NOTE: I made a bit of an error in this review. Only the $90 omakase course contains bluefin tuna. I was confusing the red tuna with bluefin. So you can safely dine with cheaper omakase levels and avoid bluefin tuna if that is a concern to you. I’m leaving my review uncorrected below. Thanks.
NOTE #2: Another error I made was the reference to a “semi-well-known” chef. I should’ve actually said, “uber-famous chef”.
ALSO: my dining companion Moyenchow has posted her take on the dinner here. We did not “compare notes” or discuss that much in-depth during the dinner, so it might be interesting for you to see the differences and similarities between our reviews.
The omakase (“chef’s choice”) experience at Sushi Bar Maumi (Facebook, Instagram) is defined as much by what it isn’t as by what it is. There’s no rolls. No aburi (torched) sushi. Not a bottle of mayonnaise in sight. There isn’t even soy sauce at the table. No children are allowed. No alcohol. Period. This is the purest and most stark example of the nigiri-focused omakase experience available in Vancouver.
Sushi Bar Maumi (named after the owner/itamae Maumi Ozaki) is on Bute near Davie St., across the street from Hamburger Mary’s and on the same block as Exile Bistro. Fellow blogger Moyenchow and I ate there on 420 😉 She was on a quest to see exactly what different cuts of bluefin tuna taste like. Sushi Bar Maumi is one of the rare places in town that actually serve bluefin tuna from Japan. (There is a large issue regarding the sustainability of bluefin tuna and other seafood that I expand upon at the end of this post.)
They’re currently open 6pm–10pm and offer three seatings at 6:00, 7:30, and 9:00. There’s only 10 seats in this place, counter-only. No tables. Their Facebook page says they have 12 seats, but I think it only comfortably seats 10.
They offer takeout BUT when we were there, they turned down requests for takeout because they were busy serving us and four other patrons. They’re really focussed on serving the customers in front of them. There’s also a minimum charge of $20 per person.
Maumi launched this new menu on April 16. Their previous menu had a $25 10-piece omakase with more expensive “premium” options, but looks like he’s made all the omakase levels premium, with $40, $60, and $90 levels. The $90 course guarantees that you get bluefin tuna, abalone, and Bafun uni from Hokkaido. The omakase here is literally “chef’s choice” because you don’t get to customize or request anything in your omakase. It’ll contain basically what he has fresh that day, which changes a lot. You can of course order additional pieces and other cooked food, like these appetizers:
I was surprised that they do tempura here. It was recommended to me by Instagrammers and Tweeters that I try it.
Their menu states “$30” as the minimum but it’s actually $20.
First side of the fresh sheet. You’ll notice that they actually have bluefin tuna of different fattiness levels (o-toro, chu-toro, akami), either marinated or not. When we were there, he didn’t have any of the marinated options available. My guess is that availability is so limited that he doesn’t have enough fish to marinade and that maybe it just flies out the door as-is? But at up to $12 for one piece of o-toro, who’s eating all the tuna? 😛
The actual menu that you get inside the restaurant has checkmarks beside the fish that are actually available that day:
You can order à la carte, but it would be impossible for me to decide on which pieces to order, so we both got the $40 omakase that comes with 10 pieces, plus we ordered a few different additional pieces.
This is basically the whole restaurant. It’s an angular U-shaped counter with ~10 seats. The chef does all his work right in front of you. You can see the steel rice container at hip level. No typical refrigerated display case. He grabs fish from the fridges underneath the counter. The stove and tempura-frying area are to the right, outside of the photo.
I was excited and a bit nervous. I became even more nervous when in walked a semi-well-known local chef, who sat at the other end of the counter to eat. (@_@) <— semi-star-struck
Some people like sashimi but I never order it because I love the interplay between rice and neta (topping).
Along with an order of Fresh Kisu Tempura (fresh silver whiting), I added a piece of Tai Shirako (Sea Bream Milt) nigiri. Yes, shirako/milt is the sperm sac of a fish. You see stuff like this all the time on Sushi Bar Maumi’s Instagram feed.
Funny and interesting thing about the Sushi Bar Maumi Instagram account: Maumi actually uses it A LOT and mainly posts pictures of the fish he got in that day. I don’t know of any other Japanese restaurant that does this, save for the occasional Facebook post by Sushi by Yuji.
Hot green tea. They also gave us a teapot, which is really convenient because we can refill as needed. The restaurant is staffed by just two people — Maumi and his FOH/BOH assistant. This operation is as lean as the akami tuna that they serve! 😛
Fresh Kisu Tempura (1 piece of fresh silver whiting with 3 pieces of vegetable) – $8. Comes with tempura dipping sauce and dipping salt. If you order tempura, you get the tempura first, before your sushi.
