Thursday, October 20, 2016

Episode #200: Tojo's

Vancouver (Northwest), $$$$ (Luxury)

If I were to make an FAQ about me, the question "Have you been to Tojo's?" would definitely be near the top of the list. As much as I would have liked to answer "yes" to visiting what is perhaps Vancouver's most famous sushi restaurant, the prices there are not within the budget of any reasonable university student. A spicy tuna roll? $22. An order of Assorted Nigiri? How about $55? In all sanity, Tojo's would have been off limits for me until I got myself a well-paying job. However, there is a study that says not getting enough sleep is the same as being drunk. I've been averaging a paltry 4 hours of sleep per day since the start of the semester, and I suppose it all added up and resulted in me swinging myself into Tojo's to book a reservation for the priciest omakase dinner they had—the $150+ omakase at the sushi bar.

Omakase refers to a special dining experience in which the selection of dishes is left entirely up to the chef. At Tojo's, the omakase at the bar starts at $150 and begins to climb as he serves you more and more dishes (you indicate when to stop). As this was such a high-profile dinner, I was determined to make it Episode #200 and not #201 or #202. Having already made arrangements for Episode #201 with a friend, I braved a windstorm that involved fallen trees and downed power lines to get to Tojo's, eager to bust the paycheck that I had received earlier that day.

Inside the restaurant was one of the finest dining spaces I have ever come across. It was no measly sight—not only was the kitchen enormous, but there was enough seating for no less than 70 guests. There to greet me at the sushi bar was Chef Hidekazu Tojo, who is credited for inventing the ever-so-popular California Roll and BC Roll.

Chef Tojo may not have a very loud voice, but he has the confidence of Donald Trump. At the very beginning of the omakase, he made sure to reassure me that his food was "the best of the best." After that, much of my dinner was peppered with phrases like "very delicious," "this is excellent," and "you will definitely love this." He says these phrases with the tone and gestures of a wise, elderly philosopher. Although it may be perceived as arrogant, I think he does this to hypnotize people into believing that they are indeed eating "the best of the best."

Tuna Tartare - A

In the blink of an eye, Chef Tojo whipped out the Tuna Tartare, an appetizer featuring chopped tuna dressed with Tojo's special sauce. The sauce was a harmonious blend of gomaae and ponzu and was a perfect match for the soft, savoury tuna. Mixed within the tuna were very finely chopped green onions, which added a refreshing, energetic zing to the dish. On top were a few pieces of crunchy daikon, which Chef Tojo told me were added for a textural contrast. 

Assorted Tempura - A

The next course consisted of Zucchini Flower Tempura with Scallops, Cherry Tomato Tempura, and Okra Tempura. The tempura batter was precisely made with the right thickness and texture. The zucchini flower had a green onion essence was filled with soft scallops, though the scallops were not especially rich in flavour. The cherry tomato was so juicy that when I bit into it, juice flew out of my mouth and splattered onto the tempura lining paper. Whoops... The okra was also a delight and contained just the right amount of moisture.

Seafood Salad - A

Next up was a Seafood Salad containing wild salmon, sliced octopus, Dungeness crab, and mackerel dressed with mustard miso sauce and graced with a few slices of apple and daikon. I enjoyed the contrast of fruity vs. seafood flavours. The octopus was remarkably soft, while the Dungeness crab had an excellent silky texture. The sockeye was a little weaker and could have been smoother. However, the mackerel had the most amazing flavour of any mackerel I have ever had. It was rich with almost a hint of smokiness in it, yet not the slightest bit too salty.

Steamed Canadian Sablefish - before uncovering the paper "lid"

In addition to making sure I knew that his food was awesome, Chef Tojo also made sure that I remembered to take photos of his food. Yes, by this point, there were already a few horrendous near-tragedies in which I picked up my chopsticks before my camera. When he presented me with this dish, his instructions were very clear: take a picture first, and then pull apart the ribbon.

