The sushi chef stands alone at the bar, skillfully unlocking the boundless wonders of fresh fish with each slice of his knife. Next comes the nuanced melding of hands to produces a delicate formation of rice that holds together with nary a grain that is packed tight against another. A touch of wasabi goes on top, then comes the fish. The result is hauntingly beautiful, a stunning homage to the beauty of seafood.
The setting is your typical small and family-run sushi restaurant in Vancouver. Manning the operation today, every day in fact, is nothing but a husband and wife team. They somehow manage the impossible task of preparing sushi and sashimi, running a tiny robata BBQ, making side dishes and doing front-of-house operations. The customers today include two families with young children, 20-something foodies and couples on dates: everyone is welcome.
One evokes memories of Sukiyabashi Jiro. The other, well, seems like any random mom-and-pop sushi counter found in every neighbourhood in Vancouver.
Sushi Hachi manages to be both of these things.
From first impressions, this is not a place that takes their art too seriously. You don’t have to eat your nigiri from least to most strongly flavoured, feel free to eat it in whatever order you prefer, says the wife. It’s up to you to figure out the correct order, if you care that is, because it doesn’t even come arranged that way on the plate.
Traditionalists might be shocked to see that the shoyu or other condiment is not brushed on for you. It’s as if the perfectionism streak in Japanese cuisine has gone on vacation, leaving a free-for-all of personal choice that in Japanese cuisine usually translates to ‘all-you-can-eat’.
Some moments after this initial consternation though, the first bite of sushi is taken. From that point on, none of these concerns matter. This is an ethereal sushi experience by Greater Vancouver standards. The quantities and budget that you intended to stick to soon get thrown out the door. Each bite tops the one before, each bite leaves you wanting more and thus the uncontrollable descent into sushi nirvana begins.
Most people in this city have probably never heard of Sushi Hachi. It’s not an unexpected consequence of being open 5 days a week for 3 hours over dinner and being located in a nondescript Asian strip mall in Richmond.
No one here is complaining though. Walk-ins don’t stand a chance of getting a seat at one of the five small tables or six seats at the bar.
Even with such a small crowd, it’s impossible to imagine how the restaurant with two people. The husband may not be the most welcoming chef, but he takes pride in the quality of his fish, personally selecting all of his fish and even fishing some of his own every morning. If no good fish is available, then it won’t be served that day. Simple.
I’ve heard mixed reviews about the sashimi here, including complaints about cutting skills (fish sliced too thin) and value, but typically my preference is to try the nigiri rather than sashimi. Based on pictures it does look like there’s some skimping on the sashimi but that wasn’t an issue with the nigiri.
Achieving the right balance between sushi rice, wasabi and fish is a more complete reflection of a sushi chef’s talent and in general a tastier experience when done right. Based on the nigiri I had though, I enjoyed Sushi Hachi a lot and found it good value for the quality.
If I were to rank Vancouver’s sushi restaurants purely by fish quality, Sushi Hachi would take top spot. It’s pricier than your neighbourhood sushi joint, but if ambiance isn’t your concern then spending less than $50 on one of the best meals that can be had in Vancouver is not that hard to stomach.
All the usual fish suspects are available by the piece in nigiri or sashimi form. The best value might be the Chef’s Selection, which gives you a plate of either 10 nigiri and a roll or a selection of sashimi for $25.
The menu is not just limited to nigiri and sashimi. Many robata (Japanese barbeque) items also show up along with some traditional Japanese appetizers like ankimo (monkfish liver, aka foie gras of the sea).
Sushi Hachi is a hidden gem and deserves to be in the running for top sushi restaurant in Vancouver. Just don’t hype it too much or it’ll be hard for me to get my reservations!
Things Roger Ate like a Pig
Nigiri (overall) – 5/6 (Excellent), $25/10pieces + roll (Chef’s Selection)
I had very little complaints about the overall nigiri quality.
The sushi rice was excellent top-grade rice with a very distinct and clean flavour and each individual grain stood out in texture. The bundles of rice were generally melded well with a few inconsistencies and were held together loosely as is customary.
For the fish nigiri the rice only had the slightest hint of rice vinegar, perhaps less than I’ve had anywhere else. This comes down to chef’s preference and different levels of acidity in the rice will have different effects depending on the type of fish served. This rice had the advantage of showcasing subtleties of the whitefishes while giving up a little balance with the stronger tasting selections.
Knife skills were largely faultless and showcased the best of each fish with only one or two minor nitpicks possible.
