Impressive Kushiyaki & Sushi at Shokunin Izakaya in Calgary

Shokunin follows a theme that I’ve noticed in Calgary — modern Asian food, not necessarily cooked by Asians, being done respectfully at a high level, and embraced by the dining public. Specifically: Anju (every iteration), Foreign Concept, Two Penny, and — now that I’ve finally tried it — Shokunin. I was really impressed by the quality and attention to detail with their kushiyaki/yakitori and nigiri sushi. The best nigiri I’ve had in an izakaya. Lots of attention paid to flavour, technique, and sourcing of ingredients. Pricing is fair considering the labour involved. I met up with local blogger Miss Foodie and homeboy Hungryslif for a quick shared meal before flying back to Vancouver. Read on for the blow-by-blow.

Shokunin (which sorta means “a craftsman who devotes their entire life to perfecting their craft — never achieving perfection but finding purpose in the pursuit”) is located in the Mission area, near Wicca’s favourite patisserie in YYC in that bright yellow house, Yann Haute Patisserie.

Award-winning, yes.

They were 39th best in Canada’s 100 Best in 2017, and climbed up to 35th in 2018.

Another location of fast-casual Vietnamese chain Nam opening up beside Shokunin. Vancouver’s got a few modern-ish Vietnamese places (House Special, Anh + Chi, Chi Modern, and perhaps throw DD Mau Chinatown and DUNDAS Eat + Drink in there too). With Calgary’s sizeable Vietnamese population, it was only a matter of time when prettied-up chains started happening. Our closest equivalent would be Vina.

This place is dark and gets darker 😉 hence my food photos looking like the typical low light stuff I try to extract from my Fuji camera. Counter at the sushi bar on the right, some counter seats right in front of the glass-fronted grill, and tables in the rest of the medium-sized place.

They’ve got fish bones hanging above the grill being smoked! Serious stuff.

Curiously not busy on an early Thursday night.

The chef/owner Darren MacLean is going to be on the new Netflix cooking competition, “The Final Table“, and is the only Canadian chef on the show, cooking alongside the likes of Grant Achatz (Alinea in Chicago)!

Illustration on mural by Shohei Otomo.

Gorgeous. I’m always wary of cultural appropriation but when the food’s this good, it’s not a problem. Most of the people eating here were Asian.

Daily sashimi available in two sizes. Sashimi in izakayas are mostly so-so at rip-off prices but after trying their nigiri here I’d be open to trying the sashimi. Helga and Sven would enjoy it.

A fresh sheet of sustainable/Oceanwise™ nigiri sushi. Prices comparable to the better upper mid-range places in Vancouver (Tetsu Sushi Bar, Sushi by Yuji, Sushi Bar Maumi). “Sawara (Spanish mackerel) Smoked with Local Hay” jumps out!

Menu.

More menu. Like most izakayas, the menu is wide-ranging, to satisfy any drunken fantasy.

Plenty of cocktail, sake, and whiskey options.

This kind of food is meant for drinking.

Only a couple beers, one of which is brewed especially for them using sake kasu (sake lees).

Even more sake, by the bottle.

Any place that lists chicken “ass” already has my vote.

There’s even ramen here.

Onto the meal:

Okami Kasu ($10), a beer that uses sake lees AND rice koji. It used to be brewed by Big Rock but is now made by Ol’ Beautiful specially for this restaurant. I couldn’t really tell where the sake kasu and koji were in the beer. It just tasted generically a bit too sweet, like how most of Big Rock’s beers taste — kinda samey and sweet. It could be the koji and sake kasu that’s bringing the sweetness that doesn’t ferment out of the beer, leaving it tasting like the typical house flavour of Big Rock and Granville Island beers. Nice idea but I’d explore their sake list next time.

Ume-Shu Negroni ($9) with Bombay gin, plum sake, Campari, and aperol. Miss Foodie loved it.

Fabric Suntory coasters.

Eggplant & Goat Cheese Tempura ($13) with eggplant salsa and togarashi.

IMHO a wacky combination of ingredients but it works. The eggplant salsa is a critical component, providing a bit of sweetness and acidity.

The extremely helpful and knowledgeable server recommended I order this Grilled Rice Ball (aka onigiri, $5). I believe it’s brushed with miso butter on the outside with umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum) inside.

Really amazing work on this one. Charred, crunchy rice grains on the outside, densely but not too densely-packed rice with a savoury, mouthwatering flavour. That miso butter, wow. An aromatic, flavourful, textural delight. I love how intensely they char the outside. A great accompaniment for the skewers.

