Omakase at Tojos
1133 West Broadway, Vancouver, Canada
From the kitchen of the Chef who reportedly invented the California Roll also comes the most innovative Japanese dishes made from the freshest ingredients I’ve ever tasted. I finally visited Tojo’s and found that the famous restaurant is everything it’s cracked up to be, exceeding my expectations and opening up my palate to new flavours. I honestly don’t know how I can go back to eating regular sushi any more.
Tojo’s is located in the most unassuming, low-key spot on West Broadway across from Toys “R” Us, away from the trendy Yaletown restaurant scene and the hustle and bustle of the downtown core. Upon entering Tojo’s, we found the restaurant space to be much more spacious than it looks from the outside. The high ceilings, dim lighting, and warm wood furnishings creates a wonderfully serene, peaceful and intimate dining space. I can see why foodies travel from all over the world for the Tojo experience.
Tucked away on a back wall near the washrooms are all of Chef Tojo’s awards.
We ordered the Omakase which means we entrusted the chef to arrange our meal based on our likes, dislikes and the freshest ingredients of the day. After taking our drink orders, our server asked us if we had any food allergies or preferences before beginning the meal. I had to admit that I couldn’t handle anything too spicy. And I had to order the hotate (scallop) nigiri sushi. I wasn’t going to dine at Tojo’s without trying the scallop sushi!
I ordered the Tojo-tini cocktail, a refreshing mixture of sake and shochu vodka. The drink turned out to be more mild than I expected with cool, clean flavours that actually cleansed my palate between each course.
First up was Tojo’s tuna sashami with special sesame and wasabi sauce. The first thing I noticed was the presentation, The dish was gorgeous, the powder pink tuna, speckled with toasted sesame seeds with a bright green tuft of chopped green onions perched on top. I wanted to gobble up this dish right away but I savoured it to appreciate every delicate layer of flavour and texture. The crunch of the green onions contrasted with the silkiness of the tuna and the sweet and slightly nutty sauce tied the whole dish together. There were some strong hits of wasabi as I got to the bottom of the bowl, thank goodness my Tojo-tini cocktail served as a cooling element.
The seafood salad was something else. Again, I was blown away by the presentation. Chef Tojo takes the concept of using the plate as a canvas to another level, creating magic with just a few simple but ultra fresh ingredients. The salad consisted of smoked salmon (one of my favourite foods!), a very thin strip of octopus balanced on top of fresh greens, cucumber and cooked squid drizzled with sweet and creamy dressing. The smoked salmon was delicious, smooth, velvety with deep smoky salmon flavours. The octopus and the cooked squid were both amazingly tender and soft. The thin blanket of octopus picked up the dressing perfectly. The little pieces of squid had a little bit of bite to them but for the most part, they were the softest, least chewy pieces of cooked squid I’ve ever tasted.
I was thrilled that the next dish was Tojo’s famed halibut cheek. One of the coolest things about ordering Omakase is that each course is a surprise. I could smell the halibut cheeks as soon as they were placed on the table. This was our first warm dish of the meal, and the fragrant, homey smells of the creamy teriyaki garlic sauce was extremely inviting.
The halibut cheek was flaky and tender, easily giving away to gentle pokes of my chopsticks. Despite the distinct halibut flavours, the meat also picked up the creamy teriyaki sauce beautifully.
The halibut cheek was accompanied by a very flavourful mound of mushrooms that soaked up the teriyaki sauce like little sponges. I nearly loved the mushrooms as much as the halibut, and I don’t even normally like mushrooms.
Mushrooms also played a role in our next dish: Suntan tuna, red tuna wrapped in nori seaweed with a crunchy tempura crust, a teaspoon of sour plum sauce and a pile of moist and tender mushrooms. Needless to say the thick slices of tuna were beautiful, dramatic red centers surrounded by a ring of powder pink cooked meat. The tempura crust was crispy and crunchy against velvety tuna meat. The punchy, sour sauce also brought out the tuna’s natural sweetness.
I know the mushrooms were only a sidekick in this dish, but I ate every single piece. The mushrooms were soft and flavourful with a sweet and sour taste from the sauce. I have no idea what Chef Tojo does with his mushrooms but he has definitely converted me from a mushroom hater to a big mushroom fan.
