EnRoute’s Top Pick
It is towards the end of year, more food critics in the media have released their own lists of the most notable restaurants in 2016. One of most participated lists is from enRoute Magazine, awarding the best new restaurants in Canada. The list of their nominees came out as early as this late summer. Out of the 6 nominees from Vancouver, I thought Osteria Salvio Volpe had the best chance to win since they were ahead of other nominees in the poll run by Scout, plus I myself had a great meal at Salvio Volpe and have become a fan since. However it was Kissa Tanto at the end, that not only beat out the wise fox , but also came on top of all 35 nominees from the nation becoming the #1 , with Salvio Volpe only making #10 on the same list.
Kissa Tanto again caught my attention while I was enjoying my in flight wine onboard Air Canada a month ago and spotting enRoute’s featured article on the top new restaurants of the nation. I was fascinated in learning about Kissa Tanto’s 1960’s Tokyo jazz cafe themed dining room and its take on the Italian-Japanese genre, and slightly amused that I was actually en route to Tokyo. Funny coincident or not, I was determined to check out the restaurant after I came home from my travel.
Welcome to The 1960’s Tokyo Jazz Cafe
So finally, here I was, sitting with 5 other active food bloggers in the city (Sherman’s Food Adventures; Foodgressing, Foodology; Drunken Noms and Vie A Maggi), excited but slightly nervous. Would the portion of the dishes be too small for all 6 of us to share? Would we spend too much time taking photos which affect the tasting experience? And about the food, would the Italian-Japanese style be too fusion confusion? But so far I was enjoying the company of the like minded people like I always do.
The restaurant recommends diners to come in a party of maximum 4 people for the ideal tasting experience. However they do have one big booth in the house that could fit all 6 of us. And inside the restaurant, it’s beautiful… Normally when you hear the terms such as “red leather booth” or “gold brass railing”, you would associate them with the word “tacky”. But all such objects and the little details seem to work all together – the lightings, the furnishings and decors. The retro jazz bar ambiance has taken us into a world of mysteries, nostalgia, and romance. This place is definitely suitable for a date night.
3 of us started with cocktails. My Ol’ Satchmo ($13) features mezcal, ginger chestnut honey vermouth, Green Chartreuse, lemon, and a toasted sesame rim. Visually the drink resembles a shaken margarita. Flavour wise, mezcal packs a punch like tequila (as technically tequila is a mezcal) but the chartreuse showed an attempt of adding in that jazzy funkiness. Although I found the flavours of ginger and honey quite subtle, the toasted sesame seed on the rim is quite whimsical and innovative, which even Louis Armstrong might find funky!
Both Food Wench (Drunken noms) and Sherman (Sherman’s food adventure) ordered the Four on Six Sour ($13), which consists of bourbon, Noilly Prat Amber, charred pineapple lemongrass shrub, Ardbeg, egg white, another smart attempt of adding complexity to a classic cocktail with exotic flavours, which is Bourbon Sour. I had a sip and really enjoyed the extra effort from the spiced vermouth and shrub, which gave more depth to the overall taste.
“To Begin With”
Maggi (Vie a Maggi) took charge and ordered a bunch of dishes for us to share.
The first dish of the starters (or what they call the “To Begin With”section) , the Albacore Crudo ($21), was surprisingly good. Although I always find albacore tuna quite bland and boring, the other ingredients such as shiso vinaigrette, radishes, Tokyo leek, capers, pickled almonds, Castelvetrano olives and mustard greens all worked well together and elevated the subtle flavour of the fish. And the enhanced taste of the fish very much reminded me a Chinese dish with steamed fish and pickles. I quite enjoyed this tiny sensation of comfort.
The Fritelle mi Melanzane ($14) featured garlic eggplant fritters, yuzu gribiche, basil and bonito salt, shaved katsuo. Visually, those little fritter balls reminded me of Takoyaki (Fried Octopus Balls from Japan) with the crunchy exterior. But unfortunately the inside tasted a little doughy and the eggplant flavour seemed a bit lost, which reminded me why I was never a big fan of Takoyaki.
The Terrina Frita ($11) was one of the daily specials. It was visually stunning with thin slices of pink pickled daikon on top. The pork terrine underneath was flavoured with nori mustard and served on bruschetta. The pork flavour kind of reminds of the sticky rice dumping, a traditional food Chinese people eat during dragon boat festival, which usually has pork in it and also is wrapped with bamboo leaf. It must be the seasoning of the pork that’s similar.
I enjoy some of the elements of the Octopus Salad ($19) which was supposed to come with crispy octopus, citrus mayonnaise, daikon, radish, basil, ikura, and parmesan. Never thought I would put octopus, ikura and cheese together, but the combination kinda worked here and didn’t taste weird. However the octopus was just not very crispy, and was a little chewy. I didn’t mind it as much as I’m a texture guy and I like to chew, but it could be disappointing to someone who expected it to be crispy as described.