Steamed Canadian Sablefish - A

When I uncovered the paper lid, a wonderful, heartwarming aroma filled the air around me. Inside was a piece of soft, silky sablefish accompanied by some juicy asparagus and various mushrooms for additional depth of flavour. Though I've had softer and meltier sablefish in the past, the smooth texture of this one and the fullness of the broth made up for it.

Golden Roll - A+

The one item that blew me away was the Golden Roll, one of Tojo's most expensive special rolls. The three pieces that you see in the picture above amounted to about $20 of my bill. Using west coast ingredients such as salmon, scallop, spot prawns and Dungeness crab, this roll melted in my mouth like no other roll I have ever had. The heavenly sweet scallop went perfectly with the soft egg wrapping, and this was contrasted with a small helping of crunchy caviar atop each piece. The flavours of this roll were neither bold nor especially innovative. It was the precision that made it the sole highlight of my entire dinner.

Ikura Nigiri - A
Barracuda Nigiri - A
Spot Prawn Nigiri - A

Just prior to handing me this dish, Chef Tojo was trying hard to get the ikura (salmon roe) not to fall off. He succeeded, but just barely. In either case, the ikura was a success. The seaweed had a special roasted flavour to it, and the fish oils in the ikura were savoury. The Barracuda Nigiri had a nice zing from the green onion and ginger on top. It had a lightly smoked flavour and a delectably smooth texture. The Spot Prawn Nigiri was very fresh, creamy, and meaty, though it was a bit heavy on the wasabi.

Anago Nigiri - A

After the three pieces of regular-sized nigiri, I was presented with the jumbo-sized Anago Nigiri (sea eel). It was designed to be cut in half and then eaten as two separate pieces. The steamed, warm piece of anago was very soft, though I thought it could absorb a little more of the sauce. This piece of nigiri was where the sushi rice stood out the most. The texture was just right, and it was almost in line with the sushi rice at Miku and Octopus Garden. 

Geoduck Cucumber Temaki - A-

In a bold move, Chef Tojo presented me the Geoduck Cucumber Temaki, which he boldly dressed with spicy mayonnaise! The dressing worked, and the seaweed had the same nice crunch and roasted flavour as the seaweed from the Ikura Nigiri. The geoduck had an appealing crunch to it, though with so many different ingredients going on, it was difficult to discern the distinct flavour of geoduck within the cone.

By this point, the restaurant became busier than when I had just arrived. It seemed to me that in an effort to entertain the other omakase diners, Chef Tojo was starting to lose his focus on the food. The precision started to go down, and the magic began to fade. I was also having to wait longer and longer between each dish. I called for one more item and then dessert.

Local Albacore Tuna Nigiri - A-

My last item was one piece of lightly seared Local Albacore Tuna Nigiri accompanied by green onion, ginger, and grated daikon. As expected, the tuna had a wonderfully soft texture. However, the tangy dressing and savoury flavour of the tuna did not really mix together. I could not taste any smokiness from the searing of the tuna either.

Green Tea Crème Brûlée - A-

Finishing off the meal was the Green Tea Crème Brûlée, my favourite dessert. This one was accented by a sesame cookie, Tojo's signature daikon and apple combo, and a slice of strawberry. The sweet flavours worked together well, and the green tea flavour was well-distributed throughout the custard. However, the crème brûlée ended up being slightly drier than expected.

Now that we were all finished, it was time for me to witness the horror of the bill...

Uh oh...

...$216.30! In all fairness, they did tell me multiple times before my dinner that the price was most likely going to end up in the $200 to $300 range. The wait staff was more than professional. Multiple servers treated me with utmost respect and made sure that my plates were taken away as soon as I had finished each item.

Yes, I know what you're probably thinking right now: Was it worth it?

If my dinner was $100, my answer would be a definite "yes." $150? Probably. However, $216.30 was a little excessive. Indeed, I have never experienced the same level of consistency at any other sushi restaurant in Greater Vancouver, and the precision was among the finest I have encountered. However, for that price, there weren't as many dishes that blew me away as I had hoped. I suppose there is a premium for the experience of dining in front of an internationally famous chef. It also seemed like there was a significant premium to sit at the sushi bar. I looked at the menu once more and noticed that I could have gotten significantly more food by ordering the 5-course omakase ($80) and the 6-course omakase ($120) simultaneously. 

