Friday, November 15, 2013

Omakase at Octopus' Garden

Two years ago I went to Tojo's for my birthday. My friends and I went all out and ordered the omakase, or "chef's menu", which consisted of six adventurous courses. Tasting menus are always exciting because you are putting your trust in the chef's ability and in those ingredients which happen to be fresh that day. In my mind, the excitement is elevated when ordering this in a Japanese restaurant because the daily fresh ingredients are often an array of rare and wiggly sea creatures. I wanted to try omakase at Octopus' Garden because it is about 33% cheaper than Tojo's and I know two people who think it is just as good. My girlfriend treated me, which is extra special due to the fact that she can be a bit squeamish when it comes to raw bivalves and bottom-feeders.

The first course was a delicate salad of pea shoots, beet blossoms, and organic greens topped with one piece of wild salmon and one piece of wild smoked salmon. We had heard, through Yelp and friends, that the chef often starts things off with the restaurant's trademark quail egg and uni shooter. We had been dreading this mucousy concoction so were relieved when this beautiful, light salad was offered in its place.

Dun, dun, dunnnnnnnnnnn...the shooter was the second course! We thought we had avoided it, but no. There it was in front of us, in all of its slimy glory. A gelatinous raw quail egg floating atop two oozing orange uni sacks sitting in a base of okayu. Erin and I just stared at one another, trying not to look scared or disappointed over the monstrosities sitting before us in two transparent shot glasses. We whisked this unctuous mixture with our chopsticks and then reluctantly raised the glasses to our mouths, silently daring one another to take the first seafoody slurp. The flavour - an earthy and salty umami - was not bad, but the texture challenged our internal fortitude and triggered our gag reflexes. Three chewy sips and it was gone. The third course could not have come any sooner.

The third dish was a palate-cleansing white-and-brown mushroom soup, served in a joka (a small ceramic kettle commonly used to serve shochu). The broth was rich but clear and light. The thinly-sliced mushrooms in the soup were tender and comforting. We both agreed that we could eat much more of this. It was like a mylar first aid blanket for our mouth holes.

The fourth dish was a grilled pork medallion coated with a thin layer of uni. After never having uni before, we had it twice in one night! This was an interesting dish. I liked it less with every bite due to the strong flavours of the charbroiled pork and salty uni. It was satisfying though, and suited the rainy weather outside. This was a hearty dish.

The fifth course was sashimi. Beautifully presented on a long white ceramic plate, we were given the following uber fresh selections: blue fin, otoro, octopus, smoked mackerel, cod, and herring roe. The textures and subtle flavour differences between all of these samples were really enjoyable. The chef did a wonderful job of including creatures that offered unique mouthfeels and tasting characteristics. 

The sixth course was arguably our favourite. It was so simple, yet so elegantly prepared. It consisted of a thin slice of rock cod that was poached and served in a mildly sweet baby shiitake broth, topped with a sprinkling of green onion. Like the mushroom soup, Erin and I wished that there had been copious amounts of this. But I suppose it would not have been as memorable or as precious had there been more of this expertly-crafted dish. So good.

The seventh dish came in a charming painted box, and we were excited to see that this was the long-awaited nigiri course. Containing house-smoked salmon, blue fin, mackerel, smoked mackerel, cod, and tamago to finish things off, these nigiri were dainty and delicious.

At this point, we were feeling the protein coursing through our veins and sensing that even one wafer-thin mint would do us in. However, our dimpled and hospitable Japanese waitress came to our table with yet another dish, a dessert of matcha tiramisu. We didn't really want to eat this final dish, but the mascarpone was so light and the cake so moist that we couldn't resist. It was served with pear green tea, which was the perfect end to the meal, since this is my favourite.

While I believe that omakase should only be ordered once in a while due to the cost and richness involved, it is definitely a memorable experience that everyone should try. Thanks for such an awesome dinner out, Erin :)

Keywords: "Alex Dawkins", "Omakase Tojo's", "Octopus' Garden Vancouver"    

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