Go to any large city in the Western world, and you’re bound to stumble eventually into an eerily familiar set of streets that the locals call ‘Chinatown’, though it’s usually home to a diverse array of East Asian businesses and people. No matter where you are, you’ll find a similar array of neon signs, kitschy decor and restaurants that range from tourist trap to hidden gem.
In Vancouver’s Chinatown, however, is a place you’ll find nowhere else on earth. Head up a long flight of stairs, above the glowing streets, and find yourself in a whole new world as you enter Kissa Tanto, the elegant, Japanese-Italian flagship restaurant of Joël Watanabe.
Joël’s childhood was, at least in the culinary sense, idyllic. His family in Nova Scotia made everything from scratch, despite being from one of the poorer areas in Canada. While kids on his street survived off soda and fast food, Joël describes his childhood home as an island of fresh vegetables and home-made food.
Joël’s food education began in childhood, and by the early age of nine or ten he was making dinners for his family at least two or three times a week. The discipline of the kitchen wasn’t enough to keep Joël’s wilder side in line however, and after a series of juvenile misadventures he found himself turned out to fend for himself in his teens. Joël did what any young person with a talent for cooking and a drive to see the world would do, and jumped into the world of gastronomy.
His adventures in the world of food took him all around the world, from greasy slums to the world of haute cuisine. It was a few years into his career when he came to work at the restaurant that would change the way he looked at food.
Joël is unashamedly driven and competitive, bragging about working hundred hour weeks in his prime. He claims the energy comes from his hunger to learn, to absorb new skills and styles of cooking. To Joël,, a chef’s education is never finished, whether it’s sushi making or French patisserie, Joël thrived on pushing hard and being pushed, at least until the work burned him out and sent him on a pilgrimage to Asia.
After a sojourn to Thailand, Joël returned to Vancouver, unsure of what direction to take in life. He took a few roles working and consulting for other restaurants. Eventually, he ended up working for the famous Chinatown restaurant Bao Bei. After a few years working for the beloved Chinese brasserie, Joël knew he was ready for his own project. His broad education in international gastronomy formed the inspiration for Kissa Tanto. The concept, a marriage of Italian and Japanese cuisine, occurred almost spontaneously.
To Joël, the two cuisines share a love of warm hospitality and savoury umami flavour. In Japanese cuisine, the flavour comes from long fermentations of soy, rice and koji, while Italian derives its umami flavour from the two cornerstones of international Italian cuisine, tomatoes and parmesan. Combined with the Japanese love of Italian food and their penchant for taking a country’s cuisine and elevating it through obsessive skill and attention to detail, it seemed a natural union.
To look at the interior of Kissa Tanto feels like stepping into an elegant club somewhere in pre-war Paris, where the slick lines of art deco have met the craze for japonaiserie. It’s a striking design, a far cry from the faux Izakaya interiors of most Japanese restaurants. It fits the ethos of Kissa Tantos, a comfortable, elegant, yet warm space for elevated fine dining. The food is served in the Italian style of multi-course dining, rather than the more formal Kaiseki style of Japan.
The tasting began with a gem lettuce salad. At first glance it sounds like an uninspiring dish conceptually, but the details of the dish exemplify the creative marriage between Japanese and Italian cuisine at Kissa Tanto. Spring greens, lettuce, pistachios and house made Mortadella are paired with a seaweed sunomono (a quick pickled salad of thinly sliced cucumbers) and dressed in a vinaigrette based on bagna cauda (a regional Torinese sauce of olive oil, anchovies and garlic). It’s a powerfully fresh and peppery concoction explodes onto the tongue, far more exciting and forceful than the initial promise of gem lettuce would suggest.
Following the salad, we were treated to a fish crudo, a sashimi of Hiramasa, also known as yellowtail amberjack, is served carpaccio style with a platter of cured and pickled delicacies from both cultures, including a shiso vinagrette, naga negi (welsh onion), radish, capers, pickled onions and Castelverrano olives. It’s a rich and texturally diverse pairing, with tender, sweet, fatty fish contrasted by the crisp, fresh, and sharp flavours of the sides.
Our main course was the Halibut. It came coated in a Japanese curry and Calabrian chilli crust and served with preserved tomato, a caper tofu emulsion, seasonal vegetables and Tobiko (flying fish roe). Spicy and rich, the dish is the perfect illustration of the two cuisine’s shared love of umami.
To polish off the meal, we enjoyed a digestif of Kissa Tanto’s award winning cocktail, My Private Tokyo. Sweet Amaretto Disronno and sour, sharp Umeshu plum wine and lemon are brought together by dry vermouth and a house made plum salt, resulting in a cocktail that’s a complex mosaic of taste, a little sweet, a little sour, a little rich, a little fresh. It’s hard to encompass and it keeps you sipping as you try to place the flavours.
The term ‘fusion food’ is a much maligned one. It brings to mind the forced melange that results in things like the sushi-rito, a dish that takes the warm, spicy convenience of a burrito and the cool delicacy of sushi and throws both in the garbage. Though Joël Watanabe avoids the term, Kissa Tanto is the platonic ideal of what fusion food should be, a cultural blend that understands the points of harmony between two distant culinary landscapes and brings them together with extraordinary creativity and sensitivity.
Marcus O'Shea is a chef, writer, food activist and ex-distiller. When he isn't sampling the best of the world's culinary scenes, he works with sustainable farmers, passionate chefs and retailers to help transform our food system and help ensure access to good food for everyone.