Edmonton Restaurant Review: Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya

Our table was full of dishes and plates!

Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya is the newest Japanese option in downtown Edmonton, and, after eyeing Instagram posts for a while, I finally made it there after work on an early Friday evening.

I had made a reservation for two people using the OpenTable app. When we arrived at around 5 o’clock, it turned out we were the first joining them for dinner service; the restaurant did start to fill up a bit as we dined. It’s a nice space with lots of warm woods and pleather upholstered chairs. They even have a decently sized waiting area, so it’s not cramped should there ever be a delay for a table.

The interior of Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya.

The staff on hand was minimal that night. There was only one server and a couple of other staff behind the bar (not including whoever was in the closed off kitchen). Still, the service was pretty good. My only issue is that the server became less attentive after dessert and it was actually difficult to wave her down for the bill. Perhaps that’s because this place is an izakaya. The whole point of casual pubs like this is the slower pace and the extended meal where shared plates are ordered throughout the evening. She may have thought we intended to stick around longer and that’s why she didn’t disturb us or ask if the bill was wanted right away.

In any case, we lingered at Let’s Grill Sushi for almost three whole hours. In that time span, we sipped on drinks (I stuck with a simple ginger ale for $2.75 with free refills) and snacked on a handful of dishes, including a complimentary salad, skewers, two rolls, hot stone meat, and something sweet.

Complimentary Noodle Salad

A cold noodle salad was brought over and offered on the house. We were told it was a refreshing bite to help cool off on a hot day. The noodles were slightly transparent white, not quite glassy, but not opaque either. They were slippery and a tad chewy. Topped with kelp and thinly sliced cucumber, it was super simple with a hint of acidity.

As part of happy hour (Monday to Friday, 2pm to 5:30pm), Let’s Grill Sushi offers a few different skewer options. We opted to try a half-dozen of the Honey BBQ Pork, which are usually $8.50 per order, but only $5 on special. Wings and Sapporo pints are also the same price. I’m so glad we tried these. The skewers were prepared very well. Most of the fat had rendered from the meat, leaving a small amount of juicy crispness on the pork. The well-seasoned meat was slightly charred, adding to the overall flavour before they were finally garnished with green onion and nori.

We split two of the maki rolls: Crunchy Spicy Salmon ($14) and Yellowtail Fry ($13). The reason why we went with the former off of the Chef’s Specials of the Week menu is because, unlike the tuna version, the salmon roll replaced avocado with cucumber instead. My friend’s sensitivity to the healthy, fatty carb is avoided when possible, and, rather than asking for substitutions, it was easier to try the Crunchy Spicy Salmon. I actually didn’t find these to be all that spicy. Although, I did like the texture, and they were the lighter of the ones we sampled. The Yellowtail fry consisted of the fish, cream cheese, jalapeno and shiitake mushroom rolled in rice and nori. The roll was then battered, fried, and drenched in sweet truffle mayo. While I did enjoy them, there was almost too much to take in at once.

The eatery features a few hot stone meat options, too. I remember going to a Japanese grill in Kyoto where my friends and I tried this fantastically tender beef tongue. When I saw the Premium Beef Tongue ($16) on the Let’s Grill Sushi menu, I thought it’d be great to give it a shot. In Japan, the beef tongue was served like a filet of meat. Here, they had thinly sliced the tongue like carpaccio. It allowed the meat to cook super fast on the hot stone slab. Unfortunately, it had a chewier consistency than I hoped for. Regardless, I loved the three dips (salt, ponzu, sesame-type sauce) provided alongside the tongue. Next time, I may go for their duck though.

Matcha Creme Brulee

Prior to even eating anything else, I already had my mind made up on dessert. Whenever Matcha Creme Brulee ($7) is on the menu, there’s no question. This sweet ending is made in-house. The only thing I would have preferred is a thinner sugar seal. My spoon practically bounced off the caramelized top with my first attempt to break through. A second harder tap managed to crack it. I tend to enjoy a lighter caramelization that provides just a little crunch while being thin enough to melt in the mouth as opposed to worrying about the deterioration of my teeth as I bite onto thick sugar. Thankfully, on the plus side, the creamy custard base had a strong enough matcha flavour; it’s the worst when places serve halfhearted matcha desserts.

