - 2601 Westview Drive, North Vancouver. Hamaei.ca. 604-987-0080.