One of my favorite types of cuisine is Japanese. Seeing how we’re in the middle of the prairies, I can only get a good Japanese fix when I travel to the west coast, mostly Vancouver, but lately California. You can be sure then that when I found out last month that Edmonton was opening its first izakaya in December, I was ecstatic!
An izakaya is basically your equivalent of a pub or a bar in Japan. The word itself means “to stay” and “sake shop”, intending to be a place where you could drink and be comfortable, smaller plates of food served to dine on. The couple that I have gone to in Vancouver served as a pre-drinking establishment, getting our bellies full before we headed out late into the night. The plates are shared and the menus usually contain a large variety of dishes.
I contacted Chef Tomoya Mutaguchi asking if he would notify me when the restaurant was close to opening. The south side restaurant deserved my travel time and I hoped it wouldn’t be another place for just sushi. It was definitely not. Just last week, Tomoya sent out an email announcing the grand opening for Izakaya Tomo, this Saturday, December 15 at 5pm. This was all I had asked for but surprise! Tomoya had invited his email list to a pre-opening meal from Wednesday to Friday for those who could make it. A chance to try the food before it opens? I’m there.
Located on 99 St and 37 Ave, Joe and I arrived at 7pm for our reservation. We entered to the staff greeting us in loud cheers, traditional of izakayas. Chef Tomoya came to meet us, extremely happy about his new opening. And for good reason to. The place was is beautifully designed with a wooden interior, seating roughly 45 patrons. A wall of sake bottles divides the room and the open kitchen is a main focal point.
The drinks menu was the first on our list. With a large selection of imported beers and premium sake, it’s quite a handful. There’s even a chance to sample 3 different types of sake (1oz each, $4.95!) and shochu! Much like wine to menu items at other restaurants, the server is also able to recommend you types of Japanese drinks to pair with your order. It’s even in the menu itself whether the dish is better with a beer, sake, or shochu. For my next visit, I’ll be sure to not drive. Need to try the sake Caesar or the Chu-Hi!
The food menu has a little bit of everything, for everyone: salads and quick bites, more substantial “entrees”, sushi, sashimi, udon, and rice. We ordered a nice spread of dishes to try for the night, and I longingly looked at the ones that I would have to come back for.
While we waited, Joe checked out the restrooms. When he came back he had as much to rave about as I do for food, mentioning things like “waterfall tap” and “electronic toilet”. I’m sorry, electronic toilet? Of course I went to see. The “waterfall tap” was a fixture I’ve seen before, one of those taps that has the upper half cut off so you can see the water flow into the sink. The toilet… that’s another story. At a closer look, there’s a light indicating that it’s a heated seat! I’m not well cultured in toilets and restroom room designs, but that was interesting! Seems like little details don’t go by unnoticed here at the izakaya.
When I came back, the staff was up in the open kitchen preparing our dishes. I decided to chat with the chef for a bit since he wasn’t too busy with two tables. From Japan, Chef Mutaguchi dreamed of opening his own restaurant when he moved here. First, however, he wanted to learn the habits and culture of North Americans and opted for a job opening at Mikado as sushi chef. Having worked for Mikado for 9 years, he decided to change things up and finally open his own restaurant. A couple of the staff members had followed him from their past positions. It took a long 7 months for the construction to be completed, but in the end, the interior looks great! His ultimate goal: Japanese cuisine that extends further than your average sushi bar. Authentic izakaya dishes, a place to chat with friends over a cup of sake or two. A table of six was shortly seated, so I went back to my table to wait for the food.
As our dishes were served, Joe noticed the design of the chopsticks. The tips were textured differently from the rest of the utensil, providing more grip. Again, details not overlooked.
Our first dish, tuna yukke: a tuna tartare with avocado pieces, quail egg, sesame seeds, and a spicy yukke sauce, served in a crispy wonton bowl. Although it didn’t taste spicy at all, the tuna was nicely seasoned. I prefer my tartare roughly chopped and not as mushy, but using the wonton to scoop the tuna added a nice textural contrast. Halfway through the dish, I realized the quail egg was patiently waiting in the middle of the mixture! Beautifully presented and a good start to the meal.
Joe, self-proclaimed soup lover, ordered the curry udon. It was a good portion, not a meal in itself, and the broth was nicely spiced and not overpowered with that curry taste. I enjoyed the noodles, cooked perfectly to my liking, and the thinly sliced pork was a good use of protein. I’m not aware of any other place that serves curry udon in Edmonton but I could be wrong. Definitely was a hit at the table.
I’m a lover of spicy tuna, so it was inevitable that we would order the crispy spicy tuna roll. If memory serves me correctly, the spicy tuna mix is similar to Mikado’s! Other sushi restaurants mix the tuna in a marinade, whereas Mikado mixes the spicy sauce directly into the tuna and mash it up into a paste-like texture. It’s not my absolute favorite way for tuna to be served, but the roll itself was delicious, nice and crisp with a tempura batter on the outside.
The beef tataki (seared thin slices of beef in a butter ponzu sauce) was similar to the other tataki dishes in the city. The cuts of beef were slightly thicker here so the beef registered a chewy-er note. Good dish, although nothing stellar.
Trying to replicate our past experience with nigiri sushi, we ordered a piece each of the red tuna nigiri. It didn’t have the same effect on us as before, but the tuna tasted fresh and the rice was slightly warm. One bite though and I could feel the tingly sensation of wasabi. Sure enough, lifting the piece of tuna from the rice showed a thin a layer of the Japanese horseradish. Quite the surprise, and even worse if you’re not a fan of wasabi! I’m not the biggest lover, but I don’t mind the occasional appearance once in awhile. Might have been nice to have a warning though!
Thinking that was the last of our dishes, I did a recap of our night. Something was missing. I felt like I could try one more dish and prodded Joe to see how full he was. One more! I ordered the tako yaki, pieces of octopus in a battered ball, cooked in a special tako yaki pan. Mmm! Topped with bonito flakes and served on a mayo and special sauce, you can’t go wrong with freshly cooked tako yaki (although my friends have told me it can go wrong in many ways). The proportion of octopus to batter was perfect, I got a bit of octopus with every bite. Served piping hot, be very careful!
Our very last dish (promise!), was the ice cream puff. Their dessert menu was innovative and I was tempted to get the creme brulee with matcha, but ice cream puff looked interesting! The green tea ice cream was delish, and the puff pastry was huge! Intended to be served with a sweet red bean mixture, it was missing from our plate, as was the matcha jelly. We did get a few mochi balls with the dish although it was bit of a different texture than what we’re use to.
When all is said and done, I would return here at the very least a couple more times to try the rest of the menu. From what I ordered, the food was great! The food is beautifully presented, a modern feel to the dishes. When we asked for the bill, our server came out with a receipt that totaled to $0.00. Confused, I asked why there was no charge and a 100% discount to our meal. Compliments of the chef for the pre-opening attendees! This was unexpected, although a pleasant surprise. I didn’t argue, the restaurant was now busy and Chef Tomoya was with what appeared to be friends and family who had now made the restaurant full. I heavily tipped and we left happy and full.
If you get a chance, definitely stop by and try a few dishes and if you’re interested in learning more about sake and shochu, this is the place to go!