Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Krazy for Kingyo
"Kingyo (871 Denman Street at Haro St., 604-608-1677) has style, charm, good taste, and a sense of fun." I wrote that sentence quite a while ago, after one of my first visits to what is now one of my favourite restaurants in the city after several visits. And looking at the sentence now, they sound like attributes I might look for in a date as well.
But what I realize is that there are even more important attributes that I like about Kingyo - an authenticity, a sense of family/teamwork, a spirit of generosity, a vitality, a positive energy, and a general gratitude that you are there, which are all things I really want in a date that I could be serious about. My point is that there is a lot of depth to this restaurant, which may not come across in peeking through the window because it is a very slick, dimly lit, stylish restaurant, which is usually packed with all sorts of happy, shiny people. But it is as much about the human warmth delivered by the staff (front of the house and kitchen act as one unit with it's open kitchen and with kitchen staff even popping out from behind the counter to greet regulars and joining in on some merriment), as it is about the amazing food and the fun atmosphere. It seems that all the Lower Mainland izakaya people are tied to each other in some way, and I think this place was started by some ex-Guu staff.
You can get a lot of information peaking through a window though, sometimes. I think the moment I really fell in love with this restaurant was shortly before last Christmas, when I happened to be walking by, and my eye caught a glimpse of the most adorable fuzzy reindeer costume. Then I realized that ALL the serving staff had on these ridiculousely cute reindeer costumes and were actually doing their entire shift in them. Here's the key though - they all looked happy doing that. That amazed me. I do have a thing for mascot costumes anyhow (and yes, I actually collect pictures of mascots, even though I'm in my thirties). I had to go in and have a meal. Damnit, now that I think about it, I should have gotten a photo with one of them to add to my collection (crossing my fingers for this Christmas). So I guess the sense of fun is way up there on my list for me.
The good-naturedness of the restaurant is infectious too. One visit I had the pleasure of meeting and really, in a sense, dining with, one of the regulars - a very drunken old Japanese man. He explained to me that he had lived here in Vancouver over 30 years but his English still wasn't very good. I was seated at the counter, and he was seated next to me, and one of the very first things he said to me, in a thick accent, slurred with the effects of his heavy drinking at another establishment, and with an apologetic yet unashamed giddiness was "I'm sorry, I'm very very drunk!" He clearly loved this restaurant, and insisted on ordering food for me, and explaining Japanese culture to me through the food. I resisted at first, but his drunkeness was cute and non-threatening, and he was pushy, and who am I to refuse the windfall of a chance hands-on class on Japanese food culture? Kingyo's positive energy was everywhere, and they happily welcomed this drunken old man like their own each night, pouring more red wine into his glass, as he set about to educate me about Japan. Although I've once lived in a Japanese home in Osaka for six weeks, and I've been enthralled with the cuisine since my first sushi experience at 12, I still managed to learn new things from this stranger this strange evening. It played out like my very own personal food version of the Karate Kid (except for some weird male-female dynamic that I was trying to avoid).
"Take the beef tongue off the hot rock now, Daniel-san...Beef tongue on, beef tongue off...Here are the three salts...This is sansho. Try it...No, you eat the prawn's head. It is only good part. You eat it. Yes, eat the eyeballs. All of it."
"Okay, Drunken Mr. Miyagi"
Eating the deep fried prawn head (only after insisting Drunken Mr. Miyagi eat one first), trying sansho mindfully, learning about the special rock needed for the hot rock dish, and really thinking about the pickled ginger cleansing my palate between different types of sushi and sashimi to be able to appreciate each sushi piece were all revelations for me that evening. He watched me intensely each time I tried something, which made me a bit nervous, and he even got on my nerves when he was telling me I needed a man, but in the end was just a harmless old divorced man who drowns out the loneliness four - five nights a week who told me how happy he was that night because he met me, and asked nothing from me, other than my company and the opportunity to share his culture. It was one of those cool little odd experiences that usually happen when you're travelling in a strange town, and this little restaurant is almost enough to make you feel like you've travelled to some far away place. It was also fun because I so rarely get to play the Daniel-san role in a restaurant, and most naturally revert to the Miyagi role of introducing other people to my finds, and they ask me food questions with the assumption that I am the wise one and I know the answers.
My last visit at this restaurant was a really delightful one, where I excitely introduced Captain Pickled Herring to the place. We sat at the communal table with the bamboo in between. It's a very functional design element - enough bamboo to feel not too exposed and have a sense of privacy, but because it is all one table, other diners tend to talk to you and recommend things to eat.
We had a stone bowl dish because I love that crusty effect when the rice sits for a while on the hot stone bowl. We had their delicious negitoro sushi ($6.80 for three pieces), some salmon sashimi, and a nice mixed shredded veggie tempura. The meal was full of the excitement of new experiences and possibilities. Seeing the place through new eyes made me appreciate the details more and reminded me how special certain touches are. I think I've been enjoying the hot towel custom any time it happens, but maybe I've started to take it for granted. And I've gotten too used to the whole crew yelling welcomes and thank yous upon entering and exiting.
There is never a shortage of items to order, and there is a full page of specials too. On my first visit, I was told they had some fresh tai (snapper) that they recommended. Tai isn't usually an item that gets me that excited, but it wasn't until that day that I realized how good it can actually be. It must have been the freshest tai I had ever had. It really blew my mind that I could still experience something new like that, considering the amount and quality of sushi I've had in my life. I also had their pretty sashimi trio, served on a half bamboo stalk, garnished with Japanese maple leaves ($14). The presentation of their food is amazing, and the cute little goldfish logo (Kingyo means goldfish, and is a recurring image in Japanese art) can pop up delightfully as a little carved carrot garnish. Their cocktails are fun, and they have a Japanese children's soda that comes in a special bottle, which is served with grown-up vodka. I like their fruits icecube sangria ($6.50) and their lychee cocktail. When Bac'n Girl and I went, we wanted to order everything on the menu. We managed to narrow it down to six dishes, and got out of there at a very reasonable $62 (after tax, before tip, including a cocktail and tea). The prices are quite good, really (despite what you might read from diners on another site). There is a bibimbap stone bowl dish ($7.20) in addition to the unagi rice one. Their chicken kara-age ($6.80) is the thinking diner's chicken kara-age, with its accompanying three types of salts to taste and discern. Pork cheek ($6.80) was delicious. And of course, we just couldn't resist ordering their "famous invicible and undefeated Tan-tan noodle" ($8.80). Don't worry about it being overhyped - theirs is a delicious rendering of the Shanghainese dish.
If you go and there's a wait, get on the list, leave your cell phone number if you have one, go on a little walk, and come back. Or practice catching flies with chopsticks. You don't run into a place like this every day. A restaurant like this is worth the wait.