Last week, L called to tell me he had won an award. To celebrate the good news, he told me to pick any restaurant for dinner. Though I’m hesitant to try out new restaurants for special occasions (lest the food disappoints us), I was dying to try Red Ember Japanese Cuisine. Based on the rave reviews from Peaches and XYZ (Urbanspoon reviewers), I had a feeling it would be worth the risk.
Red Ember Japanese Cuisine is sandwiched between two commercial buildings on a busy street in the Hillhurst community. A string of red lanterns decorate the tree in front of the restaurant. I was pleasantly surprised with Red Ember’s contemporary interior design. Painting the walls red was a bold choice, but it worked well with the modern décor. The tables are cute, outfitted with a brown paper table cover, duo chopstick/soy sauce utensils, and origami style napkins. Red Ember provides a peaceful ambience for customers. Jazz music plays at the just the right volume, loud enough to enjoy the swinging tunes but low enough to still have a conversation.
Our server Christina was exceptionally polite and professional. She also dispensed a perfect pour of beer. L and I appreciated that she took the time to describe all the elements of the dishes, right down to the edible garnishes. While we looked at the menu and sipped on ice cold Asahi, Christina brought over a complimentary appetizer of salmon tempura. Hot and crispy, the salmon was flaky and moist, submerged in a deliciously sour, citrusy, garlicky sauce.
My apologies for the photos – photography isn’t one of my strengths. In case you’re wondering, I’m also not gifted as a mathematician, pianist or as a martial artist. Speaking of stereotypes, I know some people care if the sushi chef is Japanese (such as L), but the sushi at Red Ember is so good, I wouldn’t care if the sushi chef was Roger the Alien (American Dad). L agreed – in this case, the issue was moot.
L and I enjoyed watching the platters of sashimi and specialty rolls parade out of the kitchen. Each platter was beautifully presented. The sushi chef, Calvin Chu, could easily double as a food stylist. The rolls were meticulously styled and gracefully arranged. For example, green leaves adorn the sashimi bowls and long stems of deep-fried buckwheat noodles and slices of lotus grace the plate. In the case of our Rainbow roll – the toppings of each roll alternated in the toppings of salmon, ebi and snapper. It’s details like this that set Red Ember apart from its nearby competition.
We started with a large sashimi platter: 24 pieces of snapper, salmon, tuna, squid, octopus and scallops. The presentation of the sashimi really shone. Literally. The blue light underneath the ice lit up the sashimi like the fountains at the Bellagio. The crushed ice wasn’t just for ornamental purposes, it also kept the fish chilled. The salmon was marbled; its pattern was reminiscent of tiger stripes. Cool, smooth and buttery, the salmon was exquisite. The tuna was our favourite – it was fresh and firm, but still melted in your mouth. L really enjoyed the octopus as it had a good chew to it but was not rubbery. I was surprised to see the size of the raw scallops, they was so large that they wrapped around a slice of cucumber. I liked how the squid was rolled in nori, but personally, the slippery texture wasn’t for me.
The specialty rolls are amazing. We sampled the Red Dragon roll, the Kamikaze roll, the Rainbow roll, the chopped scallop roll and a tuna roll. Of the bunch, the Red Dragon was our favourite. The tempura prawn inside the roll was still warm, while the batter was light and airy. Portion wise – and this applies to all the rolls we’ve sampled, there was a good filling to rice ratio. You could also taste the individual ingredients, such as the tempura prawn, tobiko, avocado and cucumber; no singular ingredient overpowered the other. The crowning glory on the Red Dragon roll was the piece of seared salmon on top of each roll; the torching gave the salmon a rich smoky taste.
The Kamikaze roll combined my favourite ingredients: chopped scallop, tempura flakes, tobiko, and tuna. The roll was subtle in taste, but big on texture. I like the size of the specialty rolls – I could fit a piece in my mouth in one bite. Or maybe I just have a big mouth. At least, that’s what my mother always told me.
The Rainbow roll was chocked full of fresh fish. For the first time ever, I realized why this roll was called the Rainbow roll. The different colours, particularly on the topping, looked like a rainbow. I did notice that the sushi rice was lightly seasoned. While L prefers his sushi rice to have a stronger taste of vinegar and sugar, I thought it allowed the different tastes and textures of the specialty rolls to come out.
The regular rolls were nicely rolled. I liked how the ratio of scallop and red roe was slightly larger than that of rice, and that the cucumber was omitted. The tuna maki was full of fresh fish. However, compared to the specialty rolls, the tuna maki was plain boring. Lesson learned – our future visits will focus solely on the creative rolls. Thanks Urbanspooners – I never would have found this gem without your reviews.