As I headed for the exit, I received two souvenirs: Chef Tojo's special business card and a glossy postcard. I asked if all omakase diners received these, and the wait staff told me "no." Apparently, these are only for special guests. Well, at least they made me feel special!

Tojo's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, October 14, 2016

Episode #199: Tomokazu

Vancouver (Northwest), $$ (Moderately Priced)

Once again, I have a totally yucky schedule this semester. With only one day of the week to go out for sushi, I've often found myself having sushi twice in one day. Last Friday, I had a giant roll chowdown with the legendary Patrick for lunch, and just four hours later, I was at Tomokazu for an all-you-can-eat dinner with Enoch and his brother Luke.

I consider it lucky that I got the chance to have dinner with Enoch and Luke because they are some of the most popular people at SFU. I don't think I've met anyone from my faculty who doesn't know either of them. Sometimes, it would take Enoch half an hour to get from one side of campus to the other (normally a ten-minute walk at most) because he has to say hello to about 20 friends along the way.

Tomokazu is the sister restaurant of Ninkazu in Richmond, an all-you-can-eat place that I used to frequent in my teenage years. Tomokazu was relatively empty when we entered, but by about 7 p.m., the large dining area was almost completely occupied. After we placed our orders, the food came lightning fast. In just 10 minutes, our entire table was covered with more than 20 dishes of food. I could not even snap pictures of the food as quickly as it came, much less eat it. It turned into one epic game of Snap-a-mole, which I epically lost.

Alaska Roll - C
Tomokazu Roll - B-

One of the first things to arrive was the Alaska Roll (salmon, avocado, lettuce, crab meat) and the Tomokazu Roll (tempura salmon, lettuce). The quality of the rolls was in line with what I had at other AYCE restaurants. The Alaska Roll featured sweet imitation crab meat but was otherwise quite bland. The lettuce was obtrusive texture-wise. The Tomokazu Roll turned out to be moderately spicy and had sufficient flavour.

Burning Kiss Roll - B-

We had no idea what the Burning Kiss Roll contained, but it looked like an attractive choice on the menu. Who doesn't want a burning kiss? Featuring spicy tuna, spicy mayonnaise, and bonito flakes, the Burning Kiss Roll was quite spicy. The other ingredients did not stand out much, and the spicy sauce is basically all you taste.

Ebi Sunomono - B

The Ebi Sunomono was a refreshing break after all that spiciness. The sunomono was on the milder side and rather acidic. 

Gomaae - B-

The Gomaae featured chewy spinach and thick peanut sauce. Luke took one bite of it and exclaimed that it tasted like chocolate. Yes, we all burst out laughing when he said that, although there was some truth to his claim.

Salmon Sashimi - A-
Tuna Sashimi - B-

The Salmon Sashimi was noticeably fresh and had a nice, buttery flavour. The texture and thickness were also just right. It was the highlight of our whole dinner. The Tuna Sashimi was somewhat soft and not as obviously fresh.

Korean Salmon Sashimi - B

Another item that looked attractive was the Korean Salmon Sashimi, mainly because we had no idea what it was. It turned out to be salmon sashimi sliced into longer strips and dressed with a sweet, soy-like sauce. The sauce sort of dulled the buttery flavour of the sashimi.

Beef Tataki - C+
Tuna Tataki - C

As Enoch is a big fan of tataki, we had several orders of the Beef Tataki and the Tuna Tataki. Each of them was sliced into very small pieces. Each slice of Beef Tataki was about the size of a large haw flake. The Beef Tataki tasted virtually cooked, while the Tuna Tataki was overdone (which was hard to prevent due to its tiny size). Tangy ponzu sauce lined the bottom of the dish.

