Let me preface this post by declaring I used to live in Japan. And I hate eating sushi and other Japanese food. In Calgary, that is. I’ve been disappointed so many times, I’ve stopped going out for it. And then I went to Shokunin.
Shokunin is an izakaya, which is a Japanese-style pub. Despite being a casual joint for drinks and small plates, it sports a fine dining mentality (think dashi tuile). And it’s not crazy expensive, either. You can get an amazing grilled chicken skewer for $3.50 or a bowl of noodles for $11. My friend Michelle is always like, “Is this really a great restaurant or are you just writing about it because you have to?”
Fair point, Michelle. I did have to write about this restaurant for a fancy hotel magazine. But after doing my bit, I realized there’s a larger story to tell. I knew I was going to blather onto friends about how much I adored Shokunin, so why not give up all the deets, so you can have a night out as exquisite as what I experienced.
Where is the best Japanese restaurant in Calgary?
There are only four cool neighbourhoods in Calgary and Shokunin is in one of the them. Situated on trendy 4th Street, the space is totally bijoux, with about a dozen tables and bar seating. The best seat in the house isn’t at the bar bar (yes, I meant to write that twice), but overlooking the open kitchen. There, you can watch the cooks and Chef Darren MacLean put the finishing touches on their beautifully plated dishes.
I’m calling it! Shokunin serves up the best sushi in Calgary. Sushi is all about texture and here, the fish is firm and meaty. It has no scent. A proper sushi plate is all about attention to detail, which you’ll notice in the freshly grated wasabi. You don’t want to mix that into your soy sauce, though. Fresh wasabi is soluble in water, and if you schmear it into soy sauce, it kills the flavour. Dip your sushi in the soy first, then hit it with their wasabi.
Even the ikura (fish roe) is a cut above. What we typically get in this city is frozen, tasteless and occasionally slimy. Shokunin uses fresh trout roe. These coral balls of salty goodness burst between your teeth. It’s fresh and inviting. And should your waitstaff recommend you to order the sablefish, trust them. It melts in your mouth.
What else to order at Shokunin
Start off with bison tataki, an excellent example of artful Japanese techniques using Alberta products. Bison is a lean meat, but this dish is flavourful and juicy with rendered fat and yuzu juice. Yuzu is a citrus fruit that’s like an orange/lemon hybrid. When I lived in Japan, it was all the rage to throw it in your bath. On its own, it tastes terrible (way too bitter), but with the bison tataki, it delivers just the right amount of acidity. I only wish I’d asked for a side of salt.
For a guilty pleasure, go ahead and order the the chicken skin chips if you’re into skin snacks. That dish has gotta be at least 1000 calories and it’s worth every single one of the them. Especially if you’re tipsy. If you want a bit more protein, go for the chicken karage. For more fun bar snacks, the squid tempura is super tender and the gyoza is jam packed with braised beef.
You can’t leave Shokunin without sampling a few of their yakitori – meat skewers grilled over some special Japanese charcoal. You can go exotic ordering the ass (their words not mine), which is the pope’s nose BTW, or stick with what you know like necks and thighs. A lot of work goes into getting the meat off the neck, so it’s good value. Each and every time I eat their yakitori, I think of The Huz’s brother. He’s a foodie (but not an annoying one) and would LOVE it here. Too bad I never remember to tell him.
Kobe beef Calgary
If it’s on the menu and you can afford it, try the Kobe beef. This is real Kobe beef from Japan, not that Wagyu beef from Brant Lake. Not that there’s anything wrong with the wagyu from my high school ex-boyfriend’s family. (Waving to the Ball family.) It’s just that there IS a major difference in taste and many diners are unaware, think they’re getting real Kobe beef when they’re not.
Back to the Kobe beef. This is the real deal. It’s incredibly rich. You only need a few slices. It’s an expensive treat for sure, but a splurge-worthy one if you’ve never tried it.
Don’t forget your veggies!
For veg, I have two recommendations. First up: Sesame Kale Salad at $16.
The Huz: It’s good, but it’s kind of expensive, isn’t it?
Me: Give your head a shake! It’s cheaper than Earls (who charge $18.25 for theirs, I fact checked) and this one has way more kale. And it’s better tasting. Gah! Now you’ve totally annoyed me:)
Even if you’re not a cabbage fan, order the Grilled Cabbage anyway. Simply put, it’s artful, beautiful and delicious. The fat, charred ribbons of cabbage taste almost Bok choi-ish. It’s nothing like your grandmother’s Sunday roast cabbage.
Between all these nibbles, I threw back Kiiro, a killer cocktail made with their own ginger juice. You could arguably say it possesses medicinal qualities. Another fun one was the Shiso colada. It’s like a less sugary pina colado made with a shiso leaf – which is so good on its own.
Sake is something else I’ve been sorely disappointed in since leaving Japan. It’s pricy, but Junmai Dai Gingo is worth it if you can afford it. It’s sweet and tastes like a Riesling. For real. The table next to us had the Sake Flight and raved about it. I’m totally doing that next time.
Japanese beer fans will want to try their house brew made with leftover rice mash. I hate beer (I hate that I’m saying hate so much in this post), but even I had to admit it paired well with any of Shokunin’s fried appies.
I’m not a fan of Asian desserts. They’re usually pretty light and each time I go to Shokunin, I ended up getting so stuffed, I get this pain in my left shoulder. It’s weird, I know. Still…. I recently managed to scarf back a couple spoonfuls of miso yuzu creme brûlée. The miso taste is so subtle, you don’t even notice it. And the dish was huge! Not a little ramekin pot, but a full sized bowl. Four people could’ve split this.
The piece de resistance, however, was the red bean chocolate tart. Confession: I didn’t look at the dessert menu and asked the waiter to bring us his two favourites. He just called it chocolate tart and omitted the red bean reference. Good thing too, because the thing I hated most about living in Japan was anko – this super annoying red bean paste. It’s in EVERYTHING in Japan.
Think you’re buying a simple, unassuming white bun for a sandwich? Think again. In Japan, they stuffed that god awful red bean paste into anything they could. Luckily, I didn’t catch a whiff of red bean in the tart. All I tasted was chocolatey goodness melting over my tongue. Nestled beside the tart, a delicate puff of smoked cream heightened the flavour. Between the velvety richness of the chocolate and the sweet but smoky cream, I ascended to dessert nirvana.
Shokunin is open late, but you’ll want to come early – especially if you’re into ramen and yakitori. (They often sell out before the night’s over.) This is one restaurant where I want to try everything on the menu. And I think I can. I’ve made a serious dent on it in the past few weeks. Next time I’ll bring in my daughter Eve to expand her culinary horizons.
I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on the table to next to ours, but what they had to say pretty much summed up my thoughts on Shokunin. “It’s too bad. Most people wouldn’t appreciate this.”
How would you like to win a $50 gift certificate to experience Shokunin for yourself? To enter, comment below with your thoughts on Japanese food. What are your favourite dishes, where have you had the best Japanese dining experience, etc.. Comment before midnight, May 13, 2018. I’ll randomly draw a winner the following day.
Thanks to Shokunin for offering this gift cert and for serving up such high quality dishes every time I’ve visit.