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In Vancouver, a door to a parallel culinary world
[VANCOUVER, British Columbia] My introduction to Kissa Tanto's universe began with a framed sign just inside the door. "Please fix your hair, and remove the mud from your boots," it read, as if I'd just arrived at the end of a long journey on the back of a horse.
After doing what I could to make myself presentable, I climbed the steep staircase, ducked through blue curtains and entered the restaurant. Once I was in, I wanted to stay all night.
Every detail at Kissa Tanto, from the lighting to the menus to the purple neon sign high above the pedestrians on the main thoroughfare of this city's Chinatown, conjures an imaginary parallel world. It's a lifelike fantasy, an approach more common lately in cocktail bars than in restaurants, where earnest wood grains, hand-thrown pottery and plain neck-to-knee aprons are the order of the day.
The interior has the colour palette of a David Lynch project - raspberry-sherbet barstools and ice-blue walls - and like a Lynch set, its time period is hard to place, although it most strongly suggests the 1960s. The design is meant, in part, as a tribute to the original 1962 wing of the Hotel Okura in Tokyo, which was torn down in 2015. The vinyl records by the bar refer to the Japanese jazz cafes called kissa, which flourished in the '60s, when turntables and speakers were rarities. (That's half the name; the other half, tanto, is Italian for "so much.") The host who met me at the head of the stairs wore a pressed white shirt and a trim little bow tie. Most of the people at the tables and the long bar were neatly dressed, too, without the straitjacketed stiffness you sometimes see at more expensive restaurants. Everybody seemed to have gotten dolled up just for the fun of it.
This is a rarity in the Pacific Northwest. I can't say it's especially common in Los Angeles or New York right now, either. But after a decade or so of tumbling into no-reservations gastro pubs and ramen counters wearing rumpled morning-after T-shirts, diners seem to be growing curious about restaurants that offer a bit of costume drama and invite some in return.
The world Kissa Tanto dreams up is so much more appealing than the one I'd left behind that I can understand why reservations usually have to be made two months out, when you can find them. In the year and a half the restaurant has been in business, drawing national attention, tables have not gotten much easier to come by, and the few that are set aside each night for walk-ins tend to be claimed minutes after the doors open at 5:30pm.
What they will be eating could be described as Italian food made with Japanese sensibility and ingredients. Marriages of this sort are rumored to be successful in Japan, but for some reason they tend to fall apart almost anywhere else. (In Italy, Italian food is made with Italian ingredients, Japanese food with Japanese ingredients, and to suggest a different arrangement would be like bringing scuba gear to a ski slope.)
After eating in other restaurants that tried to pull off Italian-Japanese fusion, I have walked out asking: Why? My first few tastes of Joël Watanabe's cooking at Kissa Tanto made me ask: Why not?
Watanabe, the executive chef, and Alain Chow, his sous-chef, never seemed to be forcing flavours to do things against their will. Three fried croquettes filled with mashed eggplant were perfectly at ease with smoky shavings of skipjack tuna and a chilled bed of gribiche sauce, lightly tart with yuzu. This was lovely.
So was a salad of eggplant, lightly fried, like calamari, and arranged with pickled daikon over a smooth green chile-parsley sauce. These dishes were neither Japanese nor Italian but some third thing invented by Watanabe and Chow.
The only small bumps of the night came with the pasta course. The porchetta stuffing inside agnolotti needed a little more lubrication, and a lasagna never came together; instead of the "ragù" of sesame sausage promised by the menu, the sheets of buckwheat pasta were layered over big, flat, dry chips of sausage.
Hand-cut tajarin pasta in melted butter and mushrooms was virtually perfect, though, obviously made by a chef who understands that simplicity can be luxurious.
Fried whole fish served, in the style of tempura, with soy sauce and grated daikon, has become one of Kissa Tanto's signature dishes. I could see why; the skin, which belonged to an ocean perch the night I was there, was beautifully fried and slightly chewy, while the white flesh was absolutely tender. I was just as impressed by the cooking of a slab of sable, or Pacific cod, roasted to a golden sheen that left all the natural oils intact.
Watanabe, whose father's side of the family is Japanese and whose mother's side is Corsican, made his name around the corner from Kissa Tanto. As the chef of Bao Bei, which opened in 2010, he came up with a menu of Shanghainese and Taiwanese-inspired cooking that had been very gently interfered with. The best dishes there - like the tender omelet with preserved turnips, the beef tartare slicked with charred scallion oil, and the pork-shrimp won tons with Sichuan vinaigrette - weren't exactly fusion, but they weren't traditional, either.
Whatever they were, it was something new in Chinatown. This is one of the only areas of Vancouver with low-rise buildings that have been standing for more than a century. Some still have the original recessed upper-story balconies that made the neighborhood's architecture stand out.
Chinatown was a major night-life destination in the mid-20th century, when Foo's Ho Ho, the Marco Polo and other places lured people for dinner and a show. These places were gone by the time Bao Bei came along. Chinatown's streets were dark, and its many back alleys were full of people doing the things people always do in back alleys. Anyone looking for serious Chinese food was likely to seek it in other parts of the city.
Bao Bei's success, not to mention the crowds looking for somewhere to kill time while waiting for a table there, inspired a night-life revival in Chinatown.
One of the nicest things about Kissa Tanto is that it inhabits the neighbourhood respectfully. It continues the long tradition of second-story restaurants unobtrusively tucked up above the street level. Like those vanished midcentury places, it announces its presence in neon - purple, in this case.
I haven't been able to locate a cocktail menu from Foo's Ho Ho, but I imagine it had a Singapore Sling, as Kissa Tanto does. I'd also be willing to bet that Kissa Tanto's is better; the cocktails are meticulously grounded in the proper techniques and ingredients.
The third partner in Kissa Tanto with Watanabe and Chow is a former bartender named Tannis Ling. Ling is the founder of Bao Bei, and it's no accident, I think, that both places display a cocktail bar-like finesse about lighting, music and other atmospheric details.
In Watanabe, she has found a talented partner to take charge of the kitchen, but I'm glad they didn't try to make Kissa Tanto into a chef's showpiece. There are so many of those these days, and they all start to look alike after a while, given that chefs tend to have more ideas about cooking than interior design. Their imaginations are stuck in the kitchen.
At Kissa Tanto, there's imagination all over the place. It's a restaurant to get lost in.