 

Aside from the slow service that most of us aren’t used to, Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya definitely checked off a lot of boxes as a hang out to start the weekend. I do worry that maybe they’re attempting to do too many things on their menu, but we tried several items, and I found all of them to be satisfying to some degree. I was particularly happy with those skewers and the rolls. It’s also a huge plus that they offer happy hour and daily specials, so I’m excited to go back to take advantage of those deals again.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Sushi Shop

I plated my order from Sushi Shop at home.

Living in the deep southwest corner of Edmonton, there weren’t a whole lot of dining or takeout options when I first moved into the area. Thankfully, things have improved. In late 2015, I found a flyer for Sushi Shop in my mailbox. It’s a quick service chain restaurant located in the Currents of Windermere development (also available in Kingsway Mall, City Centre and Southgate Centre). The first under the brand originally launched out of Quebec and is born out of the MTY Group, which has brought other recognizable names like Jugo Juice, Mucho Burrito and Thai Express to strip malls and food courts everywhere. Sushi Shop coupons are delivered to nearby neighbourhoods on a seasonal basis, so I usually order from them maybe a dozen times throughout the year.

Before putting my thoughts down for this review, I happened across a bunch of write-ups from other customers on Yelp and Google, and, to some degree, I completely understand where some of the bad ones come from. Many of the terrible notes were more to do with the service. I’ve had my share of incidents with this location. Sometimes staff don’t pick up the phone even after multiple calls, the wait can be long for the food, they don’t necessarily acknowledge patrons as soon as they walk in, etc. But, this is one of the closest and more affordable sushi options at hand.

For the most part, I’ve rarely been disappointed with what we’ve gotten. While I do wish they’d use real crab meat instead of imitation, the quality has, otherwise, almost always been more than decent. Although, admittedly, while upkeep of the store has gotten better, the rolls have, for some reason, been found looking less desirable lately. The fillings spill out, the rice isn’t wrapped tightly enough, and sometimes the rice is softer than I’d prefer; however, it still comes across as fresh and everything tastes good. After numerous visits, my fiancé and I have learned to stick with what we know is tried and true. Usually, we only sample something new when there’s a coupon offering a free item with purchase.

Surprisingly, a few of the giveaways, including the Black Mamba Maki ($9.95), Diablo Blossom ($8.95), Philly ($8.95) or Dragon Eye ($9.95) Crispy Rolls, Lion Sumomaki ($7.95), and Teriyaki Bomb Temari ($7.95 for 4) have actually been pretty great. Others like the Magik Blossom ($8.95) have not been up to par (this one tasted off; I’m not sure if it’s always like that or if an ingredient in the roll was past due).

Some have said that the prices aren’t much less than what you would pay at a more formal sushi restaurant. Therefore, they don’t see the value in spending their money here. But, I beg to differ. The majority of the rolls are between $7 to $10. Equivalents elsewhere probably range from $11 to $15 per roll. On top of that, gratuity is required. At Sushi Shop, if I want to, I can just pay the bill outright and be done with it. I carry my food to go and I get to eat in the comfort of my home. Usually, for about $25 to $30, both of us are fed to the point of bursting, and that’s just not possible at other sushi joints in the city (perhaps save for Tokyo Express).

My fiancé tends to go for the rolls with fully cooked fillings like the Ebi Maki ($5.95) and California Classic ($5.95). It’s hard to go wrong with those ones. I’m a little more adventurous, but also cheap, so my top picks for affordability are the Sweetheart Maki ($7.95; contains minced salmon and smoked salmon), Akanasu — sun-dried tomato pesto and light cream cheese — with Avocado ($4.95), and Inari Nigiri ($3.75).

Honestly, Sushi Shop is perfect for a quick fix whenever you have a craving. It’s definitely not going to be the best sushi anyone’s ever had. But, why are people expecting that from a fast food joint in the first place? Set your expectations based on what you’re buying into and it’ll be fine.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Sumo Sumo Sushi (Sherwood Park)

Our initial order of food from the Sunday Buffet.

Early in January, I came across a deal for the Sunday Brunch at Sumo Sumo Sushi in Sherwood Park. Their website listed an offering of five dollars off their usual price throughout the month. I hadn’t been there for years and was excited to learn that there was another all-you-can-eat option near the city, so I made a point of dragging my fiancé there over the last weekend it was available.

