Trying to hide my panic behind pursed lips, I scan the counter with side-eyes. I’m secretly searching for soy sauce. To date, I have never consumed sushi without soaking it in a salty mixture of soy and smooshed wasabi. But that’s about to change, because at Tojo’s — Vancouver’s world-renowned Japanese restaurant — the condiment is nowhere to be found. “Chef Tojo-san doesn’t like customers to use soy sauce; it masks the flavours,” my dining companion whispers to me, recognizing my reluctance.
I smile as an inside-out roll is placed before me. It doesn’t look like the typical California rolls that I’ve come to expect from most sushi spots in the city. Instead, this one — aptly named the “Celebration Roll”— wears a mound of caviar on top of each piece like a carefully placed party hat. The caviar sits on a fan of thinly-sliced avocado, and inside the tightly-wrapped roll is real Dungeness crab, asparagus, red pepper, and a sprinkle of tempura for a crunchy finish. I grasp a piece of the roll with my chopsticks and stuff it into my mouth — and immediately understand why soy sauce is not necessary here.
It makes sense that an elevated version of the classic California roll is a highlight on Tojo’s a-la-carte anniversary menu. Chef Hidekazu Tojo is the original creator of this inside-out-style maki, now known as the California roll — and that’s just the beginning of the contributions he has made to the global culinary scene throughout his lengthy career. Spicy tuna rolls, zucchini blossoms, and baked oysters are other Japanese-inspired menu items that were first created by the innovative chef, and the list goes on.
Since he first moved to Vancouver 50 years ago, Chef Tojo has incorporated both traditional Japanese and Western techniques into his unique and creative style of cooking, and his efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 2016, Chef Tojo was officially recognized as one of only 13 chefs in the world to have been appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for Japanese Cuisine by the Japanese government, and the awards and accolades from top-tier culinary experts and publications keep coming to this day.
He’s met and fed many celebrities, chefs, and CEOs — from Bono to Bezos to Bourdain — yet he is so humble, never one to name drop (even when I carefully pry). To Chef Tojo, every customer is equally important, and his care and attention paid to the desires of each diner make his front-counter, made-the-way-you-want-it omakase experience worth the price.
Just as I think my tasting has come to a close, Chef Tojo approaches, grinning with pride and carrying a curious-looking crustacean. It’s a wild emperor prawn imported from Japan, and it stretches as long as my forearm. Of all of the dishes included on his anniversary omakase, this is the one of which he is most proud. Moments later he returns with a cooked version, grilled and topped with onion vinaigrette. The dish presents the perfect balance of sweet and savoury, and I proclaim that I prefer its taste and texture to lobster.
During a visit to Vancouver, a meal at Tojo’s is a must. If you’re lucky, you might even catch the legendary chef in person, laughing at the sushi counter as he creates a custom-made dish, prepared just the way you like it — with a special “Tojo” twist.
The special 50th anniversary omakase experience and a la carte specials at Tojo’s are available until November 30th, after which time, many of the menu items will still be available upon request at the omakase bar. Book your reservations well in advance as space is limited.