Of all the restaurants in my journeys, outside of Gordon Ramsey at Claridges (which is no longer Gordon Ramsey at Claridges), there has never been a more hyped restaurant than Tojo’s. They obviously wallow in the accolades—you can barely see through the glass door with all the stickers on it from various review sites like Zagat, Trip Advisor, or Yelp. I may never again encounter a restaurant with this much buildup. Hell, I was even discussing my visit with Jewel Staite. Jewel Staite! Jewel Staite? Yes, Jewel Staite. You know, Firefly, Stargate—oh forget it, those of you who know, care. She reaffirmed the apparent certainty that Tojo’s was one of the best if not THE best restaurant in all of Vancouver.
Would it then be a surprise that it didn’t fulfill such lofty expectations? I was practically guaranteed transcendence, and no one was more shocked than I at my reaction. It’s admittedly unfair; it already counts as one of the best Japanese culinary experiences I’ve ever encountered, but with this level of hype, I was expecting it to top the list, and it didn’t. As it stands, it’s unfortunately just amazing. I await retribution for stating Tojo’s as simply fantastic, merely astonishing, regrettably excellent.
Based purely on its décor, it deserves high praise. This is not a conventional Japanese restaurant, but a Japanese restaurant’s ecstasy-laced hallucination of itself. It’s enormous, with gaps of hardwood floor shockingly underutilized, still leaving dozens of tables and an expansive bar open as we entered. The bar was reserved for omakase.
No, that’s not some mid-level Yakuza boss in Grand Theft Auto 5, but the term labeled for chef menus in Japanese restaurants. I find the exclusiveness of the bar disappointing, especially since I wanted to try omakase. My girlfriend wasn’t, leaving me trapped at a table ordering the non-omakase chef’s menu…yes there are two chef menus. No, I don’t really know the difference. I could see the owner/head chef, the one that looks like Sonny Chiba from Kill Bill, behind the bar serving a half-dozen men clearly ending their shift as GQ models. How badly did I want to sit at the bar? So much so that the $80 price tag felt like a drop in the bucket, not that I’ve had good experience with omakase.
In another feeble attempt at self-glorification, the last time I had a full-on omakase was at a restaurant in the New World Mall in downtown Hong Kong. Against a backdrop of fireworks blasting beyond a window overlooking Kowloon Bay on the final day of the Autumn Festival, as the Blade Runner-esque cityscape of the Admiralty fired lasers into a starless night made ever blacker by rampant pollution, I enjoyed a $300 omakase. It also gave me food poisoning, which is a tale in itself. A chef obviously lower on the totem pole, but one of some obvious talent was supplying my dinner in Tojo’s. My tasting menu included five courses of what I expected would be alternating variations of raw fish and rice. I held my chopsticks the proper way in anticipation, ironic that most of the delivered dishes were in dire need of fork. I consider myself a chopstick master—got a technique down and everything—I don’t even squish the rice. All but one of the dishes I was served was nearly impossible to enjoy with sticks, but at no point was I offered a fork. Some of the bites were as minute as Adam Sandler’s box-office draw.
The first dish, a tuna tartare, was one of the greatest dishes I’d ever sampled, followed by a salmon sashimi, followed by…I honestly don’t know what it was. I mean it was good, and I recognized the bed of morel mushrooms it sat on. Carrots, I saw carrots. All that led to a dish punctuated but what felt like slightly undercooked tripe, a dish so disappointing, I had to break a personal policy and share my displeasure with the staff (in the most polite way possible, of course). It was only after that was I served some actual sushi, five various pieces of exceptional refinement. Of the five courses, two disappointed while three overwhelmed, a fact obviously perceived by the wait staff, who obviously conveyed this to the chef, and the previous setback was redeemed with a complimentary green tea crème brulee, a dish of which all future crème brulees will be compared.
Tojo’s reputation is obviously well earned; it has reached that critical mass where no bad publicity can stop it. Like a G-type main sequence star, Tojo’s is unlikely to dim in the foreseeable future, feeding on a nearly inexhaustive supply of publicity garnered from celebrities like Anthony Bourdain, Tom Cruise, and Jack Black. Wait…is that…Pat Morita (hasn’t he been dead for eleven years?). By the way, funny that Bourdain is the only one labeled; even Cruise is listed under just…”people”. Heaven forbid I offer up a negative review, not that I would give one. The experience, taken on an average of décor, service, and the six dishes served, still comes up with a top grade across the board. Odd that I walked out still…disappointed. How does that work?
Should you visit Tojo’s? Hell yeah. I’m required to visit different restaurants each time I visit Vancouver and I still want to try omakase. It was absolutely worthy the visit...if you have the money. Remember, such a reputation does equate to rather lofty prices. The only sushi combo dinner offered is a staggering $55. That price I quoted for omakase was only to start, with the cost likely to increase, up to triple depending on the details. Thank god, my girlfriend only ordered the California rolls. I left her out of the review until now because her comments perfectly reflect the justification of my review. She hates sushi…hates it. I can’t get her to try anything, but she ordered California rolls, and said they were the best she’d ever had. Thank you, Tojo’s, you might have finally opened up my girlfriend’s culinary horizons, and for that, I cannot offer a greater score.