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Get Stuffed - It takes a village

Sushi Village still in the race despite renovations

You know a restaurant is popular when even Oscar-winning Hollywood celebrities don’t mind waiting for a table – not just once but twice in the same week.

That was the case recently for actress Hillary Swank, who not only whiled away patiently with the masses on her inaugural Sushi Village voyage but came back for seconds the night after.

Owner-operator Miki Homma said this type of story is reflective of why the first Japanese restaurant in Whistler – circa 1985 – still remains a popular choice, despite the demolition derby decorating the front entrance at present.

Even though he and his staff are knee-deep in the din of the Westbrook Hotel’s renovations, Miki can’t help but be positive.

"We treat everybody the same here. Everybody is special and I think that’s why people like to come here," he said, before adding: "I did feel bad for the actress because we didn’t know who she was at first and she was so unassuming with a big hat covering her face. When somebody recognized her we apologized but she said she didn’t want to be fussed over and preferred to be treated the same as everybody else anyway. So it worked out for everyone," he smiled.

Swank and her husband Chad Lowe didn’t seem to mind signing one of Miki’s posters for his Wall of Fame either. Their kind words of appreciation join other well-known names singing the Whistler landmark’s praises. Pop princess Kylie Minogue, several members of U.K. hardcore electro rock band Prodigy, I Dream of Jeannie’s Barbara Eden, Southpark creator Matt Stone and local snow legends Ross Rebagliati, Rob Boyd and Craig Kelly are just some of the names you can work out on your way to the washrooms.

Keeping a restaurant popular for nearly 20 years is not an easy feat but Miki sure makes it sound that way. He said his secret is "always maintaining good standards and keeping good staff." Now if it was that easy, we’d all be doing it, so I press him for more of their age-defying magic.

"Lots of people say we are the busiest but I don’t know if we are. Either way though, what’s important to us is not how many people come through the door but that people come back. We’ve always had lots of locals and I think that’s what keeps us going. They bring all their friends and family and we get a lot of recommendations from the ones who work in concierge and the travel industry."

The staff part of the successful equation is definitely true. Most of them seem to never leave. Seven years at Sushi Village is the norm and it seems like pro skiers, snowboarders mountain bikers and other adventure athletes are clamouring to pick up a few shifts there in their spare time. People like filmmaker Feet Banks and skier Travis Tetrault seem as permanent as the restaurant’s famous sake margaritas. Our server this visit, Leah, is a triathlete. People with those sorts of extra-curricular commitments don’t just work anywhere.

"The people that come and dine here like to party, the staff are great and the money’s good," summed up Leah.

So how else does Sushi Village stay ahead of its rivals?

"Twice a year I try to come up with some new dishes. We always have the same old menu for the regulars who know what they want but we keep it interesting for everyone else as well," said Miki. "Not just for the customers but for the chefs. They are happier when they get to expand people’s palettes and be more creative."

The start of fall marks the introduction of four new rolls, as yet unnamed. A nigiri, which is tuna based, two hot pots – tuna suki and tuna yosenabe – and one tuna tower of sashimi pieces with vegetables and a special sauce.

Miki was more than enthusiastic for me to try them all and I can report an A+ on every aspect, from taste to presentation to uniqueness. One of the rolls is wrapped in a shell of avocado slices filled with unagi (eel), mango and chili tempura. The perfect accompaniment is another new roll incorporating marinated red pepper and cucumber. Don’t ignore the new nigiri either – Hawaiian tuna wrapped in a yellow soya sheet. The aroma from the added shiso leaf is summer personified.

While the new menu should keep the chopsticks churning through the slow period before winter, it is still their "old faithfuls" that keep the locals coming. The albacore tuna with an ahi poke marinade or the spicy agedashi tofu with shiitake mushrooms just seem to walk out the door.

Canadians love their sushi and Whistler seems to be a particularly popular place for it thanks mostly to its healthy dining style. There are more than five sushi restaurants now within the village. You’d think Miki might be sweating about his business, but he shrugs casually: "It’s a natural thing that other Japanese restaurants are going to spring up around town," he said.

"It’s all part of the growth of Whistler and I wouldn’t expect anything less. All Japanese restaurants are very different anyway in style, atmosphere, taste so it doesn’t really bother us as we are not like the others."

Manager Todd Hardie agreed. "The atmosphere here is different to most Japanese restaurants. We’re a lot noisier I guess thanks to the jumbo sakes that flow freely in the tatami rooms. The music is cool and the staff are all pretty happy go lucky. Give them half a chance and they’ll pump you full of our sake margaritas. You don’t find that anywhere else," he said, pushing another of their new fall flavours, a mixed berry marg, closer in front of me.

The current alterations to the Westbrook building should be complete by December, but in the meantime it’s business as usual at Sushi Village. Look out for new colour schemes, windows and framing plus a grand sweeping staircase right up to the front door. Miki can’t wait to see the finished product – the first major facelift in more than 15 years.

"It’s about time we spruced up the site, I agree, but times have been worse," Miki recalled, thinking back to the first few years of operation. "There had never been Japanese this far away from the city before but we were excited about combining jobs in the restaurant industry with the skiing," said the Japanese import who relocated from Vancouver.

"At the end of the day we didn’t really care about the money but knew we would be able to eat. Everybody told us we were stupid to be making the move. They said we would lose the business fast, that we would go broke. For the first three years I was starting to believe them. It was Expo and everyone expected lots of visitors to Whistler, but it didn’t happen. The weather too was not attractive and it was tough. I was looking out the window of my empty restaurant for a few summers looking for some nice trees to hang myself under," he joked.

Luckily for Miki and the many regulars to Sushi Village, things turned around and soon the Japanese joint was jumping. Not bad for a man who used to study organic chemistry.

"My degree definitely helps with the sake making," he laughed.

Try the new dumbo size (62 oz) sake bottles and ignore the mess outside, you won’t be disappointed. Sushi Village is open seven days a week. Dinner from 5:30 p.m.; lunch noon-2:30 p.m., Friday-Sunday. Phone 604-932-3330 for reservations.