Duck Heart skewer ($3.50 each). The hearts are butterflied. Nice firm, slightly crunchy texture. Hint of smoke. Prices are comparable to yakitori chain Zakkushi — that is, if you don’t order “filler dishes”, your bill is going to add up fast!

Chicken “Ass” ($5 each). I was expecting whole chicken butts (aka “The Pope’s Nose”) lined up on a skewer but it looks like the bones have been removed and the meat/fat/skin cut into morsels. Taste and execution were good but overall it had less impact that I expected.

Their house dipping sauce with soy sauce, raw egg yolk, togarashi, and green onions.

Mix it all up and dip.

I originally ordered a Bison ‘Kebab’ Meatball ($5) but they were out so they substituted a Fat Meatball ($3) made with chicken instead. They used a special kind of chicken they called “yellow fat working chicken”, which sounds like a free-range chicken. In fact, they told us that they were going to transition to this type of chicken for all their chicken dishes soon.

The cooking job was great but the inside was a touch dry. A bit more fat and juice would improve things. Nice cook on the outside though. If they decide to add this to their regular menu, I’m sure they could nail it with a bit of tweaking.

The ultimate skewer, Chicken Oyster ($5 each) using the same “yellow fat working chicken”. This skewer redeemed any minor issues I had with the other skewers. This hit all the buttons. Crispy skin, slick rendered fat, and juicy meat — this one had it all and represented the pinnacle of what you want from yakitori. Great that they somehow kept the skin on the oyster. (Disclaimer: this was a gift from the kitchen. Good thing they sent this though, because I wouldn’t have such a high opinion of their yakitori otherwise. This one shows that they know what they’re doing.)

Note: the chicken oyster is a chunk of meat between the thigh and the backbone, nestled in a shell-shaped bone. Only two oysters per chicken.

Blistered Shishitos ($10) with wafu vinaigrette (soy sauce, mirin, rice vinegar). Well-cooked shishitos. Vinaigrette helps cut through the fat in your meal.

Grilled Sudo Farms Napa Cabbage ($16) with miso butter, kimizu style hollandaise (egg & rice vinegar), pickled onions, and radish sprouts. Love the char and sweetness that comes out of the cabbage. The most Crowbar-like dish we tried.

Chicken Skin Chips ($11) with nitsume, green onions, mayo, and bonito flakes. I think nitsume is the soy sauce mixture drizzled on the fried chicken skins. A rich and very delicious dish. Not greasy per se but fried chicken skins (and Filipino chicken chicharrones) in general are heavy, so a dish like this is perfect for sharing between 2-3 people.

Exploring the sushi fresh sheet: Kohada Gizzard Shad ($5 per piece), pre-dressed with wasabi soy. I love these flavourful, oily fishes. As good as anything I’ve had in Vancouver. The shari (rice) is small (which is my preference) and gently packed (also my preference). The vinegar in the rice doesn’t call attention to itself (also good).

Sanma aka Pacific Saury ($5 per piece). The menu said it was topped with yuzu kosho but IIRC it looked and tasted like ginger? (I may have been chatting too much and not focussed enough on the food.) Also, there seemed to be a slight mixup where the kitchen gifted us two extra pieces of sanma but studying this photo afterwards it looks like the two pieces in the back might’ve been something else. In any case, it all tasted great. I leaned over and saw the guy behind the sushi bar was Asian, so I suspect this guy’s had a lot of training and experience. They also adjusted the pace of the dishes on-the-fly, so that was very helpful and perceptive of them. In contrast to most places, they didn’t do all the nigiri at once and put them all onto one platter. They served me each pair of fish at a time and waited until I was ready before serving the next.

Sawara Smoked with Local Hay ($5 per piece) pre-dressed with soy sauce and wasabi (sawara is also known as Spanish mackerel). The most memorable piece of nigiri that night. The hay smoke added such a wonderful sweet smoky aroma — it’s a technique I’ve never seen in a Japanese restaurant in Vancouver before (at least the ones I can afford to dine at).

It’s not cheap here, but really, I don’t want to be dining at cheap izakayas anyways — they’re cheap for a reason, and are primarily focussed on making a buck, rather than having any culinary aspirations or having a spirit of kaizen (continuous improvement), let alone be obsessed with honing a narrow skillset like a shokunin.

I’d come back in a heartbeat and kick back with some sake and see what they do with those smoked fish bones…

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