For this week’s column, I revisited an old favorite — Tomo Japanese Restaurant in “Smynings” — to prepare for an appearance on WXIA’s “Atlanta & Company.” I will be talking about Tomo on the program’s “Metromix Meals” segment on November 4. (If you can’t tune in, check after that date for the segment online here.
One day, a friend said to me, “You know what I hate? When people come up to me at parties and tell me what they thought of a restaurant. What do I care what they think? I know whether it’s good or bad.”
Blessed autocracy! This lady, a food writer, subscribes to the now old-fashioned notion that a verdict should be based on one forcefully expressed opinion. Hers, namely.
Does that paradigm still hold sway? I’m not so sure. Today, opinion seems to take shape via a complex system of group think. A restaurant opens, and the Twitterers descend on it like seagulls to Tippi Hedren in “The Birds.” Some bloggers post (ahem) “reviews” based on opening night meals. The online message boards light up, and the comments start flowing in. Two or three weeks into its existence, a restaurant will have accumulated a good 20 or 30 “reviews” on Yelp.com and a composite rating of, say, 3.5 out of 5 stars.
This process can be fascinating, if a little disheartening, to watch. Do people really think they can go once to a new restaurant in its opening days and pass judgment?
On the other hand, you could argue that collaborative opinion mongering is simply a jump-start on word of mouth. And — whatever professional reviewers say — restaurants live and die by word of mouth.
Recently, I was contacted by Dora Burke, who is the host of “Metromix Meals, ” a new restaurant review segment that airs during the “Atlanta & Company” daytime show on WXIA. Burke asked whether I would recommend a favorite restaurant for review. I’d visit, as would two self-nominated viewers, then the three of us would get together on air and compare our meals. Normally, she conducts the show with three anonymous viewers, each with the same budget but thought it would be fun to throw in a local food writer and have him defend a favorite.
Although I would never pass judgment on a new restaurant in this manner, I was happy to discuss one of my regular haunts. I had just the place in mind — Tomo Japanese Restaurant in “Sminings.” Tucked in a suburban strip mall, it doesn’t look like much. Like all small restaurants, service can be a little slow when the kitchen is slammed.
Not only that, but Tomo opened in 2005 to very mixed reviews and word of mouth. My colleague Meridith Ford Goldman found some of chef Tomohiro Naito’s fusion stylings “just plain weird, ” as did other reviewers around town.
Yet I was impressed with the variety and integrity of the fresh fish behind the sushi bar when I first went. Over repeated meals, I found that the menu changed and the food became more finessed. I stopped asking Naito what was fresh and let him take the reins and design a small tasting menu with the interesting off-menu bits and pieces he kept behind the bar. Sure, he eventually recognized me as a local food writer, but I don’t imagine I was treated any different from regulars.
So I went back to Tomo with a friend, sat down at the bar and asked for a meal that would stay within my $100 budget. Naito prepared a few fantastic bites. We ate sea urchin tempura in a puckery vegetable puree, slivered shima aji fish with a sweet-and-spicy salsa that enhanced its character, a luscious wedge of fried Japanese snapper — the flesh trimmed from the bones after Naito’s assistant had prepped the fillets to serve raw — and an unctuous, dark-fleshed sliver of Pacific saury served over a finger of sushi rice. The meal ended with a light, true-tasting pear mousse prepared by Naito’s wife, Kimiko.
It was one of those meals that makes you feel satiety in your soul as well as your stomach.
How did the other two visitors fare? I don’t know yet, but we’ll meet to film our segment soon. I hope they tell me they sat at the sushi bar, spoke with Naito, and asked him what is the best way to go. I’ll be curious to hear what they have to say.
But will their stories change my opinion at all? No, of course not. Tomo is a great restaurant, and I know I’m right.
(This segment of “Metromix Meals” is scheduled to air on “Atlanta & Company” on Nov. 4 on WXIA.)
Tomo Japanese Restaurant. 3256 Cobb Parkway, 770-690-0555.