"Where do you live?" asked Tojo as we sat down at the sushi bar. "In Vancouver", we replied. "What??? And you've never been to Tojo's?!?!", gasped Tojo. Yah, really. It's not like we were avoiding the place; but honestly, it isn't exactly the most affordable restaurant. I know, I know, the cost can be tempered somewhat by ordering a la carte. However, what we really wanted was the Omakase at the bar. Oma-what? Omakase, literally translated means "it's up to you", or promoted on some menus, "to entrust". Whatever the meaning, it essentially allows you to let the chef know your likes and dislikes and then "trust" them create a menu for you. With this form of dining, it comes with a cost. Depending on which restaurant you visit, it can range from as little as $40.00 per person to no actual fixed price. At Tojo's, if you sit at the bar, it is a minimum $150.00 per person. Think of it as a tasting menu, Japanese-style. Now, when I refer to "we", you might be thinking of Viv and I. Well, Viv would normally be with me for such a treat of a meal; but not this time. No, no, don't worry, it's not a secret lover or anything. I really don't need Viv to beat me to a pulp... Rather, my dining partner was Pomegranate. Huh? You see, he was going to pay for the meal tonight. Hey, I wasn't going to pass on that offer!
Being that we arrived near opening time, we sat right in front of Tojo. He made sure we knew that he was "the best sushi chef in town". Arrogant? Yes. Deserved? Debatable; but I can understand his confidence. I'm quite familiar with Tojo, his story and achievements. Pomegranate wasn't as clear, so it was a little amusing that Tojo presented him with a resume of sorts as reading material. Tojo first came to Canada in 1971 and after working at several restaurants, opened his own in 1988. Despite an ongoing debate of their origin, Tojo has the distinction of creating the California Roll and the BC Roll. His celebrity chef status is reinforced by countless TV appearances including Martha Stewart and Anthony Bourdain. Much like other local celebrity chefs Pino Posteraro, John Bishop and Vikram Vij, Tojo is present at his restaurant on a nightly basis. After asking a few questions about what we would like to eat, he set about creating a individualized menu for us. In reality, there are certain standard dishes that are on rotation for some mix and matching. With that being said, the people around us had totally different items.
Although Tojo has plenty of help in the open kitchen, he did personally make some of our items with the first being the Tuna Tartare. Fresh from a cylindrical mold, the tatare consisted of albacore and red tuna with bits of cucumber and mountain yam. A good amount of freshly grated ginger sat atop while a tart vinaigrette (consisting of lemon & soy) rested on the bottom of the plate. Despite the strong vinaigrette, the natural sweetness of the extremely flavourful tuna shone. The bits of veggies were a nice textural contrast. Pomegranate thought this appy was refreshing and help whet his appetite for more. Next up was the Zucchini Blossom stuffed with scallops. The blossoms were filled with both scallops and scallop mousse then fried tempura-style. One piece of pepper and garlic flower each rounded out the dish. Reminiscent of the one I had at La Quercia, the blossom was absolutely delicious. Delicately fried, pipping-hot and full of naturally-sweet scallops, we could've eaten a dozen of these easily.
Tojo presented us next with a plate of thinly-sliced Tako. Pomegranate wasn't paying attention and really thought we were getting a Japanese version of a taco. Great job. Nice way in looking like a fool in front of Tojo! Hidden beneath the tender slices of octopus was wakame, vermicelli and pickled daikon & carrots. The tako itself was topped with what appeared to be a spicy sesame miso dressing. When we picked up all the ingredients into one bite, it revealed many different flavours at work with a bit of tart, a touch of spice and natural sweetness. When we got to the Smoked Sablefish, it was a bit of a letdown. Baked and presented in parchment paper, the sablefish was stuffed with mushrooms, asparagus and mango. I thought the sablefish was overcooked; thus becoming a bit hard. This essentially negates the buttery texture we look for in sablefish. Flavourwise, it was pretty good with a nice smoked aroma. Pomegranate remarked that the mango didn't have the zing he was looking for.
Our first foray into sushi for the night came in the form of the Golden Roll consisting of salmon, crab, sweet shrimp and scallop topped with herring roe within a thin egg crepe. The first thing I noticed was the excellent sushi rice. Each grain was discernible and chewy while a sweet-vinegary flavour announced itself quite prominently. For a city that boasts a gazillion sushi joints, it is remarkably hard to find good tasting sushi rice. I guess for the price we were about to pay, it'd better be good! By using an egg crepe instead of nori, we felt that the natural sweetness of the ingredients were able to shine. The Geoduck Cone was hands-down the best item of night. Standing out prominently were big chunks of sweet geoduck which "snapped" in my mouth. The texture was just perfect while
complimented nicely by cucumber, tempura bits and tobiko all in a light spicy mayo.
