When I first dined here three-plus years ago, Genji was something of a revelation. The sushi creations, the light, grease-free tempura, the crimped porky packages (gyoza), the slippery baked eggplant sweetly stuffed. I liked them. I liked the simple look of the restaurant, the almost ceremonial service provided by gracious women. I liked sitting at the sushi bar, chatting with the itamae, being handed treats.
We are not blessed with great Japanese restaurants in this town. Sure, I’ve enjoyed meals at many of them – late-night sushi cravings have been fixed from time to time – but none really wows. None steps outside the box, deviates from the what-you’d-expect hot menu (packaged up with miso soup and an iceberg salad) and except for a few designer maki rolls unique to that restaurant, Ottawa has yet to enjoy a truly innovative Japanese restaurant, where both the raw and cooked cuisines are real strengths.
But of the formulaic Japanese restaurants we do have, Genji was the best of the bunch.
Today, I can’t parcel up quite the same enthusiasm. It’s still nice enough; it’s just not as notable. The service seems distracted, the welcome muted, even the sushi bar doesn’t feel particularly friendly. The restaurant is beginning to look tired, the banquettes are stained, and there’s a noise in the room, a whir of fans (heating/cooling?) that’s bothersome. Sometimes music is played. Sometimes candles are lit and overhead lights turned down. And sometimes not.
A couple of expensive disappointments at Genji lately, coupled with clumsy service, have left me feeling let down. My disenchantment likely set in the moment I was handed my first amuse bouche. It was a tiny salad of strips of ersatz crab in what tasted like spiced up Thousand Island dressing. (I know all Japanese restaurants in this city use the fake stuff, but please don’t call this red-dyed product crab, and don’t show it off as a complimentary starter that’s supposed to put me in the mood for dinner.) Other amuse offerings have included over-steamed, unseasoned edamame, and rounds of tired tasting potato in a spicy sauce.
Miso soup, delivered in a plastic bowl, is fine, nothing to complain about, yet nothing to write home about, and the house salad is a high-school arrangement of chopped iceberg lettuce with a too-sweet dressing. The nasu dengaku is roasted Chinese eggplant covered with a thick roof of too-sugary miso. Yakitori (skewered chicken) arrives dried out, unseasoned, with no grill flavour. The tempura is the usual stuff, properly crisp.
The sushi and sashimi selection at Genji remains long. And though I miss the wasabi dab between fish and rice in the nigiri (without which the sweet seasoning in the sticky rice seems out of balance) the combination of taste and texture in many of the rice snacks works well.
Main courses from the grill, however, are largely dull. The steak is thin and tough one visit and comes with the same-old dreary “seasonal” vegetables (in the heyday of field-ripened local vegetables, we still get those tasteless baby carrots?) The butterfish arrives dried out, and the sablefish, though deliciously tender, is so saturated with a one-dimensional miso marinade, it overwhelms the delicate fish.
Genji has a notable list of sake, both hot (1) and cold (nine, from $20 to $49 for 300 ml), a decent selection of Asian beer, as well as a commendable wine list (12 in all, all available by the glass).