Sushi Gem: Tetsu Sushi Bar on Denman

Big props to foodbysamson for discovering this place. Tetsu Sushi Bar (Facebook, Instagram) is my idea of a cute, perfect-in-its-own-way, neighbourhood sushi place you’d find in Japan — small (only 14 seats), run by Japanese people or people trained in Japan (itamae and server are from Osaka), serves a curated selection of fish from Japan (and presumably the best local fish too), offers some unique dishes not found elsewhere, and is too good to keep a secret. While not as practised and precise as a place like Sushi Bar Maumi (review here), it’s filling a gap — high quality neighbourhood sushi — and hits some pretty high notes.

Tetsu is on Denman near Robson, beside Nook and across the street from Kintaro Ramen. This space used to be Lanna Thai, and the sandwich board on the sidewalk still has some faded writing listing long-gone Thai dishes.

I’d put Tetsu in the same category as other standalone, single chef/owner-operated sushi bars such as Shima-ya (Victoria Drive), Sushi by Yuji (Kingsway), Maruyama (Rupert), Sushi Bar Maumi (Davie St./West End), and Yuji’s from Japan (Alma). Not as raccous or zany as Octopus’ Garden (Kits), and not as cooly elevated as Masayoshi (Fraser St.).

They offer the crowd-pleasing rolls and aburi.

One part standard menu, one part “wow, they have this?”

Lunch menu.

Sake.

Not thrilling as far as beer goes, but I’ll give them a pass on that.

Shochu.

More sake.

The good stuff. The top section is all “omakase*”, which is the chef’s daily selection of  five pieces nigiri (or sashimi), with or without the extra courses (appies, udon, and ice cream). The $40 4-course omakase is a great deal that I wish I didn’t have to reveal to you. My two dining companions got the $50 premium 4-course omakase while I stuck to the “Premium Choice” sushi for $29.75. The premium choice sushi is the same set of 5 pieces that’s included in the 4-course omakase.

*Omakase at Tetsu is not the “real” omakase where you sit at the counter and the itamae serves you piece-by-piece. It’s more like a seasonal set menu. Maybe if you sit at the 4-seat counter you *might* get a real personal omakase experience?? But given the smaller selection of fish here versus Sushi Bar Maumi, it might not matter a whole lot anyways.

The rest of the special menu. They do feature bluefin tuna prominently here. You’ll have to navigate the moral jungle surrounding the consumption of bluefin on your own terms. I did indulge in the one piece that was included in my sushi selection with a mixture of guilt and ecstasy.

Yamaimo Salad with ume (pickled plum) is a new one to me!

Usuzukuri is a new, rare treat too.

Handmade udon from Akita, Japan. It came with the omakase 4-course dinner on this particular visit.

Chopstick rest.

Choya Umeshu Plum Sake ($6.50).

Yuzu Shiromi Usuzukuri ($15), thinly sliced white fish with Japanese hot pepper paste with soy vinaigrette. A few sliced of okra in the middle. Basically like a carpaccio.

I think this was tai (sea bream). The green lumps look like wasabi but tasted more like sansho and had a noticeably spicy kick that enlivened an otherwise “ok” dish. Simple flavours of citrus, soy, and vinegar.

Yamaimo Salad ($7) with Japanese mountain potato/mountain yam (yamaimo) flavoured with Japanese pickled plums (ume), “organic spring mix”, asparagus, and seaweed with house dressing. Neither under- nor overdressed. The yamaimo was predictably slimy (much like okra) and enhanced with the ume, which for once wasn’t teeth-chatteringly acidic, which was a plus for me. Fresh-tasting greens and tomatoes, plus shredded daikon, carrot, and nori complete the dish. Solid salad with a couple unique ingredients.

The 4-Course Omakase ($40/$50) comes with three little appetizers. I assumed incorrectly that they’d just include basic stuff like edamame, gomaae, or sunomono, but I was WRONG! Pleasantly surprised.

Appetizer 1 of 3.

Fried fish in a sauce. Sort of like agedashi tofu except with hunks of fish instead of tofu. Red onion on top. No complaints.

Appetizer 2 of 3.

Tuna, natto, grated yamaimo, oshinko (pickled daikon), and wasabi. The server asked my dining partners if they were ok with natto before bringing out these appetizers. If you’ve got that Japanese love of slimy textures, you’ll like this. You might very well get completely different appetizers. Or not.

Appetizer 3 of 3.

Unagi Tamago aka “Unagi-tama”. I can’t find this listed on the menu, but it’s becoming Tetsu’s signature dish. BBQ eel wrapped in egg. You could almost feel the layers of egg as you bit into this. You could probably imagine how this dish tastes…everyone’s had tamago (shitty tamago, probably :P) and everyone’s had unagi. But somehow marrying the two together creates something a bit special. One of the standout bites of the evening.

This was my “Premium Choice” sushi for $29.75 for 5 pieces of daily chef’s choice nigiri. That works out to ~$6 per piece. The bluefin chūtoro alone is $7.75 and the Japanese uni is $10.