2 of the simpler items arrived back-to-back. The Snow Crab Nigiri was good by itself. With a large piece of sweet and slightly salty leg meat on top of the excellent sushi rice, it was a nice treat. Once we downed the piece of sushi, Tojo presented us with Red Tuna Nigiri. Again simple; yet ultimately delicious. The slice of tuna exhibited an understated sweetness and the texture was soft without being mushy. A really high quality piece of fish. From simple to something slightly more intricate was the Celebration 2010 Roll. We watched Tojo's sous chef make this slightly complicated creation by first lining saran wrap with strips of tuna, tai, salmon, spinach and egg, then he proceeded to fill the inside of the roll with crab, asparagus, tempura bits and pineapple. It was presented on a large plate with Tojo's written in blueberry jam. Although it was a visually appealing roll, we both felt it was just okay. A slight variation of the rainbow roll found at most other sushi joints, this did not separate itself enough to warrant the high price tag (regular price is $26.00). We also felt that the pineapple overwhelmed everything else.
If the geoduck cone was our favourite, the Hotate Nigiri was a close second. With the largest piece of scallop I've ever seen served as nigiri, this was an absolute treat. We could barely see or even notice the rice underneath. The darn thing was so sweet and buttery smooth. This exemplified how the simple use of a quality ingredient can be absolutely delicious. While placing it down on our geta plate, Tojo proclaimed the Northern Light Roll as his favourite. I'm not sure if that was my favourite personally; but I definitely liked it. Filled with prawn and yam tempura, avocado, asparagus and mango with cucumber crepe on the outside, we found this roll to be refreshing to eat. Tojo insisted we use no soy sauce and we could see why. Eating it "as is" afforded the natural flavours and textures to shine.
At this point, we were debating on whether to stop or keep going. You see, with Omakase at the bar, Tojo only stops when you tell him to. If you keep eating, the bill will only continue to climb! Tojo helped us make our decision by presenting us with our last item being the Spicy Tuna Roll. When he placed it on our plate, it didn't look like any spicy tuna roll we'd ever seen before. In the middle rested the "spicy" tuna mixture with more "melt-in-your-mouth" tuna on top. Normally, I'd be quite upset at mushy tuna; but in this case, it wasn't mushy. Rather, it was super smooth and fresh tasting. The roll itself wasn't all that spicy. It was more sweet than anything. We finished up our meal with the Green Tea Creme Brulee topped with seasonal fruit and a sesame chip. As with everything in the meal, the dessert was understated. The combination of the semi-sweet brulee, tart fruit and nuttiness of the sesame chip equated to balance. My only gripe would be the burnt sugar, I would've liked more caramelization.
Now, how much did this meal cost? How about close to $500.00 with sake after tax and tip? Lunacy! Yes, that is the GDP of a small country. What is essentially a tasting menu, it is the most expensive meal we've ever had. The burning question is: was it worth it? Honestly, that is a loaded question. From a pure value point of view, absolutely not. The HST alone could've gotten us a very good Japanese meal somewhere in town. However, people do not come to Tojo's for value. Foodies from around the world visit Tojo's for the experience and the audacity of spending that kind of dough. Of the 11 items we had, I would say 3 blew us away, 6 were good and 2 "meh". So why does Tojo claim to have the best sushi in town? Simple, the raw materials are top-notch and sometimes over-the-top; the level of care and effort put into some of the creations is gastronomical art; and probably most influentially, he has a reputation. As much as we can easily bash the place for being overpriced; we have to realize that people are not looking for a deal here. Much like buying a Ferrari or a Rolex, a premium is paid for something that is marginally better than something costing 1/4 as much. For me, it was a meal I needed to experience, no ands, ifs or buts. We were fully aware of what we were getting into. If we were looking for a better bang for the buck, a trip to Ajisai or Octopus' Garden would be in order. But if your intentions are to go for the experience; or do the "been there, done that"; or just simply to brag about it, then bring your paycheque to Tojo's.
- High-quality ingredients
- Simple execution, natural flavours spoke for themselves
- For us, service was polite and attentive (helps to sit at the bar I guess)
- Outrageously expensive
- Not everything blew us away