Oyster Motoyaki - C

The Oyster Motoyaki came with a rich, greasy custard that had a strong mayonnaise flavour. Unfortunately, the oysters inside were tough and largely unchewable. 

Abalone Sushi - C+
Shark Fin Sushi - B
Lobster Sushi - C
Chopped Scallop Sushi - C+

Next, we got every one of the fancier-sounding types of nigiri on the menu. The Abalone Sushi came with a layer of wakame and small bits of abalone on top. The sushi rice was packed quite tightly (as expected), and there was little abalone flavour. The best piece of nigiri was the Shark Fin Sushi, which was very savoury and came with sufficient moisture. It was mixed in with some jellyfish. The Lobster Sushi and the Chopped Scallop Sushi came in generous pieces, but were rather flavourless.

Salmon Teriyaki - B-
Chicken Teriyaki - C+
Unagi Fried Rice - C

Onto the cooked food, the Salmon Teriyaki came in a thin slice and was slightly overcooked. The Chicken Teriyaki came with tender chicken, but the skin was a little hard to chew. The Unagi Fried Rice featured very little unagi, if any. The fried rice itself was undercooked.

BBQ Korean Pork - B-
New York Steak - C+ 
Beef Short Rib - B

The BBQ Korean Pork and the New York Steak were both slightly overdone and a bit tough. However, that was not the case with the Beef Short Rib, which was surprisingly easy to chew, partially because it was also quite fatty. It came with a sweet marinade and exhibited a nice grilled flavour.

Salmon Kama - B+
Shishamo - B-

The second-best item of the night was the Salmon Kama. It was juicy and savoury, and a light lemony zing accented the flavours well. The Shishamo (smelt fish with many eggs) came with lots of roe and was crispy and salty.

Prawn Tempura - B-
Yam Tempura - B-

Many years ago, when I was a regular at Ninkazu (and hardly knew that better sushi existed), one of my favourite things to get would be the Prawn Tempura. I remembered it to be surprisingly good for an AYCE restaurant, but this one was just okay. The batter was more greasy than crispy, though the prawn inside was still juicy. The Yam Tempura was slightly less greasy, but a little harder in texture.

Agedashi Tofu - B-
Vegetable Samosa - B

The Agedashi Tofu was crispy with soft tofu inside. The Vegetable Samosas were served hot and crispy and were accompanied by a dash of sweet chili sauce. It was like a spring roll but with a different shape.

Slice of Orange - C+

Upon Enoch's request, I shall rate the Slice of Orange as well. They actually attempted to make the Slice of Orange two slices, but because the cutting was vague, the two pieces were joined together at the bottom. The Slice of Orange ended up being about as big as a quarter of an orange and featured the central column of the orange. At the top of the slice, near the central column, were three orange seeds. The exocarp (exterior wall) and the pulp of the orange were a vibrant orange hue, while the mesocarp (interior wall) had a whiter appearance. Texture-wise, the Slice of Orange was not especially easy to chew. The taste of the orange suggested that the orange had not fully matured yet. It would have been nice to see a little more sugar content inside the orange.

Mango Pudding - C
Fruit Jello - B

After all that food, Enoch still had the stomach room for multiple servings of Mango Pudding. I was out-eaten once again. Unfortunately, they didn't mix the ingredients in the Mango Pudding well enough, and it tasted rather powdery. Some parts of the pudding had a clear, transparent colour. The Fruit Jello fared better and was juicy, sweet, and refreshing.

We had no problems with the service during our visit. However, they do stick to their two-hour time limit quite strictly, and we were asked to place our last call around 1.5 hours after we sat down. Overall, the food quality was in line with what I expected for an all-you-can-eat restaurant. At Tomokazu, there are fewer fancy items on the all-you-can-eat menu, but the prices are also lower. 

When we were all done, we proceeded to the washroom and saw this...

"Govern yourself appropriately"

...which makes me wonder what could have happened in the washrooms before that led to this sign being posted. Let us all ponder about that for a few moments...