Finally came the sushi dishes – what I had been waiting for! Arranged beautifully on our plates was a selection of nigiri sushi and rolls. Without hesitation we tried the Golden Roll first: crab, scallop, salmon and sweet shrimp rolled up in sushi rice and Tojo’s trademark silk-thin egg crepe. I’ve read that Chef Tojo started using egg crepe for his rolls to appeal to diners with seaweed allergies. I do not have a seaweed allergy but I would still eat a billion of Chef Tojo’s Golden Rolls. I can’t even begin to describe how amazing this little roll is. The ultra thin egg, light as a feather but as soft and fluffy as a cloud encasing the freshest, most moist seafood mixed in with al dente sushi rice, a dab of Japanese mayo and crunchy roe. The flavours literally exploded in my mouth.
Next up, we tried the red snapper nigiri sushi. What we noticed about the nigiri sushi at Tojo’s is the thin strip of Japanese herb he slips in between the perfectly formed sushi rice and the slice of sashimi. The herb has a fresh basil flavour to it, it acted as a palate cleanser and a great hit of cool freshness against the spicy dab of wasabi under the fish. The red snapper was delicious, tender, smooth and fresh.
The Great Canadian Roll sported a brilliantly red piece of smoked salmon on top of a roll filled with tender lobster and asparagus. It was rich, delicious and incredible. The ingredients were so simple but since the seafood was so fresh, the flavours were notches above what is served at standard sushi restaurants.
The saba (mackerel) nigiri sushi was seductively shiny on the plate. I have to admit that the heavy mackerel flavour was pretty overpowering, especially after we had just eaten a more delicate fish, the red snapper. But I enjoyed it, the texture was wonderful, the skin full of slick and smooth fish oil and the meat underneath was slippery but moist.
Nearly standing up to the mackerel flavours was the hirame (flounder) nigiri that we tried next. The flounder meat was tender and I’m sure delicate in flavour. But the wasabi on this piece of sushi was pretty heavy handed, you can actually see the green glob through the nearly translucent white fish in the picture. We probably should have ordered this one without the wasabi.
And finally, we tried the hotate (scallop) nigiri sushi that I ordered. It was everything that I had hoped for: soft, buttery and meaty scallop. It practically melted in my mouth.
Here’s another thing, the ingredients are so fresh and delicious at Tojo’s that they didn’t need any other enhancements. I didn’t touch the soy sauce bottle once while enjoying the nigiri sushi.
Lastly, we tried Tojo’s original spicy tuna roll. Here’s what he does differently: the roll is stuffed with a spicy tuna mixture and sculpted on top of the roll is a non-spicy piece of tuna sashimi. I was apprehensive to try this roll since admittedly, spicy food makes my eyes water. But even I could handle this roll, the fresh sweetness from the tuna balances out the spices. And that piece of soft, non-spicy tuna on top really curbed the spiciness too.
Our last roll consisted of more of my favourite ingredient: scallops! A variation of the California roll, this was Tojo’s Pacific Northwest roll with West coast Dungeness crab and avocado rolled up with sushi rice, seaweed and scallop on top with golden flying fish roe.
The golden flying fish roe on top of the rolls were firmer than the red fish roe.
Again, we found the pieces of scallop on top of the roll, fresh, soft and buttery, rich in flavour and paired amazingly with the tender crab inside the roll. And again, I didn’t use soy sauce. I didn’t have to, my taste buds were too distracted by all the different flavours and textures jammed into one little roll to even notice there was no soy sauce.
Before dessert, we managed to squeeze in one more of Tojo’s ‘must-trys’: the Toro sashimi. There was one good thing and one bad thing about eating this. The bad thing: I can never eat toro sashimi again unless it’s at Tojo’s. The good thing: this was the most delicious toro sashimi I’ve ever eaten, the way it was sliced, in thin, fragile strips, the way it melted in my mouth, and the subtle and delicate flavours that gracefully swirled on my tongue before I swallowed. I’m pretty sure this is something only Tojo can create.
Thankfully, I still had room for dessert. Good thing too because dessert was equally delicious: black sesame panna cotta with a soft sesame cookie and a sweet shot of plum liquor. I love Chef Tojo’s playful twist on a traditional Italian dessert. The sesame not only gave the panna cotta a deep sexy purple colour but also gave the sweet, creamy custard an extra kick of rich, nutty flavour. The extremely sweet and sharp plum liquor only enhanced the panna cotta flavours and that little sesame cookie was the perfect topper on a flawless meal.
Before we left, we asked our server if we could take a picture with the chef. Chef Tojo is one of the only celebrity chefs found working nightly in his own restaurant. You don’t see Gordon Ramsey or Heston Blumenthal chopping onions or creating dishes at their restaurants on a nightly basis. We got the chance to thank Chef Tojo for the wonderful meal, he was jovial and humble and was more than happy to snap a few pictures with us. Obviously, I wanted to ask him if he really did invent the California roll but I was too shy. Maybe next time.