Get ready for a long post, everyone. I definitely saved the best for last!
It was chronologically last, too, but that’s… um… beside the point?
Anyway, the final dinner I’ll be featuring from Birthday Week is our twosome dinner date for his birthday at the award-winning and much lauded Tojo’s. Now, while most dinners took place during the extended week of November 22nd to 29th, this one actually took place in early December. With other dinners, research papers and projects due, and final exams approaching, we just couldn’t fit any time in. So our last birthday dinner is, admittedly, not within the temporal limits of a literal Birthday Week. Referring to it as part of Birthday Week is really just for consistency at this point.
At any rate: on with the show!
And what a show it was. The boy has been wanting to go to Tojo’s for a while, so I made a reservation and we headed down for a nice break smack in the middle of exam season.
Open-kitchen concept. Photo from the boy’s phone.
We were greeted by a traditionally dressed woman and seated by the tiniest, cutest older waitress, who promptly brought us green tea. The boy has worked part-time in tea stores for while now, and considers himself
a bit of a tea snob; he was very impressed with the quality of the tea.
I asked for a little write up from him explaining the tea. Here’s what he had to say:
The green tea served was gyokuro, a Japanese tea roughly meaning “jade dew”. One of the higher grades of tea, it’s different from the common sencha (steamed tea) green tea in that it’s grown for a period in reduced sunlight. Essentially, they place a canopy over it for two to three weeks before they pick the tea leaves, which causes the chemicals and nutrients to develop differently. What’s produced is a smooth tea with a rich umami flavour.
… Nerdy tea stuff. I don’t normally drink much tea, but I actually genuinely enjoyed this. Smooth is the perfect way to describe it!
He was also impressed they removed the tea bag from the pot so as not to make the tea grow too strong. Apparently most places neglect to do this.
We then opened up our menus, where on one side a little message from chef Tojo was printed:
We would like to thank you for visiting Tojo’s Restaurant today.
Here at Tojo’s we make every effort to offer local seafood, meat, and vegetables, purchasing the freshest of foods and preparing them for your enjoyment. Each and every item on our menu is selected and prepared using traditional Japanese methods, and on occasion, we offer new and modern selections.
We use organic materials as much as we can and no instant food or MSG. For authentic Japanese cuisine Tojo’s is exceptional. Please enjoy your meal…
Which was followed by Tojo’s signature.
We scanned the menu, but were already keeping one eye on the famous omakase. Tojo’s provides a good definition of omakase on their site:
Omakase loosely translated means “Chef, I’m in your hands.” When you sit at the counter, our Omakase Bar, it’s understood that you and your companions are here for a conversation with the Chef over sushi and cooked dishes prepared for your personal preferences according to what the fresh ingredients of that day’s shopping inspire the Chef to concoct for you. This is the ultimate way to experience Tojo’s.
We ended up picking the five course meal. I mentioned my small allergy to raw seafood, and the waitress quickly assured me that the chef could easily prepare cooked seafood alternatives to the raw dishes served today.
Our first course arrived:
Tuna marinated in Tojo’s special sauce, topped with sesame seeds and green onion.
His first course was a raw tuna dish. I sneaked a little bit of a tuna chunk and was delighted by the buttery soft quality of the tuna, and how well the flavour paired with the secret sauce.
Sesame-marinated spinach salad topped with cooked Dungeness crab and thin seaweed strips. Photo from the boy’s phone.
My first course was tangy and juicy and all-around delicious. I chewed slowly to savour the flavours bleeding into my tastebuds.
We noted very early on in the dining experience that eating at Tojo’s meant two things: perfect textures and perfect flavour pairings. We felt like we were in heaven.
Beautifully cut celery curved over lobster salad. Mustard soy bean past, wasabi, and a tiny bit of garlic. All piled on top of marinated radish.
Our second course arrived shortly after we finished the first. The lobster had strong hits of wasabi and, like the first course, was perfectly textured and paired with the other food components.
I’ve always thought that the mark of a good chef is being able to make people enjoy and appreciate foods they dislike. My Aunt, who cooks the most amazing Italian food, is one of those people. The chefs at Tojo’s are the same; I’m not a fan of radish or celery, but I loved them and everything about the lobster salad. I find it so rare, and such a treat. When a chef has that kind of power, they have my utmost respect.
As I mused about this to myself, and chatted with him, our third course arrived.
Sautéed yellow tail with mushrooms and organic veggies. Broccolini and vinegar marinated (?) daikon radish strips.
I love fish, and this one was beautifully flavoured. It was less fatty than a white fish, which, while we were getting full, left room in our stomach for a few more dishes. The boy commented on how the mushrooms were textured and flavoured similarly to abalone–mushrooms we later discovered to be oyster mushrooms, a kind of mushroom that takes on the flavour of abalone when sautéed. Yummy.
While I obsessed over the yellow tail as our empty plates were removed from the table, the arrival of the next course made the boy light up like a christmas tree.
Scallops. Butter and soy sauce mixture, cubed celery and red pepper, bok choi, and the tenderest mushrooms.
There are few foods he loves more than scallops. He claims he’s never eaten scallops so perfectly cooked–“mildly sweet, perfectly seared, slightly rare in the centre for some variation in texture […] the butter and soy sauce mixture paired perfectly” It was, as the rest of the dishes, beyond good. It was cute seeing him pause and close his eyes as he chewed.
Finally, our fifth course arrived. We lamented the fast-approaching end to our meal, but were soon distracted when we realized it was sushi!
Notable rolls included a karage role, which is sweet potato tempura, asparagus (I think), and mayo wrapped in a cucumber crepe; the Great Canadian Roll, which contained lobster with asparagus and was topped with a large slice of smoked salmon; and the Tojo roll, which contained Dungeness crab, avocado, spinach and egg.
The boy had traditional sashimi, whereas I had only cooked seafood–note the cooked Dungeness crab chunk on the left in the above picture.
I enjoyed the selection. I’m going to be honest, though, when I say the sushi–and only the sushi–fell a bit flat. It was good of course, but it certainly wasn’t above and beyond other quality Japanese restaurants renowned for their sushi. It was on par, at best, with Miku and Minami (not including their aburi–there were no aburi selections at Tojo’s when we went, so I couldn’t make a comparison).
After finishing our fifth dish, the waitress came and informed us dessert was on its way.
We were entirely full at this point, but as always, one must make room for dessert. No convincing was needed.
It was delicious.
Green tea creme brûlée with a sesame wafer. A full raspberry topped the dessert along with cubes of apple, orange, and strawberry.
After finishing, we sipped on tea and sat in contentment. Tojo’s may be expensive as hell, but the two of us thought it was worth every penny. He’s determined to go back, and I’m trying to get him to hold off for a few months, because it’s unquestionably a Special Occasional place, unless you’re loaded. Loaded like the big, jovial guy who came in while we were halfway through our meal, neck chain jangling as he hugged a staff member. Or the people in another corner of the room, who had ordered pricier omakase options. (The five course, which we ordered, is a mere $80 per person. *Clutches chest in pain*.)
Price aside, Tojo’s is now my favourite restaurant in Vancouver. The food was like no other Japanese food I’ve ever had. While I love Miku (and Minami– ish), it in no way compared to Tojo’s. Notably, I haven’t been to Zest, which apparently topped Tojo’s as best Japanese restaurant recently, but… I’m skeptical, to say the least. I cannot recommend Tojo’s enough, especially if you love Japanese food. While it certainly isn’t a place you’ll go to often… go when you’re deserving of something good. You won’t be disappointed.