In the heart of Nanaimo’s Old City Quarter is the blink-and-you-miss it Bistro Taiyo Japanese Restaurant. Many people we ask about this place have never heard of it, which is a real shame. Perhaps Nori hogs the spotlight for Japanese cuisine in town, or perhaps Bistro Taiyo’s lack of street facing just hides it too well. Whatever the case for its relative obscurity, we’ve been and think it’s a true hidden gem.
We eat plenty of Japanese food, but in Nanaimo that usually means Korean-Japanese mixed menus, as most of the sushi places are owned or run by Koreans. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when you enter Bistro Taiyo and hear actual Japanese being spoken in the kitchen, you realize you’re in for something perhaps a bit more authentic.
This is evident when you regard the menu. Nowhere in sight are bibimbap, bulgogi, and soju. Instead you’ll find donburi (rice bowls), ramen, and sake, in addition to sushi and sashimi. In order to take advantage of this authentic menu, we ordered a variety of food, including takoyaki to start, followed by okonomiyaki, some aburi sushi, and a great big bowl of ramen with pork and other goodies. We also ordered a couple of great big Asahis to wash it all down. 🙂
First up was the takoyaki. (Side note: props for actually bringing the appetizer first.) Takoyaki is deep fried balls of battered octopus (tako) and onion, dressed with bonito (fish) flakes, mayo, and sauce. It’s essentially street food, although Bistro Taiyo has dressed up the presentation. We liked that there was a hearty big piece of meat in the core of these little guys and that the dressing was not too overpowering. As these were fresh out of the fryer, we learned a hard lesson about waiting a minute before digging in. Many cheek cells died to bring us this information. Still, an excellent starter.
Our okonomiyaki arrived next. We were excited to try this food, which is common in Japan, but rare in Nanaimo. Okonomiyaki is basically a fritter or pancake, but the batter is full of cabbage. As you can see from the picture, is is then liberally covered in mayo, sauce, green onions, and fish flakes. It was crispy and mouthwatering. Also, because the restaurant quartered it, we could eat it with chopsticks without any trouble. Would order again.
Our mains arrived next. For him, aburi sushi and a dragon cone. Aburi sushi is sushi (in this case, nigiri) that has been torched. This slightly sears the meat and gives the sushi an element of flame-broiled taste. If you like sushi but have never tried aburi sushi, you definitely should. This particular order (the Aburi Sushi 5) included ebi (prawn), salmon, scallop, toro (fancy fatty tuna), and shimesaba (cured mackerel). We hadn’t ever tried shimesaba before, but it’s now jumped to one of our favourite sushi options. It’s a bit salty with a very strong fish flavour (the good kind), and is attractively silvery to the eye. Add the flame searing and you have a tremendous piece of food.
To add a bit of extra volume to dinner, we also had a dragon cone. Sushi eaters, we encourage you to try cones! If you enjoy seaweed flavour, there’s lots to like here. Plus, if you suck at handling chopsticks, you can eat an entire meal of cones without ever having to pick them up. Anyway, this cone was full of BBQ eel, avocado, cucumber, and rice, with some teriyaki sauce. We weren’t particularly adventurous here, but wanted to see what Bistro Taiyo could do with a classic. It was great. The seaweed was not too thick or dry, which made for easy eating and the flavours were smoky and delicious.
For her, a great big bowl of ramen. This was the tonkotsu original. The noodles were served in a pork broth, topped with pork slices, mushrooms, green onion and seaweed. We were delighted with this dish. The broth was rich and the noodles were cooked perfectly. The pork meat was so tender it was falling apart and the other garnishes added immense umami synergy. All in all a great dish, and we’re excited to try the restaurant’s other ramen offerings in the future. There will be more slurping.
Finally, just for fun, we finished our meal with the daily special dessert, which was a slice of matcha cheesecake. This was fun and tasty.
While we digested all of this (and finished our beers) we reflected on our dining experience. Throughout the evening, the service we received was very good. Our server was adorable, and was very friendly and attentive. Upbeat jazz played throughout our meal (though not elevator-cheesy jazz) and the décor was pleasant. The restaurant is quite small so eating is quite limited during Covid protocols. Be sure to book ahead.
The bill for our meal was $97, including a modest tip, and approximately $25 of alcohol. We consider this to be good value.
Bistro Taiyo is a gem of a restaurant in a great location. There is plenty to explore on the menu including some truly authentic Japanese dishes. The prices are reasonable and the service is great. We were surprised to learn after eating there that the restaurant has been around for twenty years! It’s beyond us how is this place is so rarely in the conversation about great local cuisine! We recommend Bistro Taiyo and look forward to going back.