Tomokazu Japanese Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Episode #198: Applause Japanese Restaurant

Vancouver (Southwest), $$$ (Higher Priced)

Tamsen and I were back at it with the escape games, and this time, we planned to solve multiple escape rooms back to back. Of course, we needed our fuel. Now, Tamsen likes bubble tea just as much as I like sushi, so somehow, we had to fit an epic sushi adventure and bubble tea all into our stomachs in one go. It was a miracle that I did not collapse on the floor with an epic food coma. Hopefully, I burned off at least 5,000 calories with each escape game.

Applause Japanese Restaurant is a moderately sized sushi restaurant located in a small row of stores near the south end of Oak Street. It's not hard to find, but neither is it easy to find. I had to keep my face glued to the window while riding the 17 bus in order to not miss it, and... well... Tamsen just walked the wrong way when trying to get to the restaurant. I think I got a decent suntan by the time he arrived.

Inside, we found that it was moderately busy on a weekday for lunch. There is a good variety of items on the menu, including some appetizers that were not commonplace dishes. The servers were welcoming and friendly, although they were a little forgetful at times. When I wanted a spoon for my Miso Soup, I had to ask three separate times before successfully receiving said spoon. As Tamsen remarked, "the third time's the charm."

Miso Soup - A-

The Miso Soup, featuring seaweed, green onion, and tofu, featured well-balanced flavours. The consistency was slightly on the thinner side.

Sockeye Salmon Sashimi - B+
Tuna Sashimi - B

The cutting on the Appetizer Sashimi was a little flawed, and many of the pieces had ragged edges. The sockeye salmon tasted fresh, but the texture was not especially smooth. Freshness was not as apparent in the Tuna Sashimi. On the plus side, the sashimi came in rather generous slices. 

Scallop Sushi Combo

Next, Tamsen had the Scallop Sushi Combo, which came with a House Salad, a Yasai Croquette (vegetable croquette), three pieces of nigiri (salmon, tai, tuna), and a Chopped Scallop Roll. Since I had ordered my own nigiri, I tried some of everything besides the nigiri.

House Salad - B+

The House Salad was featured mainly lettuce and tomato and was quite refreshing. It came with a tangy, citrusy vinaigrette and had ample moisture. 

Yasai Croquette - A

The highlight of our meal was the Yasai Croquette, which contained corn, peas, and carrot. The crispy panko batter had just the right amount of crunch and was not hard. The filling inside was very soft and savoury and was an excellent contrast to the crispy exterior. 

Chopped Scallop Roll - B+

The Chopped Scallop Roll was also largely successful. The mayonnaise brought the flavours together well, and the sesame seeds accentuated the roll nicely. If anything, the roll would be better with a little less rice.

Saba Nigiri - C-
Unagi Nigiri - B

Unfortunately, the Saba Nigiri was quite disgusting. The saba was all mushy and tasted like it had been through a hurricane and then left to lie in a puddle for days. Not even the zing from the green onion and ginger was able to remotely save it. The Unagi Nigiri fared better with some soft unagi and sweet unagi sauce. There was still an overage of rice, and the rice was packed too tightly.

Enoki Gyuu Maki - A-

The Enoki Gyuu Maki (enoki mushrooms wrapped in beef) was a well-executed appetizer that came with savoury, teriyaki-like beef. The sesame seeds did wonders to the maki. The beef was not tough, and the enoki mushrooms absorbed the teriyaki flavour nicely.

Yakitori - B

Our other cooked appetizer, the Yakitori (BBQ chicken skewers), came with a generous amount of flavourful, tender chicken. However, the chicken ended up a little soggy.

Red Dragon Roll - B-

By the time we were both starting to feel full (uh oh), the Red Dragon Roll came. This roll consisted of salmon, avocado, and shrimp tempura. We both thought the roll was a little pricey at $9.25 for 5 pieces, but at least each piece was quite large. The sockeye salmon on top was tasty, but some of the ingredients inside were a little soggy. The tempura batter was also a little harder than expected.

