Anita Lo is in the house. The New York chef and restaurateur, renowned for her seamless melding of traditional Chinese cuisine and Western fine dining, is at Kissa Tanto, a new Japanese-Italian restaurant in Vancouver's Chinatown.
The second-floor supper club has only been open a few weeks, but executive chef and co-owner Joel Watanabe doesn't seem flustered. Ms. Lo must be enjoying whatever she's eating because he glides through the chic room – past the mid-century modern booths and banquettes set with dimly lit banker's lamps – wearing a broad smile that gleams brighter than all the polished brass seemingly nailed into every last corner and nook.
Mr. Watanabe looks like he's floating on top of the world. And so he should be. Modern Asian is one of the few cuisines at which Vancouver truly excels. That said, there hasn't been any groundbreaking innovation on this front for several years. Not since, well, Mr. Watanabe and Tannis Ling (his partner at Kissa Tanto) opened Bao Bei in 2010. Now they've done it again. We're only halfway though 2016, but I am going to bet that Kissa Tanto will be one of the best restaurants to open this year – and probably for many years to come.
Japanese-Italian isn't as strange as it sounds. Itameshi (Italian food) is wildly popular in Japan, where spaghetti has been a mainstay on café menus since the 1920s. It's no coincidence that Eataly opened one of its massive food-and-wine department stores in Tokyo before New York. The cuisines also share a similar respect for regionality, seasonality, simplicity and strong umami flavour anchors.
Mr. Watanabe's delicate tortellini perfectly exemplifies just how well they can marry. The thinly rolled and gently twisted handmade pasta is filled with a mild potato farce. There is a little Parmesan blended into the soft cream, but not so much that it overwhelms an elegantly clear dashi broth. Slender wisps of seaweed are strewn overtop for textural chew. Each bite reveals the pure essence of its roots, the commingling of earth and sea, all humming in perfect harmony.
There are more cross-cultural success stories where that came from: a creamy confit-tuna tonnato spread over yeasty sourdough bread (made in-house with great chewy crust and airy bubbles) layered with crunchy flying fish roe in place of veal; gelatinous chawan mushi custard bedecked with pressed cucumbers that look like melon balls, spiked through the centre with Parmesan and porcini mushrooms; a deceptively rich tiramisu lightened with tofu folded into the mascarpone.
Some of the pastas taste predominantly Italian. Pork ragu is sautéed with kasu sake lees in place of wine, although you'd never know it – perhaps because kasu is already used so widely by Vancouver chefs (it makes a terrific marinade for fish and chips).
Other traditional Japanese dishes taste even more Japanese than normal. Take the croquettes, for instance. The deep-fried balls rolled in breadcrumbs is a popular Western dish in Japan, where they are typically filled with ground beef and potatoes, and served with Japanese-style HP sauce. Here, they are filled with creamy Parmesan potatoes studded with ginger and served with a sour curried plum sauce instead. They're Japanizing a Western Japanese dish. Genius.
In-between Italy and Japan, the kitchen is rolling out a number of dishes that speak fervently to Vancouver. The chilled vegetable platter should be celebrated as a signature dish for the city. It's somewhat like a bento box of small vegetable dishes – some Western (sweet pickled giardiniera, crisp asparagus drizzled with Meyer lemon crème fraîche), some Eastern (soy-sauce-simmered burdock, rice-bran-fermented carrots) served on a bed of ice and treated with the respect of a seafood tower.
Market fresh fish is served whole – tails, fins and all. Why is it so rare to find a whole fish outside Chinese restaurants in Vancouver, a city perched on the edge of the ocean? Last weekend, the fish was ocean perch, flash-fried in a golden rice-flour coating. It was scored on top and bottom, so the tender white flesh bubbled up into dainty little squares ripe for picking and dipping in a daikon soy sauce.
On the side, we ordered rapini – barely blanched and beautifully bitter – tossed with chili, sesame and dashi. And a gorgeous fava bean salad, dressed with pancetta, kombu dashi and pecorino, a killer triple assault of meaty, kelpy and salty umami.
True to Vancouver traditions, Kissa Tanto is sustainable (without being preachy). The fish and pork are brought in whole and butchered in-house so the daily specials often include fish and collar or loin and belly.
The cocktails, made by Wendy McGuinness, are unique and finely crafted. The wines (although somewhat pricey, relative to the food) are terroir-driven and natural.
The room, yet another stunning design by Craig Stanghetta and Ste. Marie, is a little bit jazzy, a little bit eighties. The walls are painted teal. Even the bathrooms are trimmed in brass. The back of the bar is lined with stacks of old vinyl records. Oddly, there isn't a single mirror to gaze at. This is a room that commands you stare deeply into the eyes of the company you're with, lean back and linger a while.
Kissa Tanto hits a high note on every level. It is the most significant restaurant to open in Vancouver for quite some time. It is fully of the place, yet progressive and pushing forward. It is the hot spot du jour, and likely will be for many years to come.