Thursday, May 29, 2008

Vancouver: Japa Dog & Tojo's: No Reservations Revisited

I adore Anthony Bourdain. I’ve been a longtime fan of his, from Cook’s Tour to No Reservations to his frequent appearances as a guest judge on Top Chef. The guy is smart, insightful, bold and, most of all, honest. He’s given me some of the best television moments I have ever witnessed- I practically cried at his personal joy at going back to his childhood home in France with his brother, and couldn’t believe it when he spent hours in a stinky, sweltering bat-poo-filled cave in Jamaica. I love that he loves Japan and have watched his Osaka episode of No Reservations 10 times. The look of sheer ecstasy he had on his face after eating at Koyoshi Sushi is one of the main reasons I plan to hit the sushi bar next week when I’m in Japan.

So, imagine my surprise when I unintentionally found myself living out Bourdain’s Vancouver No Reservations episode. I went last week to catch a few off days with J who is on the road, and I didn’t have my normal list of restaurants handy since we weren’t going to be there long and I wanted to be spontaneous. After checking into the hotel, we decided to take a walk and what should appear right in front of the entrance but the infamous “Japa Dog” cart that was on the Vancouver episode?! Nari, one of Bourdain’s producers, had introduced him to this wonderful world of Japanese-style hotdogs that drew long lines daily. It looked the same, the food smelled terrific and, just like Nari said, there were people lined up at all times of the two days we were there.

Japa Dog offers several kinds of Japanese-style dogs. First, you can choose what kind of dog you want, and in addition to your normal beef dogs they have tofu, turkey and even kurobuta (black hog) dogs. Toppings include nori (dried seaweed), wasabi mayo, teriyaki sauce, daikon and other “perkily perfect” options. We ordered one “miso mayo” dog which is a turkey dog topped with daikon sprouts, miso-sesame sauce, Japanese mayo and miso. Like Bourdain, we loved it and only wished we had ordered one each instead of sharing one.

For dinner, J got tied up with work so my friend Jesse and I decided to go to dinner. He had his heart set on a place called Tojo’s which I hadn’t ever heard of (or so I thought) so I did a little googling and the comments I found were not positive. People across the board made comments about how it was a rip off, not worth the price, good but insanely expensive, etc etc. One commenter in particular was livid and (referring to the restaurant's website which features a photo of Tojo laughing), "See Tojo laughing on the webpage? He's laughing at YOU." So I was worried, mentioned this to Jesse but he had tried Tojo’s food which was catered in the past at some event and had loved it. So I called the restaurant, asked if there was room at the sushi bar and was told yes, come in, but that the bar is omakase (chef’s choice) only. When I asked for a ballpark price, it was much higher than I’m used to spending, but we decided we’d go for it anyway.

We arrived to a half-empty restaurant at 8:00 PM on a Saturday night. The host was friendly and lively, expressed his surprise at my Japanese (it seems a lot of people don’t see any Japanese in me, even though I am half) and took us straight to the bar where we were greeted by a smiley sushi chef who looked very familiar. He welcomed us, and as he was speaking I kept trying to put my finger on where or when I’d seen this person. After another five minutes or so, it came to me- this was Tojo, owner and chef and Bourdain’s good friend who also appeared on the same No Reservations episode as Japa Dog! In fact, Bourdain probably sat in the exact seat that I was in, and once I realized and recalled the fabulous food he’d been served, I was excited to be there.

Tojo started off by telling us that he would prepare us food we’ve never had before- amazing, different things that would surprise us. “Bring it on!” we thought, as we ordered some cold sake and settled into our seats. First up- chunks of tuna dressed with a ponzu sauce swimming in grated yamaimo (mountain potato) and topped with fresh uni. Delicious, fresh, subtle. Similar to dishes I’ve had but a fantastic version. The next dish would definitely count as something neither Jesse nor I had ever experienced before- morel mushrooms that size of golf balls, stuffed with a mixture of shrimp and scallops, flash fried and topped with a sauce. First of all, I’d never seen morels so large in my life- the ones here, if and when you can get fresh ones, are tiny in comparison. They were slightly crispy on the outside and the tender filling was the perfect foil.

Things just got better with a bowl of barely-cooked, thinly sliced octopus. Minus one suction cup at the very top, the slices were smooth and clean so it was hard to tell that it was octopus at all. Each piece was super tender and lightly dressed so the flavor of the seafood really came through. We were pretty happy at this point, but oddly getting kind of full.

Here’s where things started to go downhill, at least for me. No, the quality of the food didn’t fade (save for one soy-paper roll that was just inedibly soggy- we left it). Our sushi was all fresh, the toro was the best I’d ever had, the sweet shrimp succulent and tender. The problem was Tojo. Smiling, beaming Tojo. What could I possibly have against this sushi master? Here it is- his constant banter about what a sushi master he truly is. Between each course he couldn’t help but mention how people travel from far and wide to eat his food. Oh yes, he was on “No Reservations” of course. Isn’t this the best (fill in the blank) you’ve ever eaten? “Tojo’s food is the best! Tojo creates dishes like no other!” Look- I can appreciate when people have pride in their work, but this was too much. I started to feel obligated to give some over-the-top reaction and roll my eyes back in ecstasy every time I took a bite of something.

The real bummer came with this story that he not only told in detail but actually kind of acted out. He told us about one of his regular customers who was recently diagnosed with cancer. The customer called Tojo and said he wanted to eat his last meal at Tojo’s, so of course Tojo complied. Tojo then looks at me and Jesse, pretends to be this dying guy and motions with his hand like he’s picking up a piece of sushi, slowly brings it to his lips, puts this pretend sushi in his mouth, closes his eyes, sighs, then says “I can now die a happy man.” He then followed with “A LOT of people want to eat their last meal at Tojo’s.”

For the love of God, if someone is THAT good at what they do, is there any need to constantly run around telling everyone? It didn’t bother Jesse as much, but being Japanese I was stunned to witness such bravado from a fellow countryman. The melodramatic reenactment of this man’s last meal was enough to make that one meal at Tojo’s MY last meal there as well. I mean, what would Bourdain say? I guess I’d like to hope that he have a sarcastic comment up his sleeve for this sort of behavior but then again he’d probably tell a no name blogger (aka ME) that everyone has their quirks and the guy can cook so who cares?

For the record, the meal was the most expensive I’ve ever had at any restaurant- sushi or otherwise- other than Urasawa. No joke. Yes, the food was good, but certainly not worth the price. Nor the commentary.

Japa Dog Stand
In front of Sutton Place Hotel, Vancouver
845 Burrard Street
Vancouver, BC V6Z 2K6, Canada

Tojo's Restuarant
1133 W Broadway, Vancouver
Tel: 604-872-8050
Fax: 604-872-8060


Anonymous said...

I'm very keen to try Japa Dog and hope that I'll have time to do so when I'm in Vancouver in a couple weeks time. However, Tojo's will never ever be on my list of places to eat! it sounds like he could learn some humility! Great post!

Anonymous said...

I bet Tojo's super ego is larger than anything he can create - sad..... He seems to have lost the traditional Japanese artisan spirit. Self praise is considered to be the last thing one does.