We arrived at the location on Lakeland Drive shortly after noon, so we kind of hit the lunch rush. The host at the front counter reminded us that the only menu on offer that day was the buffet and she asked if that was okay. She was also sure to let us know that the cost had been reduced to $29.95 per person instead of the regular $32.95 (updated February 2018). Once we had agreed to those stipulations, she checked to see if we had a reservation. Since we did not, we were seated in their enclosed patio space. The room was heated, but we were by a window and I found it got a little chilly after a while.

The Sunday Buffet menu.

Service was also slow to start as no one came by our table for a good ten minutes after we sat down. Once the server showed up, it wasn’t too bad though. She brought us our drinks (one beverage each is included). I opted for orange juice that came in a very tall glass, so I think the value was decent, especially since the majority of alternative sushi places charge extra. My fiancé chose to go with a pot of green tea. Sushi, sashimi, udon and shrimp tempura orders must be placed through the servers. On this occasion, the restaurant was out of toro and octopus. To make up for that, they relaxed their limit on the tuna, yellowtail and scallop. For our first run, we got six pieces of shrimp tempura, three pieces of chop chop sushi, and I maxed out on my sashimi portion by getting eight pieces of salmon and seven pieces of tuna.

While those items were being prepared, we ventured out to the ready made buffet. They do have a decent spread with a number of cold salads, a few hot salads, mussels, several maki rolls, meat skewers, teriyaki and tonkatsu, vegetarian tempura and a handful of dessert options.

I brought back a large plate full of seaweed salad, bean sprout salad, sesame beef pasta salad, California rolls, Aloha rolls, yam tempura and ponzu mussels. When we returned to our table, we realized that we were never given any utensils. To prevent further delay, I ended up grabbing a couple of forks from the buffet, but we did have to inquire with our server who apologized as the chopsticks and napkins should have been set out earlier. When she came back, she had those as well as a dish of wasabi and pickled ginger for us. Within the following ten minutes, she brought us our sashimi, tempura and sushi, too.

Some of the items I picked up from the ready made buffet.

I’ll begin by reviewing the buffet items that I chose. I felt that the seaweed and bean sprout salads were standard. The seaweed salad was seasoned well and the kelp had that crunchy, chewy texture. The bean sprouts were pretty fresh, and I enjoyed the flavour of the sesame dressing. My one issue was that the sauce was somewhat watery. Surprisingly, I really liked the sesame beef pasta salad. It’s kind of an unusual find in a Japanese eatery; however, the beef was tender and marinated nicely. I believe it had the perfect amount of mayo-type dressing on it (not drenched) that gave it a slight tang.

Tempura at Sumo Sumo was decent as the kitchen avoided over battering and the shell remained crisp despite sitting out in the buffet servers. Despite the California rolls tasting great with their use of cucumber, avocado and sesame seeds, I was a tad disappointed to see that they utilize fake crab meat. I appreciated the Aloha roll as it provided a balance of sweet and heat through the combination of tuna, avocado, masago, green onion, eel sauce, spicy mayo, pineapple, shredded coconut, soy and sesame oil. I loved the Kiwi mussels because they were so large and fleshy, and the ponzu sauce was light with a kick to it.

Chop Chop Sushi, Shrimp Tempura, Salmon & Tuna Sashimi and buffet items.

I’m very glad that they make the shrimp tempura fresh when requested. It meant that each batch came out piping hot. The chop chop sushi had a good ratio of scallop to masago to mayo to rice with a perfectly dry nori wrap. Shockingly, the pieces of sashimi were massive, at least when it came to the tuna and salmon. They were incredibly thick cut, meaning there was a ton of protein. I thought the tuna was the better of the two as it tended to melt in the mouth whereas the salmon was tougher and required more chewing. Since my fiancé isn’t a fan of raw fish, he took full advantage of the cooked meats (kebabs and tonkatsu at the buffet).

The second order of sashimi. The snapper on the top right corner of the plate were still frozen.

To maximize the value, I made sure to put in our second order for sashimi. This time, I chose to try three pieces each of the tuna, salmon, yellowtail, scallop, and snapper. It was a long time before this plate made it to our table and I know why. When I bit into my first slice of snapper, it turned out that it was still frozen in the middle and I could feel the ice inside the fish. The kitchen must have been hoping it would thaw. I informed our server of that problem and, thankfully, she offered to switch the snapper for something else. The salmon and tuna (more sinewy) were comparable to our initial dish of sashimi. I’m not sure that I liked the scallop sashimi that much. It sort of left a bitterness at the back of my throat and I don’t think it should have. On the other hand, the yellowtail was fantastic. The slices of this last fish were much more manageable in size and the flavour was sweetly tangy.

