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All is Bene in Ambleside

WHEN bad-boy chef turned author and TV host Anthony Bourdain came to Vancouver last fall he spoke about food trends and phenomena he hated. Child foodies, he said, were intolerable.

WHEN bad-boy chef turned author and TV host Anthony Bourdain came to Vancouver last fall he spoke about food trends and phenomena he hated.

Child foodies, he said, were intolerable. Wouldn't it be ridiculous, he asked the audience, to hear some little kid say "Please, can I have some sushi?"

We chuckled uncomfortably and shifted in our seats. Truth is, around these parts, you are as likely to find five-year-old tekka maki lovers as not. You can't walk a block in Greater Vancouver without tripping over a sushi joint. It's a blessing and a curse. While children here might look upon healthy rice, fish and nori as convenience food (blessing), we have so much mediocre sushi, you could pave the sidewalks with it (curse).

I love it as much as the next West Coaster of course - not to do so is almost akin to wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey - but it feels pedestrian to be telling you about yet another outlet for decent California rolls. Which is why I was dragging my feet to visit Bene Sushi Restaurant, Ambleside's latest contender in the ongoing campaign for your dining dollars.

I couldn't put it off any longer though, so earlier this week I headed west and met Big J for a weekday lunch.

The building that houses Bene has had a facelift, a wee nip and tuck (which seems fitting, given West Van's soon-to-be featured role on the reality show The Real Housewives of Vancouver). The nondescript grey cladding has been replaced with a pretty cedar veneer, glass awnings stretch over the storefront, and the new sign gleams above street level. It's inside though, that the space really sparkles. It's big, with dark wood and red accented booths stretching around corners, and modern chandeliers hang like constellations over the hostess station and the sushi bar.

I wanted to be sniffy and unimpressed, because really, if you've seen one sushi spot, you've seen them all, right? But Bene isn't like the rest. Did I mention it's sparkly?

Big J had snagged a window table tucked around the corner, and we thumbed through heavy, gilt-edged menus. The list of dishes isn't like the rest either. You'll find all your favourites, but you will also find Bene Fusion, featuring izakaya-style dishes like Ebiyonnaise (prawn tempura with house mayonnaise), beef tataki, and seared tuna. As well as traditional rolls, there are a slew of original creations, from flame rolls, actually served flaming, to deep-fried sushi rolls and about 20 "Exotic Rolled Sushi."

We weren't going to make a noticeable dent in this menu, but we gave it our best shot. Soon our little table was crowded with dishes and platters of artfully arranged maki.

The Bene Roll, a tightly wrapped composition of prawn tempura and crab, got a kick from spicy braised tuna layered on top. The deep fried roll combo featured California, Dynamite and yam tempura rolls each lightly battered and dropped in the fryer before slicing. The result was deliciously satisfying and decadent. Best of all though, was the spectacular Black Tiger Roll - a full-on construction of crab, salmon, tuna, avocado and cooked prawn, made with black rice and fanned with crisp slices of Asian pear.

We managed to polish off everything on our plates - but there was no going on for more. Next time, we'll tackle the a la carte section of the menu. And we'll bring our sushi-loving kids.

Take that, Bourdain.

Bene isn't cheap, but this is clearly a case of getting what you pay for. The bill for our admittedly huge lunch was $49.11, including HST. We drank complimentary green tea.

Bene Sushi Restaurant, 1574 Marine Dr., West Vancouver; 604-913-1112; www.benesushi.com.

dlancaster@nsnews.com