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.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Phork (Closed)

The Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio

The Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio

The Phork (@thePhork) graced Edmonton with its presence at the end of 2013, opening its doors shortly before Christmas. Housed in the previous home of The Copper Pot, I was completely unaware of this new restaurant until I happened upon their deal on Groupon. It seems that the establishment was greeted with little fanfare upon debuting, so I count myself lucky to have come across the place in this fashion. Otherwise, I might not have found out about it until much later.

Although I had the vouchers in hand, it still took me over three months to make my way there, perhaps because it seemed like a slightly out-of-the-way location. Situated near the Grandin LRT Station on the main floor of a small office building, it wasn’t close enough to work to make it there and back during my lunch hour, and it just never was the first to come to mind when making dinner plans during the week or on the weekend. However, after having been there twice now within the last month, I can say that I wish I hadn’t delayed going for as long as I did.

My mother dined with me on both occasions, the first of which was a lunch outing. We had made a reservation through e-mail that time, but had also called ahead to ask about the parking situation. As it turns out, there is free parking available in the building’s underground parkade. The three or four visitor spaces are good to use during lunch hours while the remaining spots open up during the evening. I doubt that this is common knowledge as this information isn’t really advertised on their site. Yet, I think it certainly gives people more incentive to go, knowing that there is going to be somewhere to park their car in an area where parking may not be that easy to come by.

Views of the park, river valley and High Level Bridge.

Views of the park, river valley and High Level Bridge.

So, with that potential issue removed, we ventured into the restaurant where we were greeted quickly, although somewhat frantically, by a friendly guy who I learned later was Jameson the General Manager. Short staffed that day, he took on the role of server during lunch and promptly guided us to a raised booth that provided views of the High Level bridge and the park across the street. With about twenty or so tables that seat around four people each, it looked to be a quiet day as only a handful were being used. Despite that, I had high hopes.

Skipping drinks as it was still very early in the afternoon, we opted to stick to the food menu. I ordered the Boar Belly Chicken Club and my mom decided to go with the Grilled New York Steak. Both of us chose the seafood chowder for our side. When our dishes arrived at the table, my initial thought was that the size of the soup bowl was massive. For a side, they are very generous, and the soup was really delicious. It wasn’t very thick, but you could certainly taste the cream and it had a slight spiciness to it. It was also chock-full of muscles, pieces of salmon, halibut or cod, shrimp and vegetables. It honestly seemed like a full size order of soup and could have served as my whole meal. I’m definitely not complaining though. I consider it to be a plus that they don’t skimp on the portions.

With regards to my Boar Belly Chicken Club, it was quite delicious. I’m not certain what kind of bun they were using that day, but it was quite a crusty type of bread, which I am not that partial to, so I only ended up eating about half of the starch. However, I don’t feel that was a loss as it was a really large amount of bread and it wasn’t all necessary. The body of the sandwich included chicken breast, bacon (nicely crisped), which I’m guessing was the boar belly, aged cheddar, greens and tomato with bacon mayo. Overall, it may have been a little too salty for me when eaten whole. Yet, I enjoyed the strong smoky flavour and everything was well done.

The Grilled New York Steak with a side of Seafood Chowder!

The Grilled New York Steak with a side of Seafood Chowder!

The Grilled New York Steak was also a testament to the chef because it was cooked to perfection – incredibly tender and still pink. The meat sat on top of half an open-faced bun and was accompanied by sautéed mushrooms, Spanish onions, sun-dried tomato, spinach and Asiago cheese. I had several bites of it and it was so good. The different ingredients really melded together well and paired excellently with the steak. I would go back just for that.

We finished off lunch with an absolutely wonderful peach and mango crumble. The dessert was my favourite, and the single order was more than enough to share. Filled to the brim with large chunks of peach and mango, layered with crumble, candied pecans and walnuts and coming with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it was a great treat for a spring day. Simple, but decadent, I was no longer hungry when we left.

If I can, I really do like to base my reviews off of more than one visit, so exactly a week later, we dropped in for dinner. This time, I reserved a table through the OpenTable system. As we arrived at 5:30 prior to the dinner rush (it was almost a full house by the time we left), we were promptly seated at a table next to the window. The view was basically the same as during our previous lunch, but I was now also able to see the Legislature building directly ahead of me as well as the High Level Bridge Streetcar passing by every so often.

The interior of The Phork.

The interior of The Phork.

Again, we opted to skip the drinks (Although, I will have to go back to try one of their tableside flare cocktails. They are served by local, professional flare bartenders and, according to their website, The Phork is the first and only restaurant in Edmonton to offer this service.) and concentrate on the food offerings (the supper menu is double-sided). Since Mother’s Day was coming up, we went all out and ordered three appetizers and a main to split, including Crispy Fried Truffled Mac & Cheese Balls, Smoked Jalapeno Blue Crab Cake, Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio and the Pistachio Crusted Rack of Lamb.

I’ll start with the Mac & Cheese Balls. These were awesome. The breading on the outside reminded me of the Mac and Cheese Maki at The Hat, but with a more even ratio of panko to pasta. The spicy chili Ketchup, truffle oil and what I assume to be shaved Asiago cheese that accompanied the balls were excellent additions that really elevated the palate of the dish while keeping from being overpowering. The two Crab Cakes were seared well. Plated with a side of gathered greens and honey & mustard aioli, it was a light appetizer that had that great balance of piquant and sweet profiles. The Beef Carpaccio came with fresh slices of sesame seed topped bread and thin sheets of beef tenderloin topped with baby arugula, shaved reggiano cheese, a sprinkle of coarse sea salt and a drizzle of EVOO. The beef was melt-in-your-mouth good, and the flavours from the extras were subtle enough to ensure that the meat remained the focus.

For the entrée, we divided the Rack of Lamb and I’m glad we did because the starters already provided plenty of food. On the other hand, I am also happy that we didn’t skip this main as the lamb was incredible. The kitchen really does an excellent job with the preparation and cooking of their meats. We asked for the lamb to be medium-rare and it came to us just as requested. The steak knife that was provided cut through the rack like butter and there was plenty of juicy meat on the bones, which isn’t always the case when ordering this dish. What I loved most was the strong Dijon mustard and crushed pistachio that crusted the lamb as it paired so well with the natural flavour of the meat. The brush of butternut squash puree and braised leeks were texturally appealing and gave the plate an artistic look. The side of sweet potato pave was a good starch to anchor the entrée, but there was so much that we couldn’t finish it.

Having experienced both their lunch and dinner services, I can safely say that this establishment is another fantastic addition to Edmonton’s growing restaurant scene. The bright, new interiors and the views make it appealing, and the personable service (although, they can refill water glasses more regularly) is something I noticed and has stuck with me.

For those who have yet to try The Phork, here are some potential incentives for you. Currently, the restaurant is offering $10 off lunch for groups of two or more during their Monday to Friday lunch hours. Every Tuesday they have half price off every wine after 4 PM, and Saturday evenings from 7 to 10 PM there is live music. I expect I’ll be back to indulge in beverages, more food and some music soon enough! It’s that good!