Early in 2013, I started to hear about Izakaya Tomo (@IzakayaTomo780). I was excited to see that a Japanese tapas bar was being opened in the city, the first of its kind here. Having been to Guu in both Vancouver and Toronto, I had an idea of what this new establishment was striving for, and equally high hopes. Of course, it took me almost two years to make it there. Situated on 99 Street and 37 Avenue in a strip mall, it’s a far cry from Edmonton’s more popular areas. Whyte Avenue, downtown, 124 Street it is not. But, after a long drive to the south side of the city, our group wandered into the natural and minimalist venue that is very reminiscent of actual Japanese spaces where we were pleasantly greeted with a loud “irasshaimase.” Outfitted with just nine wooden tables and matching benches and a few seats at the bar, I can see that there is the possibility of a wait on busier evenings. However, reservations are accepted, so if you are prone to planning ahead, give them a call.
With a mix of traditional offerings as well as some dishes with fusion twists – the carbonara udon comes to mind – Izakaya Tomo has made a name for itself in Edmonton since it started welcoming patrons through its doors. The restaurant has racked up numerous accolades from the city’s many foodies who helped push it into The Tomato‘s 2014 list of 100 best things to eat in Edmonton, taking the No. 8 position.
Once we stripped off our bags and winter gear and deposited everything into the storage box next to our table, we got comfortable and began perusing the menus. To get the evening going, we ordered some drinks of which I selected a peach chu-hi (chūhai). I didn’t know what it was made of, but my friend recommended it. As it turns out, chu-hi is typically made with shōchū, a distilled alcoholic beverage, combined with carbonated water and juice. Apparently, some variants may use vodka instead, and canned chu-hi can sometimes have a lot more alcohol content than those prepared at bars and restaurants. I’m not sure if the glass I was given came from a can or not, but it seemed like the amount of alcohol was small. Other drinks on the menu included beer, sake, shōchū, cocktails and non-alcoholic beverages.
As we sipped on our drinks, we selected eleven dishes from the plentiful menu to share between us. About half had been sampled by two of my dining companions when they had visited previously, so, of course, we took their word. The rest of the plates chosen were new for everyone.
The first order that made it to the table was the last one picked on a whim. Crispy Tako Yaki, a battered ball filled with diced octopus and what tasted and felt like a starchy mix and then topped with takoyaki sauce (similar to mayo), aonori (dried green seaweed) and katsuobushi (dried, fermented and smoked bonito flakes). I remember having these at the night market on a trip to Vancouver several years ago and I can’t say I really enjoyed them then, but I quite liked them this time. The nicely battered ball broke away to a smooth potato-like center and pieces of octopus that had a bit of bite to them, but were not over cooked. The savory taste coming from the sauce, seaweed and bonito elevated the dish.
After that, it was like a deluge, and we struggled to keep up with the succession of plates. The tako yaki was followed by the Tuna Tataki where I noted that the fish was very fresh. I know that any time fish is seared, there’s a risk of the meat becoming tough. This wasn’t necessarily the case here, but I did find that the texture of the raw fish wasn’t as smooth as I would have hoped or expected. Still, the simple flavours of the tataki were enjoyable. Around the same time, an order of the Nama Harumaki was dropped off at our table. Leafy greens, julienned vegetables, avocado and smoked salmon all wrapped up in rice paper and dipped in a soy and mayo based sauce, it was kind of like a really healthy order of maki. Although there wasn’t a whole lot to it, the rolls made for a refreshing palate cleanser.
Next up was the Crispy Spicy Tuna Roll. My friend said the heat from the sauce was spicier than she remembered. However, I thought it was pretty mild. I do like a good amount of spice in the food I eat though, so I think it’s a matter of preference. The rolls were a good size – small enough that I could fit the whole thing in my mouth at once, but large enough that they had substance. The batter on the outside was light and not greasy. I’m certain that I could have polished off a second order.
The rolls were proceeded by a couple servings of the Prawn Spring Roll. Raved about by my friends, the thin, crunchy shells were stuffed with prawns, avocado and cheese. The cheese, likely cream, was a surprising yet excellent addition to the spring roll. That ingredient, along with the avocado, created a wonderfully rich and velvety texture.
Two kinds of Chicken Karaage were ordered: original and one finished off with a layer of mayo sauce. The original version is similar to KFC chicken in that it is marinated, coated in batter and fried. Paired with a light soy based dipping sauce, it arguably bests the fast food version. The second type of karaage was the same chicken, but cooked with mayo (I think it was spicy). A couple of us thought it was better than the original because the mayo provided an extra layer of flavour. Yet, as my friend pointed out, the mayo did take away some of the crunch that came with the original recipe. Again, this comes down to personal appetite. Aside from the two chicken karaages that we picked, there were, I believe, three other options available.
To finish off our main meal, we had a bowl of Oyster Ponzu. Fresh, meaty, juicy oysters that are breaded, fried and served in a ponzu sauce with a squeeze of lemon, this was so delicious. Dinner was then capped off with an order of California Sesame Seed rolls. On par with other sushi places in Edmonton, these weren’t much to write home about. I would say that they did hit the spot though. We also had a bowl of Yaki Edamame. Salted and grilled so they were slightly charred, I think the method used to prepare them helped to infuse more flavour into the beans.
All-in-all, it was quite a bit of food, but I definitely don’t think we overdid it. I think for a quartet, this was the perfect number of tapas plates. The favourites of the evening that will have me craving more from Izakaya Tomo are: Crispy Tako Yaki, Crispy Spicy Tuna Roll, Prawn Spring Roll and the Oyster Ponzu. I seem to like all the stuff that has been fried. Go figure!
Each of us saved some room for dessert as well. One person went with the Vanilla Ice Cream with Koku-To Uneshu (brown sugar plum wine syrup). It looked like one of the lighter choices. Another ate the Caramalized Sweet Potatoes with Ice Cream. Waffling between that selection and the Matcha Ice Cream Sandwich, the latter wound up being my final decision. I was very happy with my selection because it gave me a bit of everything I wanted. The potent green tea ice cream sat inside a sandwich of two mini pancakes with cooked red beans on the side and soft, fluffy peanut flavoured mochi (Japanese rice cake).
The food at Izakaya Tomo is prepared at lightning speeds, so you can get in and out quickly even if you order several items. This probably helps for turnaround of tables on nights when they have a full house. At the same time, while they don’t actually rush you out, the fact that the food is served so fast sort of means you don’t really linger as long as you might have wanted to. The whole point of an izakaya is to be a gathering place where people hang out for a whole evening. Even though that is what the establishment is aiming for, the small size of the restaurant and the impeccably prompt service almost create the opposite effect, which is a little ironic.
Despite that, this place is great. Drinks included, we each paid about $40 to $45 for dinner, which when you take into account everything we packed away, I would say was worth the money. The staff are extremely friendly, and, if there are no people waiting for a table, I’d be inclined to spend the entire night with friends or family snacking on the food and imbibing the various beverages that are available.