In our constant pursuit of insanely good food we often turn to word of mouth, asking fellow travelers, friendly strangers and comrades for suggestions. When the question posed is “Where’s the best Japanese cuisine in Canada?” Tojo would come up with surprising frequency. Indeed, over the many years we have heard about it, it has become the Camelot of sushi in our minds, a mythical wonderful place worthy of a quest. Their omakase has been a particular focus of attention, absolutely raved about by all who have experienced it. Omakase is a Japanese style tasting menu where the diner entrusts the chef to choose each dish. Often off-menu items are presented, using the finest ingredients available that day and allowing the chef to showcase his artistic skills.
As inveterate fans of Japanese cuisine, it was our duty to venture forth in search of this (perhaps) Holy Grail of Canadian omakase. A birthday proved to be the inspiration to finally visit Vancouver, and helped to justify reserving a seat at the sushi bar. Reserving at the sushi bar at Tojo’s comes at an additional cost, for this is as sacred a place as the round table, where the legend himself (Tojo) and his excellent staff of sushi samurai can be observed executing their finely honed craft.
We arrived at the beautiful and surprisingly spacious restaurant, a touch starving and most eager for the 6+ course feast that awaited us. Upon entering through the front door we were greeted by a soft-spoken Japanese man who considerately took our jackets and as he carefully hung them promised to get a good price on E-Bay, an impish smile heightening the charm of his little jest.
We were led to our seats at the table by another employee who exuded charm and warmth. A Sri Lankan man who spoke fluent Japanese and interacted seamlessly with Tojo and his team, Chris was the epitome of chivalry in the care he took to ensure we were well cared for all evening. He placed us comfortably away from others nestled at the sushi bar, providing everyone with warm sense of privacy and intimacy. Tojo greeted us and came over to have a quick chat. He let us know that he works with local, seasonal ingredients using Japanese techniques to come up while wholly new dishes. With a sheet of paper and pencil in hand he asked if we have food allergies (no), any particular likes (everything) and dislikes (of which we have none); a lovely touch. “You are open-minded then,” he concluded with a pleased nod.
We started with cocktails, and it’s safe to say that the Tojo-tini (sake and shochu vodka) was one of the best martinis we’ve ever tasted – and we are very particular about our martinis.
The first course of our omakase adventure was Tojo’s sashimi plate. This generous plating consisted of east coast blue fin tuna, sockeye salmon, albacore tuna, red snapper, and geoduck (giant clam). The most notable thing about this dish was the firmness of all the fish served. While we expect this of good sashimi this was at a level we have rarely encountered. The flavours were really brought to life by a unique and delicious spicy, citric sesame sauce lightly drizzled over the dish.
At this point we ordered our first bottle of Tojo’s Choice sake. After all this was a special night so why not order sake specially distilled for this restaurant. Crisp and delicious sake was served in frozen glasses; we savoured every sip, though truth be told sips quickly became longer and deeper with each passing mouthful. Indeed, we nearly refilled our own glasses to the playful horror of Chris, who literally came running from the kitchen to intervene.
Next up a delicious lightly coated, super crunchy tempura medley was set before us, with the gentle reminder that the tomato was very hot and caution was necessary. Once cooled biting into that tomato created a gushing volcano of rich tomato juice. Absolutely delicious! Next, the barely cooked wonderfully crunchy okra. Not only was this tasty, it was probably the most unique serving of okra we’ve ever had. Fresh, full of flavour, amazing crisp texture and not a hint of the gooeyness you can sometimes encounter with cooked okra. But as good as the tomato and okra were, the unchallenged star was the mini zucchini stuffed with creamy ling cod and scallop. We love ling cod but have never encountered it cooked with this amazing creamy, yet firm texture. Biting into this was one of those moments when you realize that the people creating this food had mastered their craft and don’t even get us started on the flavour pairing with the scallop – off the hook!
The next dish took us back to a sashimi theme. While we were in the same theme, the storyline was different this time. A variety of tastes from the sea filled our plate: extraordinarily tender octopus and squid, sweet crab and rich, house-made smoked salmon. The accompaniments allowed for an exploration of flavour combinations with matchstick thin daikon, asian pear, vibrant shiso leaf, edamame, and a citric wasabi sauce. This medley of flavours delighted the palate in any combination we tried. The hardest thing about eating this dish knowing that it would come to an end and we couldn’t decide which delightful mouthful should be savoured last.
