Best New Restaurant 2019: Stem Japanese Eatery

The reality is that, not-with-standing the under-the-radar location, chefs Katagiri and Maniwa are well known as two of the best in town.

April 29, 2019

By Neal McLennan / Photo: Tanya Gohering

In the 30 years of these awards, there’s only ever been two non-Vancouver restaurants that have won the Best New category (Burnaby’s the Pear Tree in 1999 and West Vancouver’s La Regalade in 2003). But as the city’s cost of living rises, our foodie diaspora is spilling well beyond the municipal boundaries…all the way, it seems, to a perfectly bland strip mall a few blocks south of Burnaby’s Metrotown.

It would be easy to cast the duo behind Stem Japanese Eatery as two scrappy upstarts with a dream, willing to set up across the street from a 7-Eleven because no one will back them. But the reality is that, notwithstanding the under-the-radar location, chefs Tatsuya Katagiri and Yoshiaki Maniwa are well known as two of the best in town. They had helped guide Zest, a multiple Gold winner, to a huge upset when they toppled Tojo’s decades-long lock on the Gold in Best Japanese. Two years ago they left Zest (it became Yuwa, itself a two-time Gold winner) and maintained a low profile until they opened Stem just days before the end of  2017 (and were therefore out of consideration for last year’s awards).

As is their style, there was no hoopla around their return, no media blitz: they just showed up one day and started cooking. And what cooking—“homey, lush comfort and razor’s-edge innovation create surprising flavours that satiate the soul as well as the palate,” said one judge. The menu is an explosion of ideas and enthusiasm: regular menu, omakase, fresh menu and even a kids’ menu. Taking Silver is the reimagined red-sauce joint Pepino’s, where the team behind Savio Volpe took the legacy (and location) of Nick’s Spaghetti House and somehow managed to transform it into a spot that seems fresh and nostalgic in equal measure.

Here, what could have been played for kitsch is instead reinterpreted and honoured—a fitting homage to the former occupant. And Bronze goes to Commercial Drive’s Ugly Dumpling, a largely no-frills spot with a famously tiny kitchen that nonetheless manages to turn out wildly inventive takes on modern Japanese-inspired dishes with heady ambition on the ever-changing menu.

Restaurant Awards 2019 ▸▸▸

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