The service remained prompt and friendly throughout our meal. The food was above average compared to other sushi restaurants in the area, though the consistency can be improved. Overall, we enjoyed our visit largely due to the unique, well-executed appetizers. 

Applause Japanese Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, October 07, 2016

Episode #197: Tokachi

Surrey Northwest, $$ (Moderately Priced)

I don't venture out to Surrey all that often, but this time, it was to have a long-due lunch with Xtrain. I credit Xtrain for training me to write well enough to create this blog. He has perhaps the sharpest eyes out of anyone I know. I would present to him a one-page piece of writing that I had proofread and revised for several hours, and within two seconds, he would be able to find a missing comma smack in the middle of the page. He always loved to give me a hard time. However, we went to Tokachi just to have a good time, and luckily for me, missing commas are not something I need to worry about when I am just eating sushi.

Xtrain knows the Surrey food scene better than I do, so I asked him where to go for sushi in Surrey. He suggested Tokachi, an authentic Japanese restaurant in the heart of Whalley. I have heard many great things about Tokachi's food and service, but I've never visited the restaurant before because I could not gather the courage to walk the two blocks there from Gateway Station. After all, Sherman once tried to visit Tokachi and found that it was cordoned off by police tape due to a shooting. Having someone to dine with put me back to my senses and reminded me that it's okay to walk around in Whalley as long as there is sushi involved.

In contrast to the very worn-down look of the exterior, the interior is actually very nicely designed and maintained. The dining area is very spacious, and there are small tatami rooms in the back for larger groups. Each waitress was dressed in a yukata, which added to the authentic feel. Funny enough, when I whipped out my camera to take a picture of the dining area, all the waitresses swiftly ran into the kitchen to hide from me.

Do I get free sushi if I play a song?

Miso Soup - B+

We each received a Miso Soup to start the meal. With green onion and tofu, this Miso Soup had a strong miso flavour and was served at a nice, hot temperature. The consistency leaned towards the thinner side.

Assorted Sushi

Next, I had the Assorted Sushi combo to test out their various nigiri offerings.

Tuna Roll - B+

The Tuna Roll came in rather large pieces and featured soft, savoury tuna. The sushi rice had sufficient flavour as well.

Sockeye Salmon Nigiri - A-
Tuna Nigiri - A-
Tai Nigiri - A
Hamachi Nigiri - A
Mebachi Tuna Nigiri - B+
Ika Nigiri - A-
Ebi Nigiri - B+

The nigiri turned out to be a treat. While not the best I've encountered, it was very good for the price range. It was around the same level as Sushi by Yuji. Among the best were the soft, buttery, sweet tai (snapper) and the creamy, melty hamachi (yellowtail). I also enjoyed the Ika Nigiri (squid), which was savoury and did not have that slightly sticky texture present in a lot of the ika I've had in the past. Freshness was apparent in every piece.

House Roll - B+

Xtrain is a big fan of salmon, so we got the House Roll, which consisted of steamed prawn, smoked salmon, cucumber, and radish sprouts. It was a unique blend of flavours that worked, and the crunchy, meaty prawn took the spotlight. The cucumber also added to the crunchiness of the roll.

Tuna Gomaae - A-

The Tuna Gomaae was by far the most novel item of the meal. Since the word "Gomaae" was in the name, both of us were expecting a small salad to accompany the tuna, but that was not the case here. (No, that one leaf does not count.) The tuna was covered with a sweet soy sesame sauce that produced a strong, nutty zing. The tuna itself was of very high quality and had an excellent soft and melty texture. 

The service was very polite and friendly. Xtrain remarked to one of the waitresses that I had a big appetite (which is true for the most part), so she asked me if I needed another combo after we had finished all the food on the table. Unfortunately, it was too early in the morning (ahem, I mean afternoon), and my appetite had not really fired up yet. I wish I did have the stomach room though, as the food was consistently well-executed. Tokachi is certainly one of the better Japanese restaurants in the area, especially given the reasonable prices.

Tokachi Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato