There’s Zen to the art of sushi-making


I’m the first to admit that I don’t know much about sushi. The
terminology is unfamiliar and the preparation seems complicated, yet raw
seafood is curiously erotic.

A friend of mine and his very pregnant wife met me and another friend at Zen
Shabu-Shabu Sushi & Grill to give this newly established lair of Japanese
cuisine a try. Zen is on the perimeter of Chinatown in the less trendy, less
established McDougall neighbourhood. The exterior of the building is
unexceptional, and the barrio downright questionable, but when we stepped
indoors it was like entering a window to Kyoto.

On the inside, the restaurant was much bigger than I expected. Decorated
tastefully in shades of brown, black and grey, it was serene and frankly
Zen-like. The ceiling was decorated with box lighting and more than half of
the tables were hidden in rooms separated by translucent shoji screens. The
screens could be moved about to make an intimate room for two, or a space for
up to 12 people.

We slipped off our shoes and climbed into our booth, sliding onto cushions
meant to mimic traditional Japanese floor dining, without the traditional
discomfort. It was cosy and private, so much so that a switch in our room
allowed us to call for service when the need arose.

Throughout the evening, several different servers waited on our table; the
first bubbly young lady brought us menus and offered to take our drink order.
A pot of Japanese green tea ($1 each) was agreed upon, along with a few
glasses of cold water.

I asked my friend and his wife, originally from Vancouver and longtime sushi
connoisseurs, to give me the lowdown on sashimi, sushi and the tremendous
list of variations. They explained that sashimi is the raw meat alone, sushi
is raw meat atop rice, and maki is rice and raw fish rolled together in nori,
a thin sheet of sea vegetable.

The seafood is flash-frozen to kill parasites prior to being prepared. He
told me of a friend who filleted a freshly-caught salmon and ate it raw,
unwittingly making him and his friends very ill. You don’t want to mess
with roundworms, he extolled.

Opting for the all-you-can-eat sushi special ($23.95), he assured me that
he’d walk me through everything as it came to the table. His wife chose
the Teriyaki Beef Bento Box ($17.95).

My other friend and I decided to be adventurous and try the Seafood
Shabu-Shabu for two ($35.95). Basically a Shabu-Shabu is a hot pot or, as my
family would call it, a fondue.

The endless sushi special did have some limits on certain items, but
basically my friend was able to order a sample of everything. Using a written
order form, he began with 10 pieces of salmon sashimi and five pieces of surf
clam. He ordered chop chop sushi, some California maki, a few spicy salmon
maki and two spicy tuna cones. After placing his order he went about
preparing a dish of soy sauce and wasabi for dipping.

While we anticipated our dinners, the server brought him a bowl of sunomono
salad and a bowl of miso soup for his wife. The sunomono salad was a clear,
cold vinegar broth with simple noodles meant to stimulate the appetite. The
miso soup, made from soybean paste, was much heartier fare.

The bento box, one of the biggest I had ever seen, was the first
entrée to arrive. It was loaded with tempura-coated peppers, carrot
slices, yams and prawns. She had traded out the sushi for California rolls,
so there were four large rolls of rice with faux crab and a small slice of
cucumber. The platter sported a heap of bean sprout salad and a hearty
helping of teriyaki beef atop a pile of white rice. Even eating for two, I
didn’t think she could finish the whole plate.

My friend had bet me that the more filling sushi and maki would come out
first, allegedly a common West Coast strategy aimed at filling patrons up and
potentially decreasing their capacity to gorge. He was wrong: they sent out
the salmon sashimi and surf clam, perfectly presented atop long white
platter. He owed me a coffee.

Finally, our tray of raw seafood appeared, along with a gas burner and a pot
of bubbling shitake mushroom-laced broth. The amount of food crowding the
platter was awe-inspiring. We had fish balls, mussels, squid, scallops, whole
shrimp, salmon belly fillets, and a small head of napa cabbage.

I started by gingerly dropping a single shrimp into the broth, and my friend
threw in a few coils of squid. We were at first tentative, but it
wasn’t long before we were arguing over bits of flotsam, not sure who
had initiated its demise. There was so much tender, fresh seafood to dip in
the sesame and ginger sauces that there was no need to be so

I thought it strange that the seafood hot pot didn’t come with any rice
or salad, but that didn’t seem to bother my partner. He was too busy
boiling his mussels to bother with carbs.

When all the sushi was done, the bento box cleaned out, and 90 per cent of
the seafood gone, we all agreed that ice cream would hit the spot. The
soon-to-be-parents ordered a simple cup of green tea ice cream ($3.25), and
my friend and I went for the Green Mud Pie ($4.95). The green tea ice cream
was sweet, fresh and probably had phytonutrients that an expectant mother
might need. The Mud Pie had all that goodness and a wonderful layer of
cappuccino-flavoured ice cream as well. A cookie crumble pie crust made it
well worth the extra buck and a half.

Although the price was higher than on the West Coast, my sushi-loving
Vancouverite friend adjusted his pants and decided that he had enjoyed one of
the best sushi meals he’d had since moving to Alberta.

His wife began contractions the next day and gave birth to a healthy baby boy
two days after our dinner. It may be a while before they have another
opportunity to experience Zen while dining. V

Sun – Thu to 10 pm, Fri – Sat to 11 pm
Zen Shabu-Shabu Sushi & Grill
10518 – 101 Street

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