Sunday, December 16, 2012

My epic order FAIL at Ki Modern Japanese & Bar

Ki Modern Japanese & Bar on Urbanspoon Ki Modern Japanese & Bar is a part of the larger building/complex that is the Shangri-La Hotel Vancouver, and thus shares space with other posh dining experiences like MARKET by Jean-Georges. From the get-go, then, expectations are set high.

It's upstairs from the ground level, and actually encompasses quite a bit of square footage. There the lounge on one side, the restaurant on the other side, and in between in a courtyard that in warmer and less rainy days has seating, and for smokers on colder days there is a long fireplace so you don't have to shiver in the fall rain and snow.

Inside the restaurant, decor is clean and beautiful, dimly lit (in some alcoves a bit too dimly lit, such that some of our party had to use their cellphones as flashlights on the menu), lots of reds and blacks. Menus and even the folder for the bill followed a consistent black appearance of various sizes, and that uniformity added to the overall sense of everything being part of a larger design.
Another interesting item was the use of heavy black iron antique-looking tea pots.
Probably the most out-of-place thing here is at the very end of the menu, in the section called "fallbacks": If you really, really, don't like sushi and are stuck here for, say, a business meeting, you can order steak. I'm not kidding.

Service/hospitality from the front desk staff and our server were ace, top notch. Table presentation for our reservation also had nice touches such as square menus arranged in a circle in the middle of the table.
In the alcoves, you're best off trying for one of the cushioned wall seats. The large rounded chairs, while artsy looking, aren't exactly very functional. Once you sit in it, you'll find it's really quite deep. And there's no easy handhold for you to pull it closer to the table, so you really need your date to do it for you each time.

There was sadly no tasting menu or sampler plate, and here's where things went wrong for me. Instead of choosing from the regular menu, I asked if they could put together one for me. The server said yes. I should have thought it through more carefully because in hindsight, it was a very bad move in a restaurant that doesn't normally offer it, unlike sushi places such as Miku.
Anyway, to begin, I asked about what was special and different and unique. Two items came to the fore: their signature hamachi and jalapeño sushi roll ($13); and a "sushi pizza" ($18), from the bar on the other side, but not listed on the dinner menu.

Everyone else ordered off the menu. I went with the sushi pizza appy to share (6-slice mini pizza about 6" in diameter), and decided I'd see what the restaurant could put together for me. The server said the selection would be based on how "adventurous" I felt. I told her I was "super adventurous", that they were free to put eight pieces of anything for me, whether they were on the regular menu or still experimental. I am always curious about vegan options, so I asked for 2 pieces to be vegan, whatever the kitchen could come up with. The server later came back and said the options were limited, so I downgraded that to just 1 piece -- I was still curious, honestly.

The sushi pizza was super, and gave me really high hopes for what would come out on the put-it-together-for-me plate. It was basically sashimi on a round rice cake, including fish and crab meat; a sweet sauce; red slices of fish on each of the six wedges, a bit of roe and delicate seaweed in the middle. The end result was that it looked like a beautiful red flower. Taste was superb. If this sort of creativity and plating was possible at Ki, the bar was set very high to start.
Sadly, things went downhill from there. Some presentation were interesting, such as raw fish slices cooled on a thick round column of ice. Otherwise, nothing that really wow'ed us as the sushi pizza had done.

Our orders came out as they were prepped, with the result that at various times, someone had nothing in front of them. We were a party of 7, so I'm not sure how many marks to take off for that. They did forget one order of their specialty hamachi and jalapeño, and that was really startling. Happily, the person who ordered it was quite full already and she let it go.

Presentation of the sushi rolls was very basic, with basically a pretty roll on a long plate, and with a small mound of wasabi and ginger. I wasn't so sure about their giving you wasabi right off, or pouring everyone a small dish of soy sauce. It's like they expect you to use it with their sushi. I suppose this may be just my own expectations clashing with experiences elsewhere, where wasabi and soy sauce aren't standard issue except at cheap bulk sushi joints.
If you can, try a piece before you soak it in soy or green it with wasabi, to see if you really need it.

Finally my order came. And... WTF? A plate of mixed nigiri. I thought, "you're kidding, right?" This was my "super adventurous" order? Nigiri, unless they really get creative, is probably the most boring thing on the menu (well, for me, anyway). It's a lump of rice with something raw on top (unless you get tamago, which is a slab of omelette).
We were all shocked.

Then I started thinking what had gone wrong. I had tried to convey a sense of openness-to-experience and complete trust in the kitchen, and this is the result. Hmm...
Someone suggested that they could have at least thrown in a piece of their signature hamachi and jalapeño roll, but in hindsight, I think the restaurant would never have chosen anything from a sushi roll. Here's why: Each piece of sushi you see is part of a single roll, maybe cut into 8 pieces. If they were to assemble a plate of say 8 types of rolls, that's 8 rolls they have to make, and of each roll use only 1 piece. What would they do with the other 7 pieces? Ki does not have a sampler platter like, say, Miku. They wouldn't be able to move the other 7 pieces because it doesn't add up to a single typical order of sushi, and to ensure freshness they couldn't really keep it around.
So if I had thought about it more carefully at the time I put in my order, I would have realized that there would be no sushi forthcoming.

But what about the sushi pizza that had so wow'ed us? Was that really the limit of creative items on the menu? Guess so.

In any case, I was now in big trouble. I had a plate of 7 boring pieces of regular nigiri, and one piece of vegan nigiri (which I'll talk about later). Off the top of my head I don't recall ever sending anything back to the kitchen in any restaurant, but this one time I decided to try it since evidently there was a miscommunication. I tried to contritely explain that I had probably not conveyed my intentions clearly enough, and that the plate was pretty tame. Pretty awfully tame. I conceded that maybe it was more special than it looked, but at the moment, it was sooo tame looking and so far from what I had hoped.

Our server took it back. We continued to discuss it. How had it gone wrong?
Someone brought up the issue of what was on the plate at all, and said it was all cheap-ass nigiri. I wasn't sure about that, but she had apparently gone to enough sushi restaurants to identify everything and assured me it was a cheap, safe, plate. Supposing this were true, then maybe they were playing it very safe and not trusting me to be very adventurous?
Someone else suggested that my vegan order threw them off, that it conveyed to the kitchen that I really wasn't adventurous at all. After having gone to places like Acorn and Heirloom, I honestly disagreed with that. Even if you can't do anything with the ingredients, you can try jazzing it up with paste, sauce, ingredient combination, and/or presentation.

Eventually, the manager came over. Maybe the staff had eavesdropped on our conversation, but what he said was dead-on what we discussed: That the vegan request threw off the kitchen; and that one of the changes to the plate would be to take off the tamago sashimi.
Supposing (big assumption) that they did eavesdrop, I can't fault them for using the intel gained, but I'm not sure I like that they didn't have a policy of I-didn't-hear-anything-I-wasn't-meant-to-hear.

Anyway, I apologized for having evidently failed to convey to our server that 8 pieces of anything "really adventurous" really meant I was game for anything. I further tried to reassure the manager that I really was up for anything, and that when I go to a restaurant, I immediately look for and order whatever sounds weird, whether it tasted horrible or not.
He said he had some ideas on what to do, and to maintain the surprise wasn't going to tell me immediately. I told him I was fine with that.
Some time later, attempt number two came out. Still a plate of nigiri. I really didn't expect too much different now and I had decided in the meantime I wasn't going to send it back no matter what came out. I accepted that I probably had wrong expectations to begin with and an inadequate understanding of the restaurant's limitations, so I wasn't going to blame the restaurant. They were trying to make things right, and that counted too.
The two most different pieces were ikura nigiri (salmon roe) with a raw quail egg on top; and uni nigiri (gonad of sea urchin). Maybe they were uncommon ingredients and acquired tastes, I honestly didn't think this was anything special. But by this time I figured the restaurant's options were limited.

For the vegan piece, it was two sticks of asparagus topped with a brown paste that included sesame seeds and something that had a brief flash of hot spiciness in the mouth. Of the entire plate, I though that was pretty curious and would have made a decent vegan nigiri -- not the use of asparagus, per se, but the paste to add to your experience of taste. It was also the cheapest piece of nigiri at $2.50 and listed as "veggie" on my bill.

The final bill for the nigiri portion was:
  • amaebi nigiri $3.50 (sweet shrimp)
  • hotate nigiri $3.00 (sea scallop; they lemoned it and lightly seared the top)
  • ikura nigiri $6.00 (salmon roe), add quail egg $1.00
  • saba nigiri $6.00 (mackerel)
  • kani nigiri $6.00 (Alaskan kinig crab)
  • hamachi nigiri $4.50 (yellowtail)
  • uni nigiri $7.00 (sea urchin)
  • saba nigiri $3.00 (not sure why this showed up twice but after all the trouble I didn't bother asking about a measly $3 on my bill)
Anyway, if you do go to Ki, DO NOT DO WHAT I DID -- do not ask them to put together something for you. They can't. Just bring a few friends, order various rolls, and swap pieces.
Oh, and ask for the bar menu to have a peek at it. That sushi pizza really is a "must try", even at $18. It tops the Sashimi with Crispy Rice I had at MARKET in both taste and value for your dollar.

*

For desserts, I got the Almond Asian Pear Cake with coconut crème anglaise + blueberry mirin coulis ($10). It's basically a sponge cake topped with almond slices baked in. Chopped pear on the side. Large, tall slice of cake, and definitely had to be eaten with the pear or anything else wet on the plate, else it was too plain and dry. Could have used a spoon for the pear too (what is it with restaurants and not handing out more spoons?).
The wedge cake had a somewhat thick crust, and I was prepared to say this was how the restaurant is choosing to bake their cake. However, purists at the table were more convinced that they had overbaked the cake, and could have gotten the almond crust without baking the sides and bottom. You be the judge.

In any case, the Trio of Cheesecake (pineapple mint, mango, chocolate mascarpone; $10) someone else ordered was really so much better. Variety of flavours, no single piece too large and monotonous, and the intensity of the fruit flavours made this the clear winner in my opinion.

The Lemongrass Chamomile Infused Crème Brûlée served with sugar cookies ($10) was strangely very soft, almost liquid inside. Nothing wrong with the flavour per se however, just a bit odd/different.

*

Including one pot of tea ($5), my bill was a frightening $75.50 before tax and tip. Our server was really pleasant and patient with us, and overall service was tops, so in the end I put down just over $100.

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