In its former location, Tomo Japanese Restaurant was my oasis. Every few months I’d grab a friend and steal away to the Vinings shopping center that housed this restaurant for an indulgