Zest, Vancouver.

March, 2016.

I’ve been to Zest about four times. And it seems each time I’m less and less impressed. It’s in a nice out-of-the-way westside location, has won some popular acclaim with local journalists, and as cuisine of Japan presents itself as a good cut above the hundreds of unpretentious little sushi-erias on practically every corner in this very Asian town.

So what’s the matter?

I remember my first experience here vaguely, it was many years ago soon after the place opened, and my impression was good. Very fresh food, lots of great flavours, high price but what the hell. Then there was a Conferie (wine club) event there, and again I recall pretty fancy and pretty good sashimi, pickled fish, etc. Not Tojo mind you but no Tojo price either.

Maybe it’s a coincidence but it was after that that I went to Tokyo for the first time and grazed around there, from close to the high end to little eel barbecue joints under the tracks. Very few disappointments.

Was I spoiled? I don’t know, but my problem at Zest now is that although the interesting-sounding food items are nicely-presented visually, they just seem to lack flavour and flavour variety. The menu is intriguing and mouthwatering, but when the fancy-looking food arrives the fish all tastes like generic fish (but maybe, although I know it isn’t, frozen fish) and the shredded daikon and other vegetable accompaniments taste a bit like water.

We ordered mostly from the left-hand specials side of the menu. A chef’s sashimi mix included tuna, mackerel, geoduck, sea urchin. You take them in your chopsticks and dip them in the high quality soya sauce and… I’m not enough of a food scientist to explain how you produce edibles that have had – I don’t know – 60% of the flavour sucked out of them… but somebody in the back end of Zest seems to me to have figured that one out.

There was a pickled mackerel that was better, but it was only one dish out of a dozen among the three of us. The maki roll and nigiri sushi was just sushi. Not fabulously fresh, not explosive flavour, not particularly soft or rice-flavoured rice.

Two servers were 1. authentic: an older Japanese woman whose rapid-fire information in heavily accented English I wasn’t picking up (to my paranoid ear she gave the impression that if I wasn’t from Kyoto what the hell was I doing there), and 2. engaging: a younger cute locally-educated girly who told us what she liked and didn’t. Eclectic, I guess. We paid about $200 after tip and some expensive beer for three of us including my hungry and beer-enthusiastic son Geoffrey.

Am I just getting old or fulfilling the prediction of geriatrics textbooks that tastebuds atrophy before anything else? My recent trip to New York suggests not. And in a few weeks I’m going back to Tokyo so I might have a bit better take on this whole thing.
Even if the food in Tokyo is dull and uninteresting which is extremely unlikely I can say for sure I won’t be going back to Zest. Food 6.6, service 7.0, ambience 7.2, value 5.5, peace and quiet 7.2.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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