Chocolate Mousse and Crème Brûlée

By the time I made it through that portion of sashimi, I was so full. Yet, I wasn’t willing to leave without dessert. I was capable of fitting in a small cup of crème brûlée and a glass of chocolate mousse in my stomach. Both refrained from being too heavy, making either an ideal way to complete the meal. The restaurant allows diners a total of two hours to eat and we finished almost exactly within that time frame.

After doing the math, I surmised that all of the food I ate myself was equivalent in value to what I paid for our lunch. Everything that my fiancé ate was the cherry on top. Ultimately, I would say that our experience at Sumo Sumo was a fun one. Even though I don’t think it’s as good as Watari ($36 during dinner gets each person 30 pieces of reasonably sized sashimi and all items are made to order from the kitchen), this was, overall, alright. I think if Sherwood Park isn’t too out of the way, it’s worth dropping by once in a while to fulfill any cravings. Otherwise, Sumo Sumo is a place that I probably won’t be going out of my way to visit for another few years.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Sushi Sugoi (Closed)

The cover of the Sushi Sugoi menu.

The cover of the Sushi Sugoi menu.

Sushi Sugoi (@sugoiedmonton) is one of the newer Japanese restaurants in the city. Open for more than a year now, I had heard good things about it from reviews, friends and neighbours. I usually have good intentions to try a place when it first announces its presence, but, for some reason, I usually never make it until much further down the road. Perhaps I want to avoid any kinks that they might be working out in the kitchen or on the menu. After all, I want a good experience, not one that I’ll regret.

My ears initially perked up to the idea of an additional sushi restaurant on the south side of Edmonton when my friend told me she dined there one evening last fall. By the sounds of it, she was wowed by the food and the overall presentation of the dishes, telling me that they looked like works of art. I was certainly intrigued. I followed up her description of their outing by reading some other reviews on Urbanspoon and, lo and behold, they were rated quite favourably (currently they have 76% approval out of 199 votes). I jotted the name down on my vast list of eateries to try and vowed I’d make it there eventually.

That brings me to the end of February when I ran into my neighbour on the way to work. Whenever we ride the bus together, food usually ends up being a hot topic of conversation for us. This particular time, I think I was telling her about the amazing sushi that I had eaten in San Diego a few weeks ago, so, of course, we got to talking about sushi in Edmonton. Sure enough, she mentioned Sushi Sugoi, telling me that she quite liked the variety of rolls and that, for the price, the portions served were worth the money.

What did I do next? I called my friend who had traveled with me to California, so we could plan our next dinner. By the time we got together, it had been a full month since we had returned from our trip. For us, that is a long overdue meeting. Sushi was definitely in order. Neither of us barely ate during the day, so were starving on our way there after work.

The interior of the restaurant has a large sushi bar as its focal point.

The interior of the restaurant has a large sushi bar as its focal point.

Located along Calgary Trail, Sushi Sugoi sits next to a strip mall. As we drove into the parking lot, it was evident that little thought was put into the exterior of the building because it still looked very much like its predecessor, Outback Steakhouse. Thankfully, upon stepping inside the doors, we saw that the interior of the space had been gutted and redecorated in a very tasteful manner. The restaurant is sleek and modern with neutral shades, a few pops of colour and a large sushi bar as its focal point.

While we waited at the front counter, I took everything in. Although I could see people standing at the back towards the kitchen, there was no host to greet us when we entered the establishment. A few minutes went by before anyone really acknowledged us, which is something they can improve upon. But, once someone came over, they immediately took us to a booth where we were seated and presented with menus.

As we flipped through the many pages of the menu (I cannot emphasize enough how extensive it is), we were also offered o-shibori (hot wet towels), so we could clean our hands before our meal. I thought that was a nice touch. It’s actually something I haven’t seen in a long time.

What I like about their menu is that it has a clean design, and most items have some sort of description of the dish listed alongside the name, so you’re not going to wonder what exactly you’re about to eat. Similar to other Asian eateries, they still make use of numbering the items and including a selection of corresponding photos for show, but it’s minimal, and the pictures just serve to make your mouth water. Therefore, it took us a while to make our final decisions when it came to ordering our food. Originally, I was quite tempted to go with one of their bento boxes, which are only $15 (even during dinner), or one of their combos. Instead, I changed my mind and opted to test out a few of their rolls.

It was hard to pick just three each because they have three menu pages devoted to rolls. I went with a couple of the tried and true – negitoro maki and scallop maki –  as a way to compare the quality with what I might find at other places in Edmonton. I also chose the dynamite Alaska from their list of specialty rolls. My friend went with the spicy tataki maki, squash maki and inari maki.

Since I didn’t sample any of my friends rolls on this particular occasion, I cannot comment myself on how good hers were, but they did look yummy. She also told me she enjoyed them, and she would definitely come back to eat at Sushi Sugoi again.

I guess my one qualm with the service is that not all of the rolls ordered came out together, which is bound to happen at times. However, my dynamite Alaska showed up quite a bit later than the other two. Often, when I eat, I like to alternate between the different items, allowing you to really take in all the flavours and combinations. It’s like a workout for your taste buds. When you’re eating just one type of roll all at once, sometimes it becomes overwhelming or everything just starts tasting the same. So, I would have liked for the last roll to arrive at the table earlier.

Scallop Maki

Scallop Maki

No matter though, it is what it is. I was started off with the scallop maki. In my mind, I saw it as the traditional maki, wrapped in black seaweed with just a small center of scallop. Turns out, it was uramaki (an inside-out roll) with the rice wrapped around the seaweed and a fairly large middle of chopped scallop. The taste and texture of the rice was just right (slightly sticky and vinegary). The tender raw scallops were paired with tobiko and then coated with a decent amount of Japanese mayo – mixed in to give it a little bit of creaminess and tang – to create a bite that had a melt-in-your-mouth consistency.

Negitoro Maki

Negitoro Maki

The negitoro maki is how I imagined my scallop maki would be. Bite sized rolls filled with fatty tuna and chopped green onion (I believe the onions might be grown in their Urban Cultivator, which they use to grow their own organic greens and herbs year round), these were delicious. The green onions were extremely flavourful and fresh, as was the fish.

The dynamite Alaska roll was massive. Each piece was about the size of my fist, so it’s not conducive to keeping your food from falling apart. As anyone who eats sushi knows, the bigger the roll, the more difficult it is to eat in a polite manner. Etiquette suggests that you eat with either your chopsticks or your hands (as long as they’re clean), and typically, you should eat a piece of sushi in one fell swoop. The problem in North America lies with the idea of “bigger is better” where the rolls have become so large that it’s near impossible to do so. Sometimes you can still stuff the whole roll in your mouth, but you likely look like a chipmunk storing food away for the cold winter months. Inevitably, with these huge rolls you must give in and bite it apart. That’s when it usually becomes a messy pile on your plate (probably because you couldn’t quite cut that seaweed apart with your teeth). Luckily, that wasn’t really the case this time. I credit it to the fact that the roll was fried on the outside, giving the seaweed a crunchy texture that was much easier to break apart.

Dynamite Alaska

Dynamite Alaska

The ease with which this dish was consumed despite the size of its portions, is one of the main positives of this roll. While it tasted pretty good, it was quite heavy as the fried batter on the outside was thick (thankfully not greasy), so it was maybe too much in that respect. According to the menu, the middle was stuffed with smoked salmon, tobiko, prawn tempura, yam tempura, crab meat and vegetables. Smoked salmon, being a strong flavour was the most distinguishable ingredient by taste. I couldn’t really tell there was any yam tempura in the roll and the crab meat is of the imitation variety. This roll was simply okay. The main problem with rolls this large is that when it has to be divided into fractions, you’re probably only getting a bite with crab meat and nothing else. The point of combining all of those things in the middle is that they should really be eaten as a whole, and you can’t do that here. I most likely won’t order this one again, unless someone shares a plate with me. It really is best in smaller doses.

