I’m spoiled when it comes to the luxuries of fine sushi. It wasn’t always this way, though. A decade ago, the closest thing to adventurous that I would get in a sushi bar (and I use the term sushi bar loosely here to mean rotating belt-type establishments like Genki Sushi ) was ordering a crab mayo roll.
Then I had my first taste of good ahi poke. Then came spicy ahi poke. Then ahi nigiri. But, the one true sushi dish that really rocked my world was my first taste of hamachi nigiri. The way that I looked and experienced food was forever changed.
Now, when asked the difficult question of “what would your last meal on Earth be?” I have a definitive answer. I’d feast on the finest hamachi, a combination of sashimi and nigiri, with a side of shoyu. The slow melt of the hamachi would be the perfect going away gift for my taste buds and my soul.
It’s no surprise, then, that my wife would choose to celebrate my 33rd birthday in a sushi bar, while leaving the dinner menu entirely in the hands of our sushi chef. Really, there’s no better way to do it.
Sushi Izakaya Gaku was the location that my taste buds would do the happy dance. Gaku is located in a tiny space along King Street, just up the road from Sushi Sasabune. From the shabby exterior of the old building, you wouldn’t expect to find authentic sushi chefs and top notch sushi on the opposite end of the wooden front doors. However, once you take your first step inside Gaku, it’s like stepping into a slice of Tokyo that’s been transplanted into Honolulu. The interior is dark and rustic. Fish bones hang from the ceiling. Everyone behind the sushi counter speaks Japanese.
Gaku does offer a sashimi omakase, but not a sashimi and sushi omakase combination. You’ll have to ask for it. As we did, simply ask the waiter for the sashimi omakase and then ask for a selection of sushi, chef’s choice. He’ll ask if you’re allergic to any foods, would like to omit certain types of fish, or emphasize particular ingredients (fellow foodie, Kathy YL Chan, emphasized uni).
Here’s the breakdown of our dishes:
- Stellar Bay oysters from Canada, topped with masago, green onions, and ponzu sauce
- Sashimi omakase for 2: ahi, otoro, moi, red snapper, saba
- Uni wrapped in thinly sliced flounder with shiso leaves
- Bluefin tuna nigiri
- Tai (Red snapper) nigiri
- Spicy negihamachi tartar with masago, ponzo, green onions, and a raw quail egg
- Seared moi nigiri with grated daikon radish nigiri
- Aji (Japanese Horse Mackerel) nigiri
- Hamachi (Japanese Amberjack) nigiri
- Shrimp and Vegetable Tempura
- Torched Kinmedai (Golden Eye Snapper) nigiri
- Maguro (Bluefin Tuna) nigiri
- Ikura (Salmon Roe) nigiri
- Hokkaido (Scallop) nigiri
- Engawa (Flounder) nigiri
- Uni (Sea Urchin) nigiri
- Otoro (Tuna Belly) nigiri
- Seared toro with garlic nigiri
- Anago (Sea Eel) nigiri
To start, we had the Stellar Bay oysters, topped with masago, green onions, and ponzu sauce. This particular oyster grows off of the rich waters near Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The Gaku ponzu sauce was an excellent compliment to the the meaty oysters. Fireworks are sure to go off in your mouth.
Next up was the sashimi omakase, featuring a selection of ahi, otoro, moi, red snapper, and saba. I was pleasantly surprised by the rich flavor of the saba. Of course, I saved the otoro for last, and savored each and every bite.
The uni wrapped in thinly sliced flounder offered a creative take on this powerful seafood dish. The uni flooded my mouth with the taste of the ocean, and the shiso leaves added a nice hint of mint to the dish.
Ahi and red snapper came next.
The spicy negihamachi at Gaku is one of their most popular dishes, and I can see why. Take the wooden spoon and mix the negi (green onions) with the finely chopped hamachi. The raw qual egg will bind the ingredients, and the ponzu sauce provides the pomp and circumstance. Take a large scoop of the negihamachi and roll it into a sheet of nori and take a bite. Hear that pomp and taste that circumstance? Delicious, right.
This is the seared moi nigiri with grated daikon radish.
Aji, or Japanese Horse Mackerel, lightly seared. The softness of the aji combined with the light crackle of the seared side is immensely pleasurable to the palate.
Everyone’s favorite was next. Hamachai always leaves me in a state of exaltation.
This is Gaku’s shrimp and vegetable tempura. It was tasty, but lacked the light yet airy complexity of Morio’s tempura.
The torched kinmedai, or golden eye snapper, followed the tempura.
The ikura at Gaku was some of the best ikura that I’ve ever had. It wasn’t as salty as other places. The flavor that pops out from each little piece of roe was so intensely satisfying.
Hokkaido scallops and engawa (flounder) followed the ikura.
We thought that the uni would be the finale, but we were wrong. After finishing the uni, our sushi chef quickly returned to us and, in his thick Japanese accent, said that we had three more dishes to go. At this point, Michelle was beyond full. Unfortunately for her, the next three dishes would be some of the best that Gaku had to offer.
The otoro nigiri was, hands down, my favorite nigiri of the evening. So simple, yet so complex. The softness of the otoro melted in my mouth in such an elegant fashion. With this nigiri, you want to take your time. Relish the flavors. Close your eyes and imagine that you’re sitting in a little sushi bar in the middle of Tokyo. Your senses will thank you later.
To follow up the otoro, the chef prepared for us seared garlic toro nigiri. At this point, my tummy was about to explode. But was I complaining? Of course not. I would eat here all night if I could. Alas, we had to be out of the restaurant by 7pm.
We finished the evening with anago nigiri. Kind of. I had saved Michelle’s piece of otoro nigiri as my finale. I had tried to get her to eat it, because it was so delicious, but she just didn’t have the space. For me, there was no better way to end a night of sushi binging then with a fresh and fatty cut of otoro nigiri and a piping hot glass of green tea. What an amazing night of sushi. What an amazing birthday dinner.