For the ultimate Japanese meal experience, go to Tojo’s, sit at the sushi bar, order the 10+ course omakase meal and let affable Tojo feed and entertain you. After 43 years of serving food and crowning achievements such as rubbing shoulders with Anthony Bourdain, Martha Stewart and serving the elusive Empress and Emperor of Japan, Hidekazu Tojo (the youngest and happiest 60 year old I have ever met) is still cranking out inventive Japanese food with likely the same energy and fervor he had when he moved to Osaka, Japan in 1968 at the age of 18 to start his career as a chef.
The persistent theme of the restaurant is balance, which is represented in the food, service and Tojo himself:
Food: The 10-course omakase may sound daunting, but most of the courses are manageable bites that can be polished off in 2-3 mouthfuls. Tojo adheres to tradition in his perfection of the cuts and freshness of the fish, yet adds a modern seasonal twist. Every bite is a perfectly flavored and textured. The output is a culinary masterpiece with each course reveling in beautiful presentation (even the plating is lovely and changes with each dish) and optimal taste.
The opener on this trip - Square pieces of tuna with shiso leaf, daikon and finely sliced spring onions in a bamboo shoot bowl. I feel like a squirrel who has just found a hoarded treasure as I dig into the dish.
I then transition to an x-large roll where hearty young flounder tempura is mixed with tropical bits of avocado and pineapple freshness, seasonal asparagus and tied together with a refreshing cucumber to seal in the taste.
One of my favorites of the evening is a woodsy morel mushroom stuffed with “fresh out of the ocean” BC scallops sitting atop a light bed of spinach to offset the body of the foraged edible.
My taste buds are registering all of the food as either just fished out of the water or picked from the ground. I soon learn that what my palate is sensing is not far from the truth. After one of Tojo’s regulars (he’s been coming to the restaurant for 20 years) puts a generous piece of uni (sea urchin) nigiri in his mouth, he turns over to me and asserts the uni must be uber-fresh for it to taste so flavorful. Tojo overhears us talking and then shuffles to the back of the kitchen to look at a whiteboard where he keeps track of seafood delivery times. He comes back and announces the uni was caught at 2pm that day a few miles away from the restaurant and arrived at the restaurant at 3pm. The dude was literally eating uni that was less than 6 hours old.
Service: The staff resembles Swiss efficiency mixed with Midwest warmth. Water seamlessly gets refilled throughout the night without you even noticing and as I finish each of the 11 courses, each dish quietly gets cleaned off so quickly I am almost successful in convincing myself I haven’t really eaten a thing.
Tojo also gives specific instructions on how to eat each dish. He indicates the third course of dungeness crab with shiso and thin slices of apple, cucumber is already flavored with soy sauce so he instructs us not to add any soy sauce, while telling us to soak the glistening toro nigiri with lots of brown sauce. He says all of this with a smile all the while joking around with us.
Meanwhile, the waiter keeps referencing one of the locals at the sushi bar as Johnny Cash, which is a nickname Tojo gave him many years back due to his black attire and cool personality. Tojo kids around with him with a brotherly familiarity, but makes sure he and his staff do not compromise on service.
Tojo: Sociable Tojo is a cross between a Buddha and an exuberant school kid. As Tojo serves the fifth course of thinly cut octopus , he smiles a big wide smile and joyfully proclaims, “It’s tako time!” I have never seen octopus shaved so thinly where it hasn’t required me to chew one million times and feel like I am about to choke on the carnage wad stuck in my mouth.
Even with his zen-ish behavior and humor, the staff knows Tojo runs a tight ship. Throughout the evening, I notice Tojo’s right hand man busting his butt and observing Tojo’s every move to see when the genius master chef is ready for the BBQ eel to be plated or when the BC spot prawns need sauce added. Their interaction is a diligent teacher::apprentice exercise in body language which can only be perfected with persistent observation and familiarity as there is little spoken dialogue between the two to minimize guest distraction. The staff appears easy going, but it is obvious their priority is to make sure the evening goes off without a hitch.
A fork drops from a distance and within a fraction of a milli-second, Tojo momentarily looks up from preparing his legendary California roll (he is, after all, the inventor of the California roll), to alertly trace the source, and then returns to his sushi preparation after he sees the situation has been addressed quickly with no disturbance to his customers.
A lot of famous chefs rest on their laurels, delegate all of the heavy lifting, and eventually become celebrity figureheads who float around their restaurants to chit-chat with their big wig clientele. That is not the case with Tojo, who is not only ever so present, he is still very much the head chef and face of Tojo’s.
Space: Tojo’s three and a half year old space is a cross between modern chic and warehouse with high ceilings and a feeling of wide open space. From my view at the left end of the chef’s table, I can see the entire kitchen in front of me, peer into the cocktail lounge and turn my head 180 degrees to look at each booth and table in the house. This West Broadway eatery is a people watchers’ paradise. Sometimes restaurants with a high square footage feel plentiful in space, but compromise on warmth and intimacy. Tojo and his staff treat you like you are a guest at a dinner party at their house. When we first arrive, one of the waiters discovers we are from Seattle and excitedly introduces us to another couple at the sushi bar who is also visiting from Seattle.
I didn’t want the night to end, but my stomach was starting to bulge after 12 courses (I chose to eat the bonus eel dish and of course could not pass up dessert) and my wallet was starting to implode. So, I bid farewell to Tojo and his staff who all make it a point to shake our hands, and for a fleeting moment lament over the $445 CAD that is no longer in my pocket before relishing in the memory of Tojo’s warmth, funny stories, and top-notch food you won’t find anywhere else.
I can see Tojo’s Buddh happiness rubbing off on me as I slip into a gentle food coma with the biggest smile on my face.
A few notes on omakase:
- You don’t have to sit at the sushi counter to order the omakase. If you prefer more intimacy, Tojo’s has booths outlining the perimeter of the restaurant that are set back for privacy.
- Tojo typically serves 10 dishes in the omakase meal. After 10, he asks if you want more or if you are ready to move onto dessert.
- You can still have a blast without ordering the full-blown omakase. A popular a la carte item is the elaborate lobster roll which sits aside the shell of the lobster.
- What to drink with omakase – Sake, of course.
Address: 1133 West Broadway, Vancouver, BC V6H 1G1
Price Range ($ – $$$$): $$$$