Tojo: Vancouver’s Zen Master of Sushi (World)

It started with shots of three different sakes from Granville Island’s Artisan Sake Maker. The first was “fresh”—a clear liquid like vodka. The second was “pure”, also clear but stronger. And the third was “unfiltered”—a milky gray color which I liked second to the fresh one.  Tojo said he preferred the “pure” which didn’t surprise me—like beer and cigar connoisseurs, stronger is often an acquired taste.

The first dish he presented was scallop, giant clam, and bluefin tuna sashimi on a bed of organic lettuce and drizzled with a citrus and sesame seed dressing. This was followed by his zucchini flower scallops to be dipped in a tempura sauce. Then an iced blue glass filled with crab, seaweed, mushroom, and cucumber.  Three dishes, served on bamboo, ceramic, and in a glass: a treat for the eyes as well as the palate.

The people sitting next to us asked what we had ordered. “Who ordered?” I said with a dreamy smile. “We’re in heaven here. God is serving. He knows what’s best.”

They trusted that I knew what I was talking about, having seen the first three dishes we were served, and told Tojo, “We’ll have what they’re having.”

There is a word for entrusting your chef to arrange your meal. It’s omakase. It’s similar to a tasting menu only more personalized.  Prices range from $60 to over $100 depending on how many dishes it takes to satisfy your hunger.

“Tojo,” I said, “does it keep getting better or does it all equal out?”

Instead of answering he handed us a smoked Canadian sable fish and Alaskan black cod  baked in paper. Once unwrapped he suggested we squeeze lime over it and eat carefully because it was very hot. It was also very delicious.

“This one is special for you,” he said, handing us what looked like a small dish of beef stew. “It’s the part of the bluefin tuna they usually throw away. I chop it up, add onions, cook, and make very tasty. You will never get this anywhere else. You’ve got to do things different!”

“I think we’ve just added seventy days to our lives,” I said.  Hiromi told me of this ancient Japanese belief, that if you eat something you’ve never tasted before, you will lengthen your life by those many days. If you’ve ever been in a Japanese supermarket you might live past a hundred if you’re daring enough.

After some more sake, Tojo gave us hand rolls of giant clam, one of my wife’s favorites, but the chewy, crunchy texture coupled with the image I had of Tojo squeezing the water out of such a clam that morning made it something worth trying but not as easy to swallow as the crab, scallops, tuna, cod or sable fish. But that was OK, it felt like we were on a journey of discovery and this was one of the dishes that helped reveal something about ourselves.

While we chewed Tojo prepared an egg crepe filled with salmon, shrimp and scallops. It was another masterly touch to offset the challenge of the giant clam. Tojo didn’t just make different dishes, he balanced them. He understood the yin and the yang of eating.

“Do you realize that we’re sitting at the sushi bar,” Hiromi said, “and we haven’t eaten sushi yet.”

“Do you think he considers what he’s been serving as appetizers?” I wondered.

“I don’t think so,” Hiromi laughed. “I’m already full.”

I don’t know if Tojo was listening to us, as he was also serving others at the bar, but the next pieces he laid before us was the bluefin tuna sushi, exquisitely cut, on a bed of white rice. “Remember this?” he said.

Who could ever forget?  This might be the dish one asks for on one’s death bed. I can just hear some death row inmate pass on the pizza or steak when asked what he’d like for his last meal. “I’ll have some bluefin tuna sushi please. Served by Tojo. You can fly it in, I’ll wait.”

As our stomachs began to fill Tojo hit us next with a roll of lobster tempura and pineapple. Oh Lord, this was becoming a meal to remember!  This was on its way to being the meal all future meals in Japanese restaurants would be compared to.

A few swallows of green tea, a nibble of ginger to clean the palate, and some tai sushi, followed by sardine sushi, and then by char.  Three more fish we weren’t used to eating, all tasty, with the big surprise being the sardines, which tasted a bit like pickled herring. Who eats sardines at a sushi bar?  But Tojo knew to give it to us when we started to fidget, trying to make room for more food. We could have stopped eating halfway through this two hour meal and we would have been satisfied.

“You like more?” Tojo asked. He was ready.  But we weren’t.  We’ve eaten like gluttons in Japanese restaurants before, but we hadn’t eaten such variety, such subtle flavors, such beautifully prepared food.

And rather than a simple orange slice to put an end to this special meal we were served a small bowl of watermelon ice, pineapple sorbet, and vanilla ice cream surrounded by blueberries and strawberries.

I didn’t know if I should bow, applaud or sing hallelujah! when we said goodbye to Tojo to walk the two miles back to our hotel (we didn’t want to take a taxi because we felt we needed exercise after such a sumptuous meal). I had told him earlier in the day that Hiromi was a great cook and as we left I invited him for a meal at our house the next time he visited Los Angeles.

“Oh, I would like that,” he said gleefully.

Hiromi put her hands together and thanked him in Japanese.  And when we got outside she said to me, “You idiot. What could I ever cook for him? I’d be too embarrassed.”

“Don’t be silly,” I said. “When the Buddha comes to your house, you welcome him. He won’t care what you serve. And I’m not worried…you’ll think of something.”

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