The first of three to arrive for the official tasting of Janice Wu’s recommended Green Tea Crème Brûlée at Kingyo Izakaya, I step through the front door and am greeted by the customary “Irasshaimase!” Except rather than the usual round of heart-attack causing shrieks, it is delivered by a single soft spoken chef from the kitchen; charming and refreshing.
I am immediately herded to the last three seats in the house; at the bar, facing the kitchen. Apparently reservations are required if you want to get a table here on a Thursday night. The restaurant is very busy, but not oppressively so; it is exciting to be here–with Denman Street bustling away outside in all of its eccentricity–but not hectic. The music is hip, funky, and pleasantly loud, the decor is traditionally Japanese; lots of dark, ornate wood and a stand of black bamboo in the center of the room. There is, of course, the compulsory Vancouver contemporary deco standard of industrial concrete walls and exposed ceilings.
The second of our little dessert adventure trio arrives, and illustrator Carmen Bright and I quickly break the ice when we discover that we have been through the same journalism program; we bond over teachers we dislike and order drinks.
After being told that the restaurant doesn’t serve my beloved cappuccinos (gasp!), I order green tea, the next best caffeinated thing, and Carmen orders the jasmine. Hers comes in a lovely stemmed glass with a tight green fist of a flower floating on top; she must wait for the flower to bloom, we are told. My tea is served from a sturdy iron pot; it is bright green, pleasantly bitter, and refreshing. When Kriza, the third, arrives, the jasmine flower has bloomed into a pretty white appendage that reaches to the top of Carmen’s glass like some strange sea creature.
We order the creme brûlées; they do not arrive in brûlée cups but are little frozen green squares with golden sugar slices quivering atop them, side-kicked with whipped cream, strawberry slices, and the single mint leaves that turn out to be the nexus of the desserts.
The green tea custard is so very subtle that it takes on the overtones of everything surrounding it. The red bean drizzle transforms it; if you close your eyes you can imagine the succulent sweet bean cake, and the strawberries all but overpower it. The whipped cream mellows everything out, and the astringent little bites of mint draw it all together, keep it from being mouthful after mouthful of nothing but competing sweets.
The brusqueness of the green tea is the perfect pairing. It carries me to the end of the dessert; I use it as a bitter palate cleanser between sweet bites. I clean my plate, and feel, after the final swish of tea, satisfied. The brûlée is understated, light and many-layered, much like Janice’s art, much like Janice herself.