I DON’T KNOW WHAT LED ME TO UNDERESTIMATING TORAFUKU—the Main Corridor near the mammoth, glistering pearl of Science World is a trove of culinary gems, like Bodega, Campagnolo and Pizzeria Farina. The restaurant’s oxblood facade is unassuming, framing a large window that illumines an interior that is spartan but not unambitious— there is a burnished concrete communal table that can seat at least 16 people. Above it, a long, exposed LED is mid-air, suspended with twine like a mobile. The chefs are serious as surgeons in the small, open kitchen behind the till.
Everyone’s head is down— they are quiet, methodical, studious. Watching them makes me realize the cacophonous ego of other Vancouver establishments— somewhere in in the city, there is a chef scurrying across the stainless steel chasm of an industrial kitchen, flitting between plumes of flaming pans. But the real masters are here— in plain sight, stolid as sentinels, orders coming to life in silence. From this soundlessness, the waitress brings us Gone Fishin’, a crisped market fish that looks almost primordial— coaxing the creature open, she gently lifts out the bone. It is like watching evolution in reverse, a god undoing its own creation. Nothing in the Torafuku kitchen is so raucous that I cannot hear the gentle wail of Prince voice in When Doves Cry.
I have never eaten a whole fish before— my boyfriend coaches me through it, retrieving the fish’s yolky eye for me to burst between my teeth. He shows me the hidden bone, deep within the fish, that old scribes allegedly turned to quills; tells me about how back in Ukraine, his mother uses fish like this to make a stew called ukha, fabled as a favourite of Ivan the Terrible, the Grand Prince of Moscow. Fins, spindles, gills— the whole fish is crisp, delicate and gloriously edible, pairing with rice that has a faint and even coconut flavour beautifully throughout.
We also had the Everyday I’m Brusseling, brusselsprouts and broccoli the resplendent silks on a bed of quinoa, which had been roasted to produce a crispy texture. Accompanied by the dried kernels of Garbanzo beans, the grain crunched in my mouth like crackling, a remarkable counter to the soft, wilted greens, which were soused in a well-balanced black bean balsamic.
Following: the General Tsao’s Chicken, brine crisping the skin to a delicate filigree, which you can pick apart to reveal ripe-tender, steaming flesh. The meat is flavourful and succulent, the brine having made the chicken perfectly pliant for the mouth. We also sampled the Miso Tasty, al dente ribbons of pappardelle coiled through savoury, earthy broth, the umami so layered that it blossomed past its own flavour again and again.
Torafuku’s alchemy even continues to their cocktails: they’ve managed to brew the very essence of girlhood in the way of the fuscia coloured Emorosa— a milky pisco frothed with egg and acidulated with lime: the balance renders tart creaminess, garnished with jasmine tea leaves which compliment a subtle floral flavour. I drain the coupe too quickly and it’s easy— the drink is as smooth and creamy as a daydream.
While settling up at Torafuku, I told my boyfriend that the experience left me bewildered, as if the whole affair of dining there had been engineered to congratulate me for an accomplishment I couldn’t quite fathom. I left the restaurant with the skin-tingling awe that must come from standing on a stage, blinded by floodlights, almost deaf against a the crowds’ thundering ovation. I myself am not a maestro or pianist, so I have no approximation of how that must feel— but as the song of Torafuku settled, I felt an applause from the world that I blithely rose to meet. When the sunlit autumn evening folded to the first of many rainy nights, we couldn’t be dismayed, walking home without an umbrella: we left Torafuku giddy, as though we had stolen a secret.
Photos by Fahim Kassam.