Edmonton’s food scene is diverse, if anything. Whatever your palate desires, you can find it here in Alberta’s capital—from Chinese to Portuguese; from Ukrainian to Iranian, and everything in between—including Japanese fare, hit and miss as it is.
The latest Japanese eatery to open its doors is Izakaya Tomo, a few blocks south of the Whitemud on 99 Street near 37 Ave. This isn’t a typical Japanese restaurant though: an izakaya is a Japanese drinking establishment that serves food. At Izakaya Tomo (the Tomo is for “Tomoya”, the owner) you have the chance to sample several types of sake, beer, and a distilled liquor called shochu. You also have the opportunity to feast on some small—and some not so small—plates prepared by Chef Tomoya.
Forget the exterior. The restaurant is situated in a nondescript strip mall on a well-traveled thoroughfare, and the signage gets lost amidst the abundance of other shops, but inside is a different matter. The interior has been finished with beautiful wood lending a cozy, amniotic feel and despite the backless wooden benches for seating, quite comfortable.
The service is eager and helpful and Chef Tomoya will pop out of the kitchen to offer additional information about the extensive menu. You’ll find some familiar offerings here: chicken teriyaki, beef tataki, fried rice and a few sushi and sashimi dishes, but you’ll also be introduced to some very unusual and never-seen-before dishes in Edmonton’s Japanese food establishments like Tuna Yamakake ($7.95), a dish of delicate cubes of tuna on a bed of mountain potato. Never heard of mountain potato? Me neither. According to Tomoya, it’s available at the T&T Supermarket and when grated, has a texture that is…how would one put it…akin to slimy polenta, and impossible to eat with chopsticks. The tuna, though, was lovely.
The Tuna Yukke ($6.95) was something more familiar to us: tuna tartare blended with sesame seeds, drizzled with “spicy yukke sauce” and topped with a quail egg. The spice was negligible and the fish so velvety seductive that we toyed with ordering another helping seconds after finishing it.
Our toying ended when the rest of the dishes started to appear: oyster ponzu (deep fried oysters in ponzu sauce $6.95), tempura shrimp roll ($8.95), simmered pork belly ($6.95), tonpei yaki ($8.95) and crispy tako yaki ($9.00 +/-). Each dish arranged with exquisite care.
The tonpei yaki, grilled pork wrapped in an eggy blanket, is full of flavour and generous enough for 5 people to share. What makes this dish noteworthy are the dried, smoked bonito fish flakes placed on top. Bonito flakes are responsible for the umami factor in dashi (a broth), and ponzu sauce (a tart citrus condiment). When placed on a hot surface, the flakes do an impressive and very entertaining dance. Worth the price right there.
The crispy tako yaki are seven deep fried balls of battered, diced octopus with a trickle of savoury mayonnaise. They arrive piping hot and, again, topped with bonito flakes. If you’re looking for one sure thing to try here, this might be it.
A somewhat perplexing dish on the menu is the carbonara udon— udon noodles in a bacon, cream, green onions and Parmesan sauce. I wasn’t sure why this dish would be served at a Japanese restaurant until a reader emailed to say its typical fare of some izakayas. So my loss in not trying it…perhaps next time.
For dessert, three ice cream dishes and one pudding round out the menu.
The crème brûlée with matcha tea powder ($5.95) was a nice surprise and this time I’ll forgive the chef for taking creative license in melding flavours of the East and West—only because I’m a sucker for crème brulee. Matcha tea’s purported health benefits are a mile long and centuries old, and if you’re going to order something sinful like brûlée, any health benefits of the dish make the guilt a little easier to swallow. The caramelized crust is topped with a generous helping of matcha tea powder and the first taste sent my taste buds into pucker overdrive. The powder is bitter, astringent and dry as dust if you take it right off the spoon, but like bitter chocolate, the flavour develops to a subtle sweetness if you let it sit on your tongue. Unsure as to whether or not I should mix it in or leave it sit on top, I chose to mix it only to be informed by our server that the idea is to leave the powder sit on top.
The vanilla ice cream with brown sugar and plum wine syrup ($4.95) took less effort to understand and was the hands-down winner in the dessert lineup.
The restaurant is not open for lunch; something that I hope will change because this part of the city could certainly benefit from Chef Tomoya’s food at midday. For now you’ll have to content yourself with the following hours of operation: Sunday – Thursday: 5 pm to midnight; Friday and Saturday: 5 pm to 2 am, every second and fourth Mondays are closed. Check the website for further information.
More information on Izakaya Tomo can be heard at my CBC restaurant review here.