Last Monday, after a big day of Olympicsizing, we decide to have dinner at the recently opened Guu Garden. [888 Nelson St.,Vancouver, (604) 889-0855] We’ve never been to this location and have been a big fan of the Guu restaurants for quite some time. Since my arrival in Vancouver in 2002, I fell in love with izakaya dining. I had never experienced anything like it while residing/working in Manhattan, London and Toronto. This style of eating and drinking really appealed to my gluttonous appetite and my desire to sample many flavors during the course of a meal. The flavor profiles were very enjoyable and very new to me, even though I was already a traditional Japanese cuisine addict. The Guus have been a consistent favorite and though they don’t have the same effect on me as in years past, I know what to expect and I’m almost always guaranteed a tasty, enjoyable meal. The Guus have always had a special place in our hearts. In years past, “Monk” and I would go skiing every Christmas Day, (family dinner was always on Christmas Eve) and have a cocktail and food filled dinner on the patio at Guu with Garlic. We also had our wedding rehearsal dinner at a Guu a couple of years back. On this particular night, “Godfather” was almost skeptical about having dinner at Guu Garden, but I was very much looking forward to our meal.
Before “Godfather” and “The Girl” arrived, “Monk” and I were already sipping away at Sapporo beer and Calpico vodka. Okada Sushi used to be in the Guu Garden space and because we used to live less than two blocks away, I occasionally dined there. Okada was never a favorite; I felt it was quite pricey, though very authentic and convenient. I once had a really bad experience with herring roe on kelp there, but that’s a whole other story. The Guu Garden makeover was quite nice, with everything being extremely fresh and clean. The izakaya decor is very comforting for me and conjures memories/thoughts of good eats. There’s a rock/zen garden on the back patio of the restaurant and I guess it’s kinda calming, though I’m noexpert in the art of zen. Since we had a bit of a dining deadline (we were watching the fireworks from Hotel Van. @ 9:30), I ordered a bunch of dishes, minutes before “Godfather’s” arrival. At izakayas, I always like to eat the raw and lighter dishes before the heavier/cooked items, so my initial order consisted of wasabi marinated octopus and sea urchin, salmon ruibe, lamb-paccio, hamachi sashimi and spot prawn sashimi. I’ve always liked the wasabi marinated octopus and find the dish to be a great opener for most izakaya meals. The flavors of the dish and pungency of the wasabi root, really wets the appetite. The sea urchin guilds the lily and adds a creamy and sweet impact. The salmon ruibe was kind of weird. It was seared salmon and then frozen(???) and served with garlic chips and a ponzu type sauce. I’m not 100% sure what I was eating, but it tasted good and was an interesting combination of temperatures and textures. The lamb-paccio was fine, though terribly small in portion. The flavors were nice, though the actual lamb flavor was non-existent. The hamachi sashimi was outstanding and incredibly marbled with fat. The accompanying grated ginger/daikon was tasty, though unneccessary with such a nice piece of fish. A touch of wasabi and soy was all I needed. The spot prawn sashimi was okay; I know spot prawn season is still 2 months and 6 days away, so obviously I knew they were frozen, but for some reason, I felt inclined to have some. That’s my inner glutton speaking and my stomach and gluttonous heart, over-ruling my brain. They were fine, just not of the quality, flavor and freshness that I’m used to and expect from fresh live spot prawns.
On the next wave of dishes, I ordered 4 negi-toro hand rolls, firefly squid sashimi, a caesar salad w/ fried yuba, ebi mayo, fried chicken with garlic mayo and a fried pork cheeks dish. I saw the VIP table (chefs from 2 other Guus) next to us order the hand rolls and they looked fantastic. Ours were delicious as well, though “Godfather” wished the seaweed was toasted better. Apparently, I don’t know how to toast seaweed (my wife and “Godfather” tease me endlessly), but again, that’s a whole other story. I have never tried firefly squid and found them to be quite interesting. They are a delicacy from Japan, grow only to a few inches in size and are famous for their bioluminescence. They were very tasty and the texture was pleasant though very unfamiliar to me. The caesar salad with yuba was exceptionally un-memorable and pedestrian in every way. The dressing and lettuce was boring and I would never order a dish like that, but “Monk” loves yuba and wanted to give it a go. The ebi mayo was good; fried shrimp with chili mayo, but it would have been nice if the fried ebi was crisper. Unfortunately we noticed this to be a similar trait amongst most of the fried items that night. Ebi mayo is one of our favorite izakaya dishes and a few years back, “Monk” and I, armed only with a couple of flasks of Jaegermeister and a pocket full of cash, went on a ebi mayo tour of every izakaya in the downtown core. It was a blast and I sure do miss those spontaneous, responsibility free days. The chicken karraage was good as well, but again, we wished the fried coating was crisper. The fried pork cheeks were alright; they seemed like they were fried and then glazed in sweet miso sauce. I love pork cheeks and have ordered some to feature at Tapenade this week and though this preparation was not my favorite, it was still quite tasty. By this time, we were starting to fill up, the drink were flowing well, “Godfather” downed a Snow White (a very girlie drink) or two by now, and we were enjoying our non-suburban evening considerably.
For the final round, I ordered grilled squid, the saba shima sushi and the kimchi cod roe udon. The squid was lousy; tepid, not fresh tasting and un-special in every way. The saba shima sushi on the other hand was incredible and one of the best things I’ve eaten this year. The saba was so rich and fresh tasting and there were large pieces on top and rolled into the rice. I’ve always been a big saba fan, but this was really outstanding. The udon dish was tasty, but I’m always amazed at the tiny portion to price ratio. They’re just noodles after all. All and all, it was a very good meal, good friends, good food, good drinks, what more could one ask for. We chugged our beers, left satisfied, but not overly stuffed by any means and off to the fireworks we went.
Issues and concerns; I sometime feel that the value for some of these dishes is not so great. The actual amount of food you get, for the price you pay, it’s kinda out of whack. 8 dollars for 5 thin slices of lamb is outrageous. 8 bucks for a couple of udon noodles rolled in a cod roe mayo sauce is crazy. Another concern is the repetitive nature of the food at the izakayas. “Godfather’s” main apprehension about having dinner at Guu Garden is having to eat the same stuff over and over. Granted, him and “The Girl” go to izakayas quite frequently these days, but Guu Garden does have a very full fresh sheet, but over the years, very few new dishes get introduced and I always tend to gravitate to the same dishes. The service was very friendly, efficient and consistent with izakaya service. The saba sushi was fantastic and I’m salivating as I think and blog about it. Though there were a few food misses, it was a fun dinner and I very much enjoyed the experience.
On my chef’s night out scale, Guu Garden receives 3/5 SOB (slices of bacon).