The salt tasted like it had umeboshi in it! That sour, tangy umeboshi flavour… 😀
The vegetables were sweet potato, green beans (I got two green beans), and eggplant. Unfortunately the piece of eggplant was undercooked, had a tough skin, and was a bit difficult to bite through. But the other pieces were good. I felt like the batter on the vegetable pieces could’ve been a bit more airy and wispy. They were still crispy though…enjoyable to eat and not greasy. I love how they fry the tempura just a few feet from where you’re sitting, and they serve it piping hot.
The best part though was the whiting tempura! The fish was so creamy, delicate, and mildly sweet. Great texture on the batter on this piece. I’d order this again, even though the eggplant was a bit of a dud.
After the tempura, the omakase sushi came fast and furious! My hands were shaking from the nervous excitement. This is how the process works:
- The chef puts a large plate on the counter in front of you containing pickled ginger and wasabi. They also give you a smaller plate to eat off of.
- Each piece is prepared and placed on your large plate. The sushi comes in the order that it should be eaten. He describes each piece as he serves it to you.
- All pieces come pre-sauced. We were not offered soy sauce.
- The pieces come at a rapid pace, but don’t feel compelled to “keep up”.
- He announces when he serves you the last piece of your omakase.
- Your additional nigiri (if you ordered any) follows.
- If you booked one of the seatings, you have 90 minutes sitting time total.
When the sushi first started coming fast ‘n furious, I got super frantic and tried keeping up with his serving pace…which in retrospect was a bad idea and made the initial experience too rushed. After about three pieces in, I clued in that you don’t have to gobble them down as fast as it comes because he gives you this large plate so all the pieces fit. At this level of omakase, nigiri should be eaten soon after it’s prepared, yes, but you can relax somewhat. You do have 90 minutes, but for us that night the bulk of the preparing and eating was done in 30 minutes. We lingered over our additional pieces over the next 20 minutes, so dinner took about an hour total. In comparison, the omakase at Sukiyabashi Jiro (“Jiro Dreams of Sushi”) lasts 20-30 minutes then you’re booted out the door. 90 minutes is a comparative luxury 🙂
Since the experience of eating each piece of nigiri is so fleeting, I can’t get into as much detail as I’d like about how each piece tasted. Rest assured that I did not have anything that was close to being a dud.
The $40 Omakase, Piece-by-Piece
Each piece is presented in order, so you’ll notice the meal moving from leaner and milder to fattier and richer as it progresses.
Big Eye Tuna/Maguro Akami/Red Tuna. All nigiri in the omakase come pre-sauced. As I mentioned above, there isn’t soy sauce on the counter. You can add wasabi as desired, and alternate with bites of pickled ginger. And for the love of god, DO NOT put any ginger on top of your sushi!
The texture of the rice here is top-notch. Discrete, intact grains of appropriate firmness, seasoned with such a perfect amount of vinegar and sweetness that neither flavour stood out as problematic.
Sumi Ika/Cuttlefish. I liked the salt and grated ginger on top. He also puts salt on the octopus (below). Was not chewy at all.
Isaki/Chicken Grunt in front of the cuttlefish. Never heard of a “chicken grunt” fish before. Mild with a bit of sweetness. I’d hit that again!
Sayori/Half Beak in behind and Taira Gai/Razor Clam in front. I love any fish that has that bit of silvery skin, even just for the visual appeal. This was my first time having a razor clam that looked like that.
Shima Aji/Striped Jack in front of the razor clam. If it’s got reddish parts and bits of skin, I love it.
This is the part of the meal where I already knew I wanted to come back, not only to “redo” the hurried, frantic first third of the meal, but also to consciously relax, enjoy and savour…and maybe not pull out the camera so much 😛
Seki Aji/Horse Mackerel. Getting richer and more oily.
Nama Tako/Fresh Octopus in back, local Uni/Sea Urchin in front. The octopus had a bit of salt on top. Exquisite! Not rubbery at all.
I love our local BC uni. This was an exemplary piece that had no off flavours. No bitterness, no iodine, no funk. I don’t mind if there’s a touch of any of those flavours, but this piece was amazingly clean. It melted in my mouth and coated all of my tastebuds in jolly juice. The sauce applied to the top really emphasizes the visual texture of the uni. So achingly beautiful to look at. The flavour is like the best kiss you’ve ever had from a person whose face is now just a memory.
Last piece from the omakase: Anago/BBQ Sea Eel. Nicely charred on top. I could taste the caramelization and feel the slightly crispened edges.
So that’s it for the 10 piece omakase! I do not see the majority of the cheap sushi-eating public enjoying a place like Sushi Bar Maumi. There are lots of caveats and conditions. You must be prepared to dine here on their terms. If you crave this kind of authentically Japanese “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”-type experience and can deal with the rules, I highly recommend you try this place. Reservations are a must.
