Sakae Japanese Restaurant, Downtown
When did my comfort food become Japanese cuisine? Maybe it stems from my very first trip away from my parents, just after graduating from highschool - I had a glorious six-week homestay experience in Osaka, Japan. It was like I found another place in the world that felt like being home, even though it was completely different from being actually home, which was (and is now) Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Sakae (745 Thurlowe St. off Alberni St., 604-669-0067), hidden in a tiny, downtown, underground mini-mall of restaurants (next to Samba Brazillian Barbecue, and Aki Japanese Restaurant), is my current favourite traditional Japanese restaurant. By traditional, I mean both that the food feels quite authentic, and also that the menu offers what the original wave of Japanese restaurants in Vancouver offered - not izakaya small plates, but sushi, sashimi, tempura, noodle dishes, robata, rice dishes, and combinations. I just came back from having a fantastic dinner set ($24), which I thought was delicious and good value. They currently have a sushi, sashimi and unagi don dinner set, and these are not your run-of-the-mill Vancouver dinner sets. Be forewarned though, that in the summer time, I was looking for their dinner sets and they didn't offer them, but they're back now. I chose the sashimi one, which had a beautifully fresh plate of sashimi (garnished with real shiso leaf, and a very fragrant wasabi - maybe it's freshly grated?). I chose to start with this part separately, and it had lovely slices of salmon, mackeral, a very good amaebi, and snapper, I think. Then an exciting array of goodies came on a tray. There was a generous portion of grilled marinated black cod that was really tasty. There was a good chiwan mushi (savoury steamed egg custard) with assorted meat bits, topped with a pretty slice of fishcake. I enjoyed the delightful plate full of small cold things including egg omelet, a seafood pate, lotus root slices, a deep fried breaded dumpling ball, two meaty balls on a pick, and a pate topped with eel. There was also a little bowl of zaru soba, and a fried dumpling served in sauce, covered with bonito flakes (sorry, I don't know what it was exactly, but it was tasty). There was a really tasty sunomono type salad (but not the type with the noodles swimming in lots of liquid). It had a sweet, vinegar dressing, as well as a thicker orange dressing, and was fragrant with the smell of fresh cucumber. It had chunks of a white-coloured protein (maybe a clam?), and chewy transparent, colourless threads, that I think were some sort of seaweed product. There was a dish of daikon and cucumber pickles too. I also received a big bowl of rice garnished with what I'll call salmon pixie dust and a very nice miso with clams in their shells and tiny bits of shiso. Does this sound like a lot of food? It was. And I was happily stuffed. I also had a small bottle of warm Gekkeikan sake ($4.50), perfect for coming in out of a snowy, wet night. The room is quiet and cosy, and like a little underground hideaway - a nice, place of stillness to replenish your energy stores (both mental and physical) or have a quiet talk with someone about life.
Service was perfect tonight, with my tea cup being refilled diligently, and every bit of hospitality displayed despite my disheveled jeans, sweatshirt, and raingear appearance.
Now here's my big confession for this restaurant to end this post. I've lived closeby to this restaurant for about 8 years now, and I only learned about this place less than a year ago and I heard about it from, of all people, someone in Seattle! This place is a part of my neighbourhood, and I had to have a tourist point it out to me in order for me to pay attention to it! An eGulleter in Seattle was recommending a Japanese restaurant to someone else in Seattle who was going to visit Vancouver. The Seattlite who was due to travel was asking my advice, and the other Seattlite piped up. I am very glad s/he did. It's a wonderful little hidden gem, made all the more charming because it is off the radar for many. Shhh, don't tell too many people.