The scene: Ski season is coming fast, and in the world of skiing, nothing is bigger than Whistler/Blackcomb – it’s the largest, tallest and most visited resort in North America, hosted the skiing for the Vancouver Olympics, and is a bucket-list destination for skiers and snowboarders worldwide. In summer it has world-class golf and has long been known as one of the top mountain-biking destinations in the world. There is a lot to do here all year round, and Whistler is full of bars and restaurants of every description, but none of them is more famous than the town’s icon, Sushi Village.
“Some people come back every year and eating (at Sushi Village) is a big part of it,” said Marc Riddell, a longtime local and former ski patroller who now works in marketing for the mountain. Sushi Village was just the sixth restaurant in Whistler when it opened in 1985 – long before the current trendiness of sushi – and it has thrived ever since. While there are now well over a hundred eateries here, it remains Whistler’s single must-visit destination.
It doesn’t look like much, upstairs on the second floor of a retail building in the heart of the pedestrianized village, a block from the base of the slopes, above a snowboard shop. There is usually a line to get in, which can fill the balcony and spill onto the stairs. There’s a hostess stand at the top of the stairs and once you get through the door, a small waiting area near the bar off to one side, which is packed as well.
The main dining room is an L-shaped restaurant wrapping around a bustling sushi bar, and the bulk of the seating is at tables and booths divided by Japanese-style wooden lattice half-walls. The walls are covered with a mix of skis, snowboards and art by a popular local artist with a colorful science-fiction feel.
Sushi Village is as much about drinking as eating, and it is loud, lively and boisterous. It is essentially a cross between a conventional restaurant and an izakaya, or Japanese pub. When founder Niki Homma passed away last year at age 70, Pique, a local magazine, wrote, “It’s difficult to overstate just how groundbreaking Sushi Village was in its early years. Along with being the resort’s lone Japanese restaurant in an era long before the West Coast developed its current sushi obsession, its success stemmed not from a desire to make money, but a lively, sometimes debaucherous atmosphere that remains virtually unparalleled to this day.”
Reason to visit: Specialty sushi rolls, karage, takoyaki, sake.
The food: The menu is vast, with a huge assortment of specialty sushi rolls, a full range of more traditional nigiri sushi (individual pieces over vinegared rice) and lots of non-sushi dishes such as various teriyakis, donburis (rice bowls topped with varied ingredients), udon bowls, tempuras, hot pots, other assorted main courses and lots of appetizers and salads. There are 65 sushi options alone, and more than two dozen sakes to accompany these.
The main event is the house specialty rolls, large and ornate and often fun, such as the KFC roll, made with karage, Japanese-style fried chicken, which is sliced thin and wrapped with avocado. The hot volcano roll is another signature, seared tuna with mango, jalapeños and tobiko, orange-colored fish roe. The BC features barbecue salmon skin, highlighting the most famous seafood of the Pacific Northwest, with veggies and tobiko. The spider roll is deep-fried breaded softshell crab with avocado, daikon radish and cucumber, and is one of the best choices. Depending on your tastes and personal favorite proteins, all of these are well-executed, with some interesting combinations you are unlikely to find elsewhere, and you can actually taste the ingredients, unlike many contemporary sushi places where the rolls swallow up the flavors inside them.
While it looks a lot like the ubiquitous local sushi spot now found anywhere, it is important to remember that Sushi Village was a forerunner of the trend and as a result, has a higher level of authenticity in its menu than most competitors in North America. As a result, my favorites were some of the bar food specialties, snacks that you would find in real Japanese izakayas and are less common here, like takoyaki, octopus meat cooked in puffy pastry in bite-size spheres, topped with brown sauce and dried fish flakes. I personally love Japanese-style fried chicken, karage, usually boneless pieces with a very crisp breading, another comfort food bar snack hard to find in North America. The version here is delicious, with perfectly seasoned coating and cooked to order, so it is served hot and juicy. It is also offered in a spicy option that is really good.
Few major ski resorts are as close to the ocean as Whistler/Blackcomb, and fish are brought in from Vancouver. The traditional nigiri sushi and sliced sashimi were all first-rate, and I especially liked the hamachi (yellowtail). If you love fish, it is hard to go wrong.
The bar has an extensive craft beer and wine list, but Sushi Village is most famous for its sake and derivatives such as sake margaritas. There is a separate sake menu with more than two dozen styles, including my personal favorite, milky white unfiltered nigori sake, and the list is elaborately written with flavor details and style notes to help newcomers choose their perfect selection. But the restaurant is especially known for its shareable bottles of hot sake, in four sizes: traditional, large, jumbo and Dumbo, the unofficial après ski king of Whistler. While this shareable giant, served in hand-painted, one-of-a-kind bottles, is a local institution, sake is best enjoyed cold and I’d recommend choosing off the list. But no matter what you pick to eat or drink you are likely going to have good time at this spot that has been pleasing visitors for three decades.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes – dinner at Sushi Village is a must-try rite of passage for any visitor to the famous ski and summer resort.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: #11-4340 Sundial Crescent, Whistler Village; 604-932-3330; sushivillage.com
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