Admittedly, this is my first visit to the Vancouver institution that is “Tojo’s”. The restaurant has garnered much attention and many accolades thanks to the local celebrity chef with the same name. Tojo-san is better known as the creator of the widely popular “California roll”. And his restaurant on West Broadway has seen sushi trends come and go, but it still remains one of thee spots for authentic Japanese cuisine.
Most recently they have opened their sake bar, and with it a focus on cocktail hour drink specials. Normally, their two hours of discount food and drink is available from Thursday to Saturday from 4-6pm. However, for the winter season, they are attracting more diners by extending the promotion across Monday to Saturday 4-6pm. Ideal for those in search of a warm perch and a cold drink.
For many, their sake bar serves as a great transition into dinner. For most, it is an approachable and cost effective way to enjoy the quality and prestige of “Tojo’s”, at prices one can afford day to day.
The restaurant is a beautiful space, modern and open with plenty of seats. If given the choice, I would opt for the sushi bar. They are the best seats in the house, especially when Tojo-san is behind the bar, and you catch a glimpse of him rolling his career defining sushi. And speaking from experience, he is very accustomed to having his photo taken, posed or not.
Although today we were gathered in the lounge, with vaulted ceiling and a well stocked bar. The locale only seemed fitting given our intended tasting of their entire cocktail hour menu. This was a brighter space thanks to the full window-ed exterior; although with the onset of earlier nights, this was fleeting. Here, bouquets of fully bloomed lilies crowned tables, green leaves and vines added freshness with bamboo accents, and the ceiling is hung with lanterns and a traditional Japanese sun umbrella.
We were all lined up at the bar, to be able to watch the quick hands of their bar manager, Akira; craft “Tojo” exclusive cocktails, created by Jeff Savage of “Fairmont Pacific Rim” fame.
Akira started everyone off light with one of their highballs. The “Japanese” one features Suntory Toki with a Bittered Sling Lem-Marrakech Bitters, and Soda. It was easy to drink. It didn’t mask the refined flavour of the smokey whiskey with sugar or syrups, and there no burn to follow. This was the epitome of a simple and clean cocktail, one that even a non drinker can appreciate. Similarly, they had two additional country-themed highballs. The “Canadian” features Lot 40, and the “Scottish” one, Johnnie Walker Black.
Next we had the “Tokaido 53”, which was described as a riff on a martini. It was inspired by “journeys on the ancient road connecting Kyoto and Edo”. It was made featuring Bison Grass Vodka, Kazuki Gin, and an Herb and Citrus Oil. This is for those who like a stiffer cocktail. Strong in botanicals and fragrant florals, with a flavour that transitions as it goes from sip to swallow.
The “Salaryman” was as easy to drink as an iced tea, but with substantial citrus punches. The menu suggested this as a “stern cocktail”, that is best way to end your work day. A Japanese Whisky Blend, with notes of Matcha and Black Sesame. Although I wish I could actually taste more of the latter two, and/or see it as a dusting on top of the actual cocktail.
My favourite drink of the night was “Tojo’s Milk Punch”. Eastern flavours prepared with Western techniques, for something new and different. Bank’s 5 Island Rum, Shiso, Sencha, Mint, Lime, and Clarified Milk. This too I found easy to drink; and great of you don’t like the taste or burn of liquor. My dinner mates described this one as being “dangerous” because it tastes too much like punch with a creamy, milky, sweeter finish.
And lastly we had the “Kitsune Gimlet”, a cocktail that was tart and tangy. A punchy sour that wakes you up, and is made with Kazuki Gin, Yuzu, Honey.
Given that “Tojo’s restaurant” is better known for their luxury experience, you can also indulge in some premium sake. One of the bottles above is $2000 and the other runs for $6k. They are both exclusive go “Tojo’s” with the latter being the last of its kind.
As for food, we got a first hand look at their upcoming yakitori option. Only available during cocktail hour and made before your eyes, the station is a hot griddle with “Chef Drago behind it, at the ready. After a good oiling the heated surface is used to cook sticks of marinaded meat and tofu. And half the fun is watching the colour of either transition to a delicious gold brown, whilst hearing the snap and crackle of a hot oil and juices sizzle.
The chicken was incredibly tender and juicy, seasoned in a simple salt and pepper dusting.
The tofu could have used more dressing in my opinion, but considering what it is, it did offer a nice break between the meat sticks. Firm tofu with a garlicky sauce brushed over generously.
But my favourite yakitori was the beef, flavoured in an orange juice and brown sugar marinade. The milder citrus helped to enhance the natural flavour and juices of the beef.
Much like the tofu, I judged the next plate on my list before seeing it or trying it; and was pleasantly surprised as a result. The vegetarian “Miso mustard lotus root” are cube of taro sitting in a pool of tango miso. They are crunchy in texture and slightly spicy with a chilli mayo. Each block rich and satisfying.
Next, we got tofu a different way with the “Tofu Ankake”. This is describes as an agedashi tofu with eggplant, both sitting in a thick broth. It was a beautiful dish, the vegetable offered some textural interest to pair with the silken tofu. Here, I would have liked some additional broth, to be able to enjoy the whole more like soup instead.
For actual soup we had “Tojo’s chowder”, it looked like a classic chowder, but was much lighter and less chunky. And it still ate creamy, but with Japanese nuances. Mussels, salmon, carrots, and plenty of onions.
The “dashimaki + caviar” was a crowd pleaser: Japanese egg omelette topped with ikura & tobiko. Everyone appreciated the work that went into crafting the thin layers of egg omelette, that folded into one another, seamlessly. I especially liked the mix of textures it brought to my mouth. The fluffy egg, the pops of roe, and the mashed radish.
But my favourite dish for taste was “Tojo’s tuna”. This is one of his signature dishes made with wild albacore tuna in a wasabi and sesame sauce. The delicate fish didn’t need any additional seasonings, but the pool of sauce at the bottle of the bowl was there if you thought otherwise. I also liked the added crunch the crushed peanuts provided, offering up a completely new sensation.
The “Royal Chicken” was deep fried white meat chicken stuffed with asparagus. Beautifully done and presented, but a little dry for my tastes. I wanted more of a saucy gravy to dip it into, instead of the salty plum paste served on the side. Although the plum did pair well with the shisho leaves, embedded somewhere within the roll.
The chicken in the “Citrus and sea salted wings” on the other hand, was right up my alley. Crispy organic chicken, prepared “Tojo-style”, which means mess-free. In fact they take the time to push all the meat to the tip of the drumlet for a more aesthetically pleasing look. There was plenty of crunch to this simplified wing: juicy, salty, meaty, and just well done. And the side of tempura sweet potatoes were well chosen, they added balance and starch to the serving.
The “Bbq scallop” was a show stopper, served in shell with tomato, snap pea, carrots, and enoki mushrooms; all soaked in a bright dashi broth. Delicious.
The “Wagyu sukiyaki” was comforting. Thinly sliced piece meat, fried rapidly with vegetables and a light teriyaki-like sauce. All of which are piled high over chewy glass noodles. I would love a full serving of this for any meal.
And you can’t visit “Tojo’s” without having his “Tojo maki”. As “The Pioneer of the modern California Roll” this one speaks volumes; showcasing local Dungeness crab. It was lovely. A classic and I have no complaints.
We rounded out the night by bringing back the hot grill and “Chef Dragon” got back behind it. With dual flippers in hand, he made everyone their own individual size seafood okonomiyaki. “Okonomiyaki” is a savoy Japanese pancake. This one has shrimp, scallop, and plenty of shredded cabbage; held together with a wheat-flour-based batter. Worth noting is that this rendition had very little batter, allowing the crispiness of the shredded and stringy cabbage to take centre stage. If we weren’t full from all the above, we were now.
And as a amazingly cute gesture, “Tojo” presented each of us a hand picked bag of small Fuji apples, as we said our goodbyes for the night. This gesture is not the norm, but fully appreciated, nonetheless.
Would I come back? – Yes.
Would I line up for it? – Yes.
Would I recommend it? – Yes.
Would I suggest this to someone visiting from out of town? – Yes.
In short, and to repeat myself. “Tojo’s” new cocktail hour menu is worth checking out. A taste and teaser of this famous restaurant at great prices, paired with amazingly crafted cocktails; what’s not to love? Don’t deny your cravings.
1133 W Broadway, Vancouver, BC V6H 1G1