The biggest issue that I had was with the use of fake wasabi or horseradish root rather than real wasabi, which is admittedly very hard to get in Vancouver. It wasn’t an issue for the stronger pieces but I did feel a little too much stringency with the whitefish and yellowtail nigiri pieces.
Bluefin Otoro (bluefin fatty tuna belly, leftmost) – 4/6 (Very Good), market price/piece
Otoro is to sushi as foie gras is to pork. Only the fattiest, oiliest and riches parts of the meager tuna belly are classified as otoro, and as a result it is the most prized delicacy from tuna fish.
Personally I prefer my toro to be slightly redder and fleshier than otoro (usually chutoro), but this was definitely a solid piece of toro in its own right. While not quite melt in the mouth fatty, the texture of the fish was super smooth with very little stringiness for bluefin toro and a clean but decadent taste.
Kanpachi (amberjack, 2nd left) – 3.5/6 (Good - Very Good), $3/piece
The flavour of the kanpachi was solid although it was a little lighter than I’ve had in other kanpachi before. The texture was very good though with a slightly soft touch that was tender, especially for a non-oily fish.
Hamachi (yellowtail, 3rd left) – 3.5/6 (Good - Very Good), not on regular menu
Next up was hamachi or yellowtail which was decent but not extraordinary for what it was. Its texture was a little more gelatinous and firm than the kanpachi with a mild red fish flavour. It was good for a summer hamachi, but the fish does get better in winter when the fat content goes up and the oiliness becomes more pronounced.
Shimaaji (striped horsemackerel, 4th left)– 4.5/6 (Very Good – Excellent), $3/piece
Shimaaji is a form of aji, or Spanish mackerel. This was a much stronger nigiri that showcased a redder flesh and a bolder distinctive flavour similar to suzuki (sea bass). The flavour was very clean though without any unpleasant hints and showcased the excellent quality of the fish.
Madai (raw sea bream, 2nd right) – 3/6 (Good), $3/piece
Madai is a variety of tai (red snapper) that is commonly eaten during seasonal celebrations like New Years’ or the cherry blossom festival. When eaten raw, the taste of the fish is very light, almost imperceptible perhaps, with a moderate level of firmness.
Madai (grilled sea bream, 3rd right) – 5.5/6 (Excellent – Must Try!), not on regular menu
The contrast between the grilled and sashimi madai was night and day! Grilling brought out a much bolder fish flavour that, in addition to the fish skin served on top, accentuated the fish oils present to make this a more flavourful experience than the raw sashimi before.
On top was a little bit of sour greens that kept the fishiness in check since the sushi rice didn’t have enough acidity from vinegar to do it alone.
Saba (mackerel, rightmost) – 4/6 (Very Good), $3/piece
I’m not usually a fan of saba or mackerel but this version was quite good! Mackerel is almost never served fresh as it can spoil within hours of the catch, so versions served at sushi bars are first salt-marinated for several hours before washing with rice vinegar. It’s an easy fish to mess up as under-curing can result in spoilage but over-curing makes the taste too one-dimensional.
Sushi Hachi did really well with their saba. The oily fish felt very smooth in the mouth with more fish flavour than is typical for saba, without too much acidity from rice vinegar. Everythig felt really fresh and my guess is that catching the fish earlier that day allowed for a less stringent curing and more true fish flavours to be shown off!
Amaebi (sweet shrimp, top right)– 5.5/6 (Excellent - Must Try!), $3.50
Amaebi is a must-order of mine at any quality sushi bar. There’s just something about the sweet gooey shrimp that makes it irresistible.
This amaebi rendition wasn’t just a simple crowd-pleaser though: it was a unforgettable foodgasm! Each tender bouncing bite of sweet shrimp came with an intoxicating coating of mucky shrimp goo that coated every single taste bud, demanding full attention to the beauty of the fresh shrimp.
Just as important were the perfect delicate grains of sushi rice barely stopped my taste buds from being forever numbed.
More shrimp flavour, more sweetness, more salinity, more gooeyness, more of everything that I love about amaebi. Little wonder I’ve been craving this for the two weeks since!
Ika (squid, 2nd right) – 6/6 (Must Try!), $1.50/piece
Oh $*#&. To take that last piece and follow it up with this…sheer decadence at its best.
I should start on a cautionary note. This squid nigiri is not recommended for those adverse to seriously slimy foods because once this gets in your mouth, there’s no turning back.
