Tojo’s has become the poster child for local overrated and overpriced restaurants. The consensus from local foodies and food bloggers seems to be that the restaurant serves average-quality sushi with prices so high that they border on being unconscionable.
I’ve been to Tojo’s a couple of times since moving here, and I have to say that I agree with the popular assessment of the restaurant. Even though I was definitely entertained by my conversation with Tojo when I sat at the sushi bar, I didn’t think that it was worth the $200-$250 per person that we were charged.
With two subpar and budget-busting experiences at Tojo under our belt, my wife and I agreed to not dine at the restaurant unless it was an absolute necessity (…such as being forced at gunpoint).
Absolute necessity came sooner than we anticipated; my visiting parents STRONGLY suggested that we visit the restaurant for our Chinese new year dinners because they seem to recall having an enjoyable dining experience the last time they were there; they made no mention of what they thought about the restaurant’s prices. Being a passive-aggressive obedient offspring, I contorted my facial muscles into the most unpleasant looking configuration (I was speaking to them on the phone) and agreed to take the family there on Chinese new year’s eve.
Our dining party consisted of six members: my parents; my wife and I; my daughter and my son. My daughter ordered two pieces of salmon egg sushi along with an order of assorted tempura.
Both the shrimp and the vegetable components of the tempura were well-fried. They certainly were not as devoid of grease as the best versions of tempura I’ve had, but the oil drip was kept at a minimum. My daughter said that the shrimp residing under the low-grease batter was crisp and juicy. She said that the shrimp tasted very fresh. She especially liked the broom shaped stick with edible crispy dots. She thought that they were cute and a lot of fun to bite through. I had a chance to sample some of the vegetable tempura and every component I tried was enjoyable both flavour-wise and texture-wise. The batter was not to thin but still retained a nice crispiness. The pieces of vegetables retained their natural flavours and did not have the ambiguous is-this-carrot-or-is-this-sweet-potato characteristic often found in tempura from some of the local Japanese restaurants.
As for the ikura sushi, I can only relay my daughter’s comments after she had them: they were good (this is her standard response after having salmon egg sushi from almost all of the Japanese restaurants she has visited).
My son had Tojo’s chicken (chicken teriyaki).
I didn’t know it at the time, but this dish turned out to be the best-tasting savory dish of the night. The teriyaki sauce was not as sweet or as salty as regular Japanese restaurant teriyaki sauce. As a result, it was better tasting. It had a refined complexity not usually found in teriyaki sauces. The sauce allowed the flavours of the chicken to shine through instead of masking them. The chicken itself was well grilled. It was tender, juicy, flavourful, and cut to the perfect size for one-bite chewing. The bit of fresh vegetables on top and cooked mushrooms in the bottom also worked well to create pleasant textural contrasts when paired with the pieces of chicken. Perhaps the most surprisingly tasty component of the dish were the tiny potato cubes. Like well-fried French fries, they were crispy on the outside and almost mushy-soft on the inside. Their miniature size worked well to allow them to be scooped up with a piece of chicken or mushroom or vegetable to create a mouthful of enjoyable flavors.
With the unexpectedly enjoyable standard Japanese dishes out of the way, I will move on to the expectedly subpar “creative” dishes that make up the omakase meal we received that night.
The first dish we got was a combination of sliced and mushed up albacore in some kind of sauce.
The sliced sashimi was the better tasting of the two components. The were the right size; neither too thick nor too thin. They were not too mushy as local pre-frozen albacore has a tendency to be. I also detected enough of a fatty content to actually feel a bit of the same unctuousness only present in the toro cuts of tuna. It’s too bad that my enjoyment of the unctuousness was rather short-lived. It immediately disappeared when I tasted the sauce, which was a combination of unknown saltiness with unknown sweetness along with another unknown and not-too-complimentary flavour. The flavours of the sauce were barely acceptable; the mushed up tuna ball in the middle was completely unacceptable. There was simply too much of it and its texture was simply too unenjoyable that every subsequent bite of it started to draw me into the illusion that I was eating a raw and uncooked burger. It ruined the whole dish for me – which was not too great of a dish to begin with.
Next up was a salad of crab and some sort of shellfish or mollusk
Whereas the first dish gave me unenjoyable textures, this dish gave me zero flavours. The crab was bland. The mysterious slices of shellfish/mollusk were bland, and the sauce was weak. This dish felt more like the experimental creations of an apprentice more that the expert concoctions of a celebrity chef of a supposed local institution.
The third dish we got was mushroom on top of fishcake
This dish was actually pretty good…if they charged $4.50 for it and if it was served in an izakaya. The mushrooms were aromatic and the fishcakes were flavourful. The bouncy mushrooms paired surprisingly well with the bouncier fishcakes. The warm ponzu-like sauce on the bottom and the grated daikon with Japanese chili powder on top worked well to enhance the already nice flavours of both the mushroom and fishcake. Solid dish…but decidedly simple and way too homey to be served as one of the dishes of a $125 omakase meal.
Dish number four was fried halibut
The crispy dots returned, and they were about the only enjoyable component of the dish. The halibut was overcooked and had a way too dry and flaky texture that showed the ineptitude of the person preparing the dish. The sauce was an ode to Western cuisine – albeit an unsuccessful and poorly-thought-out one. The garnish and vegetable slivers on the bottom only worked to magnify the fact that this fish dish was an unsuccessful imitation of an European/American/Canadian dish.
The second to last savoury was the sablefish soup
This is the third time that I’ve had this dish. The first time it was very enjoyable. The second time it was good. The third time…it was merely acceptable. This dish does not stand the test of time and gets boring after having it for the second time. What I liked about the dish was the extremely flavourful and aromatic smokey flavours of the sablefish. I thought that the meat was a bit drier than absolute tenderness, but tender nonetheless. The soup, on the other hand, was way too salty. It had flavours similar to “teapot” Japanese soup (obinmushi), which happened to be popular with kids dining at Japanese restaurants in Taiwan when I was a growing up. I definitely got a healthy dose of nostalgia after having a sip of the soup. But the memories of childhood were quickly jolted out of my being once the extreme saltiness kicked in.
The final on-menu dish we got was assorted sushi
The assorted sushi plate consisted of three pieces of nigiri and three roll pieces. The nigiri pieces gave me the feeling that they were cobbled together rather than being a precisely hand formed work of art. The rice was loose the fish felt like it was sloppily cut up. Other than that, the pieces of nigiri were great. The shrimp and two pieces of fish were fresh-tasting and the ball of rice residing under them wasn’t so big that it overwhelmed the fish. I also liked that the pieces were pre-brushed with soy sauce.
The rolls had less of a cobbled together feel but they still felt loose when I placed them in my mouth. All three pieces felt more delicate than practically every other roll I’ve had in the past. The “caviar” placed on top of the fish on top of the California roll and the thin egg wrapper surrounding the vertically standing piece of roll definitely gave the rolls a more “refined” feel than other rolls at other restaurants(without being more delicious). The sushi and rolls at Tojo’s actually feel very much like the sushi and rolls I was served regularly at Hamamori sushi in Costa Mesa, California.
To cap off the meal, we received two complimentary desserts: green tea ice cream and creme brulee
The green tea ice cream and creme brûlée were both not too sweet and very tasty. Both of the desserts were tastier than every single one of the savory dishes of the omakase we were served.
After this meal, I can confirm that Tojo’s is overrated and overpriced. Extremely. The bill after taxes and tips without any drinks ordered for four adults and two children was well north of $700. I wouldn’t pay $100 for the meal. Not even $70.