Overall, I’m leaning towards saying that I like Sushi Sugoi. The service, once they noticed us, was decent. Since the food was brought out in stages, our server was at our table enough to ensure that she checked on our satisfaction thoroughly. Regarding the food, I really liked the more traditional rolls that I had. Those were delicious; they used what seemed like very fresh ingredients while keeping the consistency of the rice perfect, which is so important when it comes to sushi. My only wish is that they stop relying so much on the imitation crab meat in their rolls (20 out of 58 make use of it) because that brings the quality down a notch, and that’s a shame. I really want the food to match the beauty of the space, and it does in some aspects, but not all. Hopefully, they’ll work on that since so many of those rolls sound absolutely scrumptious. I certainly don’t regret this visit though. In fact, I’ll probably be back soon, but I’ll be sure to stick to the tried and true classics from now on.

Edmonton AYCE Sushi Showdown: Zen Sushi & Grill vs. Watari Japanese Cuisine

Sushi has become a mainstay in the culinary adventures of most cities. Whether or not the place is near water, you can bet money that there is at least one Japanese eatery luring people in with the deliciousness of maki and sashimi. Therefore, it has become commonplace to see at least a dozen establishments spring up over the last few years, all vying for a spot in Edmonton’s sushi scene. What was more of a rarity was the all-you-can-eat (AYCE) Japanese restaurant. I only knew of maybe one or two businesses that fit the bill, but from what I had heard, it wasn’t worth the effort of going. Unlike what you can find in cities like Vancouver and Montreal, the AYCE buffet wasn’t really up to par when it came to price or quality.

My friend, however, had tried out Zen Sushi & Grill on 76 Avenue and 104 Street just south of Whyte Avenue and she suggested that we go for lunch one day. Personally, I was glad that we ventured to this location. They have another on 101 Street and 105 Avenue in downtown Edmonton, but I don’t feel particularly safe in that neighbourhood. This location has a parking lot right outside of the eatery, so parking is not only free, but a lot more convenient.

I walked into the restaurant expecting that it wasn’t going to be that big, yet, as it turns out, there is another room adjacent to the main area that houses a full bar and more tables. The windows along the front of the building really help to brighten the space, which is a mix of brick walls, wood floors and a black and brown colour palette. The look is nothing fancy, but it is modern enough and it is clean.

Lunch, I believe, was and still is around $20 per person on weekends. Once you’re seated, you receive a sheet where you can check off the items that you want to order. The menu is fairly extensive, including sushi, maki rolls, cones and an amalgam of cooked items. Sashimi, during lunch hours, is an extra $2 for 10 pieces.

The Zen menu and order sheet.

The Zen menu and order sheet.

Since I had never dined there before, we splurged and added on a couple orders of sashimi (the pieces were thicker than I would have assumed). In addition, we got a mix of sushi – salmon, tuna, inari, masago and chop chop – some miso soup, bean sprout salad, agadashi tofu, veggie tempura and tempura cod, among other items. Surprisingly, all the fish tasted fresh and not like it was at all previously frozen. The options available were more than enough to satisfy my sushi cravings as it covered the typical gamut of choices. The agadashi tofu is usually fried very well, leaving a nice thin layer of breading on the outside that soaks up the sauce. Sometimes the tempura can be a little bit greasier than I would like and at least twice I’ve noticed that when they deep fry large pieces of broccoli, the batter doesn’t always cook all the way through, so inside the head of the veggie you might find a floury consistency.

Overall, despite a couple of missteps, Zen did exceed my expectations for AYCE sushi in this landlocked city. And, while I do not think it can quite compare to what I’ve tried across the rest of the country, having eaten there many times after this first occasion, I would still recommend going for the chop chop (raw scallop) sushi, the soft shell crab maki (fantastic the first time I ate it there, not as good lately, but you never know), their agadashi tofu and the green onion cakes. What I like is that they don’t overdo the rice portions for the sushi – the balls are small as they should be.

The service is good and the owner is especially nice. I’ve been there for both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in the last year, and I can tell you that they don’t up the price on holidays. Also, although I’ve never had an issue walking in and getting a spot, they do offer to take reservations, too.

Within a year, Zen had become my go to for sushi. It was perfect for those days when you’re craving anything and everything Japanese for an affordable price. Yes, there are plenty of great sushi establishments in town nowadays, but where else can you spend under $25 and eat as much as you can fit in your belly?