“Tender to the Tooth”
Going to the next section of the menu “Tender to the Tooth“, or apparently the pasta section, I decided to get myself some Kawatsuru sake (300 ml for $20). And they didn’t bring me a cup, which I found funny. I mean I really don’t mind drinking from the carafe, but as I just came back from Japan, I was really missing how cold sake was served in Tokyo, which will be covered in a post coming soon. The sake itself was quite smooth and delicious.
The pasta dishes were quite impressive.
The Lasagne del Giorno ($29), or the Lasagna of the Day featured a pork and winter chanterelle lasagna, with a creamy miso and basil bechamel sauce. The Asian influence in the dish was not very obvious as the essence of basil was quite strong. The lasagna was incredibly delicious with an amazing aroma from chanterelle, and a tender and luscious texture from the layered noodles. The bechamel was rich but not heavy. And I wish I could just have a whole serving of this all to myself – I totally needed it for a cold winter evening like this.
Next came one of the most popular dishes at Kissa Tanto, the Tajarin ($25). The thin egg noodle resembles spaghetti but with a richer flavour. The butter and shaved miso cured egg even add another level of richness but well balanced by the roasted mushrooms. I definitely tasted shiitake, a staple source of flavours often used in Japanese cuisine. Every single thing about this dish is just perfect – the texture of the noodles, the creaminess of the sauce, and the savoury and comforting flavours. It definitely showcases the best of the Italian-Japanese cuisine that the restaurant represents.
The last past dish was the Casarecce ($19), which was also one of the daily specials. The word “casarecce” means “homemade” in Italian, and this dish certainly seemed a lot more casual with the free form pasta. This dish definitely gave you a lot of texture to chew on, but the flavours from the pork sake ragu could come through a bit more if there was a bit less parmesan, making the dish slightly less impressive than the other 2.
“Sharing is Caring”
And we were entering the next stage of the tasting adventure at Kissa Tanto, “Sharing is Caring“, the larger and more substantial dishes. But honestly I think so far all the dish sizes have been quite decent, and I was impressed that 6 of us had been able to taste all the dishes with big decent bites.
The Beef Cheeks ($33), being one of the specials of the day, totally rocked with the anchovy and tomato flavour from the slow braising, giving some true Italian flavours. The dish also came with potato gnocchi and a pork jowl guanciale. This is a very Mediterranean dish and the only Asian element I could spot was maybe the little slaw on one side of the plate.
The Lamb Shoulder ($33) was garnished with tosaka seaweed, and a side of fregola cooked with anchovy butter and topped with puréed egg yolk, Sicilian olives an pickled peppers. The lamb was cooked to tender and the flavour of lamb worked surprisingly well with the seaweed. The fregoal, similar to couscous, was great on its own with the anchovy butter with extra creaminess from the egg yoke. This is the first I saw pureed egg yoke, and it does make the dish look better than just putting a whole yoke on top.
And to conclude the large sharing plates, we had the Fried Sea Perch ($40). This is the very first time when I was served a whole fish with the head on at a non-Asian restaurant. And I’m glad they keep this part of the old world culinary tradition on the plate, which is quite common in Asia and Europe. The fish was so crispy that every single part of the fish was edible. I even had a piece of the fish head in my mouth, and I chewed on it like it was a potato chip! The flavour of the fish was pretty good on its own, but the side of grated daikon in a light sauce, which I suspected to be oroshi (a Japanese light sauce infused with daikon), did complement the fish well. This definitely a fun dish for the open-minded!
There were a lot of choices for dessert, so we ordered all three of them to share. The daily special featured the Flourless Chocolate Cake and Miso Caramel Ice Cream ($12). The brilliance of this dish is the presence of the miso flavour, which replaces the salt in the typical Salty Caramel flavour, but added that extra touch of umami from miso to give a more sophisticated taste. Miso in dessert – that’s definitely a first for me.
My favourite dessert was the Yuzu Cream ($9.50). The cream was smooth and velvety but firm. The texture was in between panna cotta and pudding. The flavour of yuzu was absolutely heavenly while eating with the exotic fruits on top. I wonder what fruit they were using… Passion fruit? Mangosteen? Pomelo? There were also Sicilian pistachio and olive oil crumble that provided the texture contrast although I found Sicilian pistachio more delicate than the regular one.
The Tiramisu ($10) tasted great but I really couldn’t tell whipped soy and plum wine were. But the rich flavours of the dish must be the results of those ingredients. The only critique I would give is that it is probably the only thing that can’t be split and shared by 6 people in any elegant way as it is quite delicate.
Our dinner at Kissa Tanto did live up to their gleaming title as the new comer of the year. Although I really can’t say they are better than Savio Volpe. Both restaurants are brilliant in their own ways. However Kissa Tanto’s success is more relevant to Vancouver’s culinary trend and the Pan Pacific influence. They have showed their remarkable skills incorporating Japanese flavours into Italian cooking. Their pasta dishes were among the highlights of our dinner, especially the Pork Chanterelle Lasagna and the Tajarin. All the large main dishes scored high for us as well, including the Beef Cheeks, the Lamb Shoulder, and the Fried Sea Perch. For dessert, I found the Yuzu Cream heavenly. This is definitely one of my best meals of 2016.
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