Soban is the latest iteration of Japanese-Korean gastronomy, in what may once have been a Pizza Hut sometime in the ’90s. It’s located well east of where 82 Avenue stops being Whyte and starts being godforsaken, in a strip mall probably best known for its massive pet supply store.
The restaurant also appears to have its roots in the sushi mecca of Whitecourt—judging from its website URL. Neither fact augurs a primo sushi experience, but one must remain open to the potential for delight.
Co-diner and I alight at Soban just after supper hour on a Saturday to find the dining room empty save one other pair of diners; before long, we have the whole place to ourselves. The server is chipper nonetheless, and Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” trinkles out of the house sound system in jocose counterpoint.
Little has changed since its previous incarnation as Sabu, with a light gloss of Japanese knick-knacks and textiles over legacy brick and wood paneling.
The absurdly broad menu also abides from the Sabu days, comprising a comprehensive survey of Japanese and Korean appetizers and entrees—heavy on various styles of sushi rolls—as well as some items that could be politely be described as anomalies. Mexican cheese fries and stir-fried sausage with mozzarella notwithstanding, there’s a lot that sounds reasonably appetizing, though I wouldn’t include in that category sushi rolls that are baked, deep fried or slathered with creamy sauce. I do not know why you would do any of those things to the delicate flavours and textures of sushi.
Co-diner feels we should branch out from our standard sushi house selections given this plethora of choice, along with the requisite fizzy Japanese lager that would wipe the palate between bites. I must admit, we approach the first few dishes with wariness.
The goma-ae ($7.95) comes first, and though we’re accustomed to highly compressed dark green cubes immured in thick black sesame paste, Soban’s version is loose clumps of cooked spinach, stems intact, in a pool of soy-based dressing. Surprisingly, it is hardly less tasty than usual, bearing goma-ae’s customary sesame-tinged salty sweetness. The tempura—mostly yam with some broccoli and zucchini—though not greasy or heavy has a strong fried flavour. The tuna and salmon sushi ($5.95/two pieces) are fresh and unfishy, with a hidden seam of wasabi between the fish and rice for extra kick. To me, this is the least one should expect.
Perhaps the rolls will elevate Soban above the sushi rank and file? The Black Dragon roll ($12.95) wraps barbecued eel and attendant dark, savoury sauce around a dynamite roll (avocado, crab stick, tempura shrimp), which certainly has its charm given the range of flavours and textures represented. Same with the fresh salmon roll ($11.50)—a wheel of rice and nori enfolding salmon sashimi, cucumber and avocado, though the drizzle of sriracha-spiked mayo that makes it spicy chafes against my principles.
My favourite item of the night might be the dol sot bibimbap ($14.95)—an array of cooked veggies (spinach, matchsticked carrot, zucchini, and sprouts) and seasoned stir-fried beef served in a hot stone bowl with a soft-fried egg on top. You mush it all together with a sweet, spicy Korean chili paste called gochujang, while the stone bowl crisps various bits of the meal. If not exceptional, it’s a good example of the dish and completely satisfying.
Even by my questionable standards, Soban is not destination dining, but it pulls off Japanese food relatively well in an atmosphere of haphazard quaintness, and I bet there are pleasures to be discovered further into their Korean offerings. So if you ever find yourself on the western end of the Sherwood Park Freeway with a hankering for bibimbap and rainbow rolls, there is really only one place to go.
Soban Sushi and Roll
7450 82 Ave., 780.756.7228