This is why I was ecstatic to see that a new AYCE sushi restaurant was to take the place of the recently vacated Matahari space on 124 Street and 101 Avenue. As quickly as Matahari disappeared, the banner sign advertising the soon-to-be open Watari Japanese Cuisine was hung. Every time I drove by I became giddy with excitement wondering when they would be ready for customers. Eventually in August I’d heard that they, indeed, were officially serving food. My friend joined me for dinner after work before we headed to a show at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival.

I had never eaten at Matahari before the eatery closed, but I had seen photos, and I’m guessing it was a quick turnaround for Watari because they kept some of the decor the same. A number of raised booths sit along the wall closest when you enter the restaurant. There are also a handful of other booths opposite and bar height tables in the middle. Again, the look is nothing spectacular, but it is pretty comfortable and it is clean as well.

We stuck with tap water, which was incredibly refreshing because they toss slices of lemon or lime and sometimes mint leaves in for flavour. With dinner, you can have up to 30 pieces of sashimi per person, so the two of us ordered the maximum (40 pieces of salmon and 20 pieces of tuna – both fresh, but the salmon was melt-in-your-mouth and the better of the two) to split. No lie, I swear we had at least two full-size fish at our table because the slices were substantial. We also tried out the tacos, sushi including salmon, tuna, inari and red snapper, miso soup, a variety of maki rolls (their Target roll of tuna and green bean is good), beef tataki (awesome), Hawaii poke(y), bean sprout and seaweed salads, a combination of shrimp and veggie tempura (you order what you want by the piece), cream cheese (and crab) wontons and beef short ribs, all of which I would urge you to try.

You could literally have rolled us out of the restaurant, we were so full by the end. However, I can happily say that we triumphed and polished off every last piece of fish and rice. For the $27.95 weekday adult dinner rate, I think we more than got our money’s worth.

Watari is so close to my parent’s place that I’ve now eaten there a few times (the latest occurrences for lunch) and, I have to say, that while it was already good the first time with my friend, it has improved each time since. Also, with over 100 items to choose from on their menu, there is definitely something for everyone, even those who are not fans of raw.

Zen and Watari, in a competition, are fairly matched. The reason for that can likely be chalked up to the fact that, apparently, the owner of Watari was the previous co-owner of Zen until he decided to open his own restaurant. I find it hard to decide which should be called the superior place, if at all. Each one has a few items that are not offered by the other, so, for me at least, there’s always going to be the temptation to visit both.

For those of you who look at this as a numbers game, I will break it down for you though. Sashimi (15 pieces per person) is already included with lunch at Watari for the $22.95 price, making it pretty much equivalent to Zen should you decide to add sashimi to your meal there. If you happen to be a senior, the cost of eating at Watari is an even better deal at $19.95. They also have a lower price of $16.95 for children. Watari also recently added late night (10pm on) prices for Friday to Sunday and statutory holidays that equal the cost of lunch (reservations are recommended on weekends).  The menu between both restaurants is relatively similar, but there are minor differences. Watari includes tacos, Hawaii poke(y), beef tataki, cream cheese wontons as well as specialty rolls created in-house. They also have the option of the Monday to Friday business lunch, which does away with the sashimi and a number of menu items, but still leaves sushi, maki rolls and the majority of their kitchen and deep fried menu items up for grabs, all for the low price of $14.95, regardless of age. Zen has chop chop sushi and soft shell crab maki on the menu, two tasty items that are not available at Watari. Both restaurants have other options that are extra in cost, but I’ve never felt the need to order any of them because what is included in the set price is more than enough for everyone.

Watari's current pricing as of October 2014. Photo courtesy of Watari's Facebook page.

Watari’s current pricing as of October 2014. Photo courtesy of Watari’s Facebook page.

Watari and Zen both have excellent service that is quick and friendly, so you can make the most out of your two hour dining limit. Once in a while they may miss bringing an an item or two, but, as long as you remember that you didn’t get it, you can always order it again in the next round. As with all AYCE establishments, they are very conscious about eating responsibly, so be sure that you order only what you can finish. Anything that is left behind is subject to extra charges as it’ll likely have to be thrown away. Both restaurants offer free parking – Zen out front and Watari has a few rows of parking behind the building.

If I really had to choose, I would say that Watari bests Zen, but only by inches. In all honesty, you cannot go wrong with either of these places. The two are favourites of mine, and they’re definitely the top AYCE sushi restaurants you’ll find in Edmonton. I’ve left both happily gratified each and every time.