Tucked away in the small courtyard of 633 Courtenay St., fresh Japanese flavour awaits.
The staff of Uchida Eatery welcome people warmly with wide smiles and hellos to the backdrop of the small kitchen where Yasunobu Uchida is hard at work.
It’s not yet noon and the handful of tables are already quickly filling while to-go orders walk out the door.
The eatery is an industry favourite and my lunch companion, chef Jamie Cummins of Relish, greets people by name, offering bits of his or her resumé to me as an aside. He was quick and decisive choosing the luncheon site.
“It’s just one of the best places to eat,” he says. “It’s inspiring to eat here because it’s how I think about food too.”
Uchida (greeted enthusiastically as Yasu by most) is among those who seek quality ingredients when cooking. Most of his organic Asian veggies come from Umi Nami Farm in Metchosin.
“He doesn’t talk about it, but he’s pretty true to it,” Cummins says.
Cummins orders the special of the day and the mainstay tuna don.
“A lot of traditional Japanese cooking happens here. That’s unique,” he says, grabbing a couple of glasses of water and utensils – chopsticks, or hashi to the Japanese.
We start with a pair of salad staples that come quickly, doled out from family-sized bowls and brought over by the smiling young woman who greeted us and took our order.
One is spinach and cannellini bean with usuage (think fried tofu) cooked with miso and organic soy milk.
The second salad I love; Komatsuna (Japanese mustard spinach) blended with organic rainbow chard and carrot, plus enoki mushrooms, all dosed lightly with a mustard dressing.
Then the mains are delivered from the open kitchen. Fresh-milled sushi rice lays a foundation for the popular tuna don; seared tuna with grated ginger, green onion, nori, wasabi, organic greens. The menu regular is “just really satisfying” Cummins says.
The special buta nira itame, is a marinated pork stir fry with umami, bean sprouts, shiitake mushrooms and cabbage. The side of cauliflower and parsnip roasted and dressed with a slight vinegar flavour highlight the last vestiges of winter crops as we settle on the cusp of seasons, a time that can be challenging, Cummins says. But limitations force a chef into creativity. A savoury egg custard rounds out the plate and palate.
“It’s always good here, stuff like this you would never be able to find in any other restaurant,” he says upon first bite. “Perfectly seasoned, super delicious.
“He’s trying to create a balance here with the sweet and saltiness of this dish.”
The pork is local, raised at Stillmeadow Farm in Metchosin and that just adds to Cummins’ confidence in any dish served at Uchida. Yasu even buys organic brown rice then mills it himself.
“It’s super fresh and super nutritious,” Cummins says. Anyone who cares that much is far more likely to keep the kitchen clean and organized (pretty hard not too when it’s out in the open like at Uchida) and take food safety practices such as refrigeration temperature seriously.
“When you’re using the best ingredients you can buy you want to showcase them,” he says. “I think it’s a healthier way of being, and if you’re buying seasonal you’re supporting local people. I know he’s going to be serving me things picked yesterday.”