Our “Christmas Present” from the kitchen arrived in the form of a bowl wrapped beautifully in parchment paper, a bow tie of wicker, and a decoration of pine needles (the lime placed delicately on top of the parchment was more than just visual appeal). When we unwrapped our gift, the delightful aroma of the broth wafted up and set our saliva glands into overdrive. Sable fish (also known as black cod) is one of our favourite fish, and this was gently smoked to perfection. The combination of the firm yet silky, delicately flavoured fish with the rich aromatic broth was magical. Nestled inside the fish was an asparagus spear, and a bit of burdock root – another favourite ingredient. It’s earthy flavours and crispy chewy texture gave this an autumn warmth that was most appropriate. Best part of all, we were encouraged to pick up the bowl and slurp every last drop of broth, which we wanted to do and were willing to risk being seen as gauche. In hindsight this was the best dish of the entire meal – primus inter pares (first among equals).
Next came a dish that looked so unique and inviting that before we realized what had happened we had eaten the whole thing without taking a photo. An impossibly thin egg crepe embraced a filling of dungeness crab, spot prawns, salmon, topped with a gorgeous deep burgundy, very small roe (we honestly don’t know of what, but it was delicious). We have long heard the west coast raving of spot prawn, and this was our first encounter – and it lived up to its billing. Sweet, firm, silky texture, with a natural sweetness. The texture was a great contrast to the somewhat firmer moist crab, while the sweetness of both combined melodiously with the earthy and oily salmon. This dish was magical, hence its disappearing act!
No omakase would be complete without a nigiri plate, and when this one arrived we knew we were in for a treat. The beautiful layout of Japanese scallop, silvery sardine, blue fin tuna, ocean pike, and ocean unagi deserved a moment of admiration before we could dig in. Beneath each piece was a splendid lightly packed silky rice, and a freshly grated pat of wasabi (except under the ocean unagi). All of the portions were tasty, but at least for one of us, the most surprising was how delicious the sardine was. Not normally a favourite we could have eaten a plate of them. Similarly the blue fin was exquisite compared to all others we have had. The fat was so finely marbled through, it didn’t give the sense of eating a very fatty piece of fish, rather it exploded with juicy, mouth-filling richness that invited us to eat slowly and savour.
Who hasn’t seen a rainbow roll dish at their neighbourhood sushi joint? We were most excited to be presented with the haute cuisine version of this everyday favourite. Thinly sliced and delicately placed salmon, snapper and tuna accented with another version of impossibly thin egg crepe, cast its rainbow colours over a warm filling of bbq eel. The whole thing was enlivened with the addition of the complex tasting cinnamon-basil-spearmint flavour combination that is shiso leaf. No need for soy on this flavourful dish. To be honest we were feeling quite stuffed by the time this arrived, but we soldiered through and ate the whole thing!
And in spite of being stuffed, we couldn’t resist saying “Yes!” when asked: “Would you like a sweet?” After enjoying such delightful creations for almost two hours we were most curious to see what the kitchen would come up with for dessert. We weren’t disappointed when a small ramekin arrived bearing a light and exquisite flavour and texture combination. Tojo’s take on creme brûlée involved the obligatory custard, but rather than topping that with a hard sugar glaze this was bathed in a light syrup and topped with a fresh strawberry and finely chopped mango. A delicious, crispy, toasted sesame cookie, broken up and sprinkled over the creamy custard, provided the crunchy texture normally associated with creme brûlée. It was a simple but delicious end to a decadent meal.
And now, for those who have stuck with us ’til the end, it’s time for the big reveal! One of the main reasons we’ve long wanted to go to Tojo’s was to see if it is as good as our long time favourite sushi resto – Sushi Kaji in Toronto. The verdict? A dead heat. Tojo and Kaji are two masters with different styles at the top of their game. We highly recommend both and dare anyone to declare an outright winner.
Next step: back to Sushi Kaji to refresh our memory and share our adventure with you!