A Word about Rice and Technique
Partway through the meal, I noticed how lightly Maumi packs the rice. It holds together just enough to transport the piece to your mouth, but instantly yields and falls apart under your bite. The rice is not an impediment to enjoying the flavour and texture of the fish — in fact it truly enhances the experience because the rice and the fish intermingle and meld much easier as you chew than if the rice was packed tighter and harder. This is especially noticeable with the creamier pieces like uni and this:
Tai Shirako/Sea Bream Milt ($4.50), one of my two add-on pieces. This is the sperm sac from the sea bream. It was predictably milky, but the interplay of temperature surprised me. The milt is noticeably cold as the sacs burst in your mouth, and mix with the body-temperature rice. The flavour is very mild with a hint of sweetness. The texture is not thick — more milky and watery than thick or creamy. Maybe the thickness of 1% milk. I would definitely order again, just to experience it again and slowly learn more about milt.
It’s like an angel jizzed in your mouth. You’d swallow.
Bafun Uni from Hokkaido ($8). Moyenchow was so smitten with her Bafun uni that she convinced me to try one to compare with the local uni. If local BC uni still has a bit of a texture and firmness, this Bafun uni was all butter. It just melts as soon as you put it into your mouth, coating each grain of lightly-packed rice in heavenly goodness as you chew. Zero off-flavours. Very hard to describe. It’s uni. While Moyenchow might peg this as being superior to BC uni, I think they’re both enjoyable in their own way. I’d eat both and enjoy both equally. It’s like an angel jizzed in your mouth. You’d swallow.
More big thoughts about a small dinner:
The Dinner in Context
Any discussion of medium-to-high-end nigiri sushi in Vancouver usually includes these places:
- Sushi Hachi (Richmond) – never been
- Ajisai Sushi Bar (Kerrisdale) – haven’t been in ages
- Octopus’ Garden (Kits) – my review here
- Toshi Sushi (Main St) – haven’t been in ages
- Sushi by Yuji (Kingsway) – my review here
- Kishimoto (Commercial Drive) – my review here
- Tojo’s (Broadway) – never been
- Masayoshi (Fraser) – not yet (probably the only other place in town that focusses on an omakase experience)
- Yuji’s From Japan (Alma) – not yet
- ONO Raw Bar (Gastown) – they have a bar-only omakase for $59+ but I haven’t been yet
As you can tell, I don’t eat sushi very often. When I do, I usually save up and go for the quality stuff. Either that or do good quality takeout chirashi-dons from places like Kyzock (used to be called Sushi Zero One) or Shima-Ya on Victoria Drive. I don’t care about glitz — it’s all about the goods.
With that in mind, I appreciate that Maumi (the person) is all business. Not much interaction and certainly no conversation, even between him and other Japanese customers. It’s all focused on the food and getting it to you in an efficient manner. If you want a relaxed, languid, chatty, maybe drunken experience, this might not be the place for you. Maybe stick with Sada at Octopus’ Garden. In this way, Sushi Bar Maumi is more akin to Sushi by Yuji in that they’re both serious about providing top quality sushi. But Maumi’s focus on the pure omakase experience (importing the majority of his fish from Japan, not doing rolls, counter seating only) goes even beyond Yuji (who gets some fish from Japan but the majority is good quality local stuff). Sushi Bar Maumi feels like the closest approximation to a genuine, tiny sushi bar you’d find in Japan where the shokunin (artisan) spends their entire lifetime perfecting their craft. Customers come in, enjoy their sushi for 30 minutes, then promptly leave. The experience is in your face because Maumi is not even four feet away from you at all times. But watching him work with deliberate precision is a joy to watch. Even the quick handclap he does just before grabbing a clump of rice is purposeful — and funnily enough the most light-hearted moment of the proceedings.
Despite the 2500+ words I’ve written about this place so far, I feel like I’d need to visit about 10 more times to truly know sushi at this level. Take for example the Shima Aji/Striped Jack that I had. The flavour lasts for about 10 seconds in your mouth before it’s gone. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had Shima Aji in my life. Now take into account the fact that Maumi had 30+ varieties of fish available that night. It’s gonna take a long time to know what each of these fish taste like and to discover their nuances…and with this kind of sushi, it’s all about nuances.
A Word about Sustainability
Sushi Bar Maumi serves bluefin tuna, which is near extinction. We didn’t have a choice whether to be served it or not. I felt very conflicted about it. It’s impossible to eat sushi and not think about these issues. But if you’re talking about fish and seafood as a whole, I don’t see the problem as being the small 10-seat sushi place, but instead it’s the unquenchable thirst for cheap sushi, farmed salmon, all-you-can-eat shrimp, and the culture of cheap excess.
I may just order à la carte next time, so I can avoid the endagered stuff.
Addendum: I made an error in the above review. I had confused Bluefin Tuna with Red Tuna. Bluefin is only served in the highest-tier $90 omakase course, not in the $40 or $60 courses. Review has been left uncorrected.