Daily Special Sushi (5 pieces), part of the 4-course omakase set ($40/$50). The premium $50 version included Japanese uni and bluefin chūtoro (medium-fatty tuna) on this particular evening. All pieces are lightly sauced, so don’t require additional soy sauce. No wasabi served on the side. The pieces in detail:

Shima-aji. A lovely first bite, starting with the leaner and milder flavours.

The itamae (sushi chef) here has a friendly demeanor, which is in direct opposition to Herr Maumi :P. It makes sense, since the people at Tetsu are from Osaka. The sushi here has a youthful exuberance but lacks a bit of skill and refinement. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, just an observation. The knifework is a bit rough around the edges, and the rice — while formed in appropriately small, bite-sized hunks — is packed firmer than Sushi Bar Maumi, and is slightly misshapen (as you can see above). The rice is also cooked a touch on the firm side. The vinegar level was subliminal, which may or may not matter to you (I think Maumi seasons his rice a touch more). What the chef here does execute well is temperature. You might’ve heard Chef Tojo saying that with nigiri sushi, the rice should be room temperature and the fish should be body temperature. The rice and fish here were pretty close to those ideals. Just a warning to those who might not be used to this.

Japanese scallop.

Saba. Can’t remember if it was a particular kind of mackerel or not. My dining partners weren’t big saba fans and found it a bit fishy, but I thought it was in line with saba in general.

The star of the evening. This aged bluefin chūtoro exploded with meaty, almost beef tartare-like umami-ness. The most memorable single bite of sushi since the omakase at Sushi Bar Maumi and the kelp-marinated nigiri at Kishimoto. I don’t know of anywhere else in town that specifically serves aged anything, unless they just do it as a matter of course and don’t say anything about it. If you’re prepared to pay for it, they do it here. So worth it, as long as you’re willing to toss aside the ethical implications of eating bluefin tuna. My hope is that the chef will try doing the same aging process on more sustainable yellowfin/ahi/red tuna. The serving temperature of the tuna really maximized the flavour of this bite. Amazing.

Japanese uni. Our local BC uni season is over, so we’re back to imported uni. This Japanese uni was fine. It had a touch of iodine and funkiness, which to me is acceptable as far as uni goes, but didn’t reach the heights of the buttery Hokkaido bafun uni from Sushi Bar Maumi. But I was riding high from the bite of bluefin tuna, so I wasn’t too upset.

Pickled ginger. Thank god it’s not the pink stuff.

Ordered as an extra. Not part of the omakase.

Salmon Zukushi Aburi ($10.50). Someone had to get an aburi sushi 😉 Salmon, asparagus, avocado, “homemade sauce” (mayo), tobiko, sesame seeds, and red onion. I’m just not into aburi (torched) sushi and mayonnaise, so I’m not the best judge on this — although my dining partner likes the battera (pressed) style of aburi better than the rolls. Not Tetsu’s strength.

Some extra nigiri: Tamago ($3.25 each). Maybe Moyenchow will talk about this on her Instagram.

Grilled Shima-aji Head ($18). We could smell this grilling from the kitchen. It arrived in a cloud of fishiness that dissipated quickly but slightly put off my dining companions. Didn’t bother me that much as I love funky, stinky aromas. Lightly seasoned with salt. I wish there was more colour/char on the outside, but the fish meat and the eyeballs all tasted moist. Could’ve used much more of the grated daikon. Good but lots of room for improvement.

Hot udon.

Back to the 4-course omakase, which comes with a half-serving of the handmade Inaniwa Udon which comes from Akita, Japan. I assume it’s a handmade dried udon which gets imported here. You can get either hot or cold udon. The shichimi togarashi (Japanese chili pepper) was particularly spicy and alive.

The udon is flatter and a lot thinner than the usual fat udon noodles. Moyenchow said the udon was a bit soft but the broth was delicious.

Cold udon.

Inaniwa Udon served cold.

As you can see, thinner and flatter than regular udon.

The cold version comes with a dipping sauce with condiments that you can add to taste: grated daikon, grated ginger, green onions, and shaved bonito.

The dipping sauce.

Ice cream options for the 4-course omakase were green tea or black sesame. We got black sesame. Tasted quite sweet and we thought it maybe could be a cheap-ish commercial vanilla ice cream mixed with black sesame. In the context of the meal it was fine.

Final Thoughts

The itamae here looks really young. Staring at him during dinner, I was a little skeptical that this young, handsome dude could pull off some good sushi, but I was impressed. Even though the nigiri could use some refinement, the $40/$50 omakase is such a deal and offers a good alternative to places like Sushi Bar Maumi. We found the restaurant to be warm and stuffy, even though it was cloudy and only 15°C outside. Mostly Japanese clientele at the moment. The staff’s English skills are good-ish. Vancouver needs more small, high-quality sushi places like this.

This place is so under the radar, it’s not even listed on ZOMGato. A good thing.

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