If you can get past that, what awaits is one of the more remarkable pieces of squid that I’ve ever eaten. The initial wave of slime is countered by the heady crunch of a squid that is harder, stiffer and more seafood-tasting than any I’ve had before. Following that comes a textural rollercoaster of slime and crunch, all while hints of the ocean pop up at every turn.
This squid wasn’t just freaking tasty, it completely redrew the boundaries that I had when it comes to eating squid. For that, it deserves a must try recommendation.
Chopped Scallop (top right) – 5.5/6 (Excellent – Must Try!), $2.50/piece
Another huge hit was this chopped scallop nigiri!
The most remarkable thing might not have been the scallop itself but something that too often gets overlooked in sushi: the nori! The quality of the seaweed was unmatched in Vancouver, exhibiting a strong toasted seaweed flavour that was crisp and didn’t conform to being rolled the way that stale packaged nori normally does.
The chopped scallop was just as delightful. The scallop pieces were tender and full of umami seafood flavour and bouncing round textures with what felt like scallop coral (roe) hidden underneath.
Toro Roll (tuna belly) – 6/6 (Must Try!), $3/roll
Forget about dining etiquette when this toro roll is served. Prepare to forgive the occasional squeal of delight or moments of blissful silence, because both are inevitable when tasting what looks little more than a tiny typical sushi roll.
Again let’s start with the nori: still wonderfully tasty and full of delicious roasted seaweed flavour. Inside that, we have the elegant yet simple sushi rice, unremarkable yet essential.
The core is a concentrated flavour package of outstanding toro. Rich and fatty, as is all toro should be, but to characterize it so simply would be an understatement. A big hit of fresh tuna fish oils comes with a divine fragrant nuttiness that elevates the entire roll, putting an exclamation point on what was an excellent end to the Chef’s nigiri selection.
Grilled Mirugai (geoduck) – 3.5/6 (Good - Very Good), around $4 (daily special)
Grilled mirugai or geoduck was one of the daily special items. For the uninitiated, geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck) is a species of clam known for its long edible siphon that makes it one of the biggest types of clam in the world.
Grilling is taken care of by the sushi chef’s wife in a tiny toaster oven/robata grill that could just have easily been in someone’s home kitchen.
The mirugai was barely touched by heat, resulting in skewers that tasted pretty similar to geoduck sashimi with very little contribution from smoke and charcoal. As a result, the texture was quite crunchy as raw geoduck normally is.
It was served with shichimi togarashi, Japanese for seven flavour chili pepper, which is a spice powder mix made of red chili peppers, ground sansho, sesame seeds and other ingredients. The spice added a decent kick of lasting heat to add to the geoduck, which happens to lacks a particularly distinct flavour. I enjoyed it although it was a little one-dimensional in its spiciness with mostly red pepper taste.
Unagi (freshwater eel, right) – 5/6 (Excellent), $4/piece
The unagi here came highly recommended and I definitely have to agree! Throw out that oversauced supermarket crap, this is how eel should be eaten.
On the surface, this looks like your typical freshwater eel with its thick brown sheen of kabayaki sauce, a thickened blend of soy sauce, mirin and sugar. But bite into it and you’ll be left scratching your head: is that really the eel and not the sauce I taste?
You’d be right of course: this is tender freshwater eel, with special emphasis on the fresh. It’s both slightly fishy and meaty in a way that you don’t imagine seafood tasting like, enhanced by the sweetness and umami of the light but not overwhelming coating of kabayaki on top. This might just be the closest thing to authentic Japanese unagi in Vancouver.
Tamago (egg)– 4.5/6 (Very Good - Excellent), $1/piece
Of course, a (traditional) Japanese meal has to end with a piece of tamago or egg omelette! Eating desserts at the end of sushi meals is not typical and I decided to stick with the traditional approach.
This version of tamago I’m happy to report was excellent! The layers could have been flakier and fluffier for sure but the taste of the sweet egg omelette was outstanding. It nailed just the right balance between sweet and savoury egg flavour, conveying the sense of balance that almost all good Japanese food seems to uphold. It didn’t have the extra kick of umami that dashimaki (tamago made with dashi stock) has though.
It was served slightly chilled above a bed of special sushi rice that was a little more sour than the sushi rice used with the raw fish. This helped to accentuate the sweetness of the tamago and round off the delicate balance of flavours here.
Sushi Hachi is a must-try for sushi lovers looking for the closest thing to an authentic sushi experience in Vancouver. It’s an unpretentious and homely atmosphere where the focus is all about excellent food!
Date visited: June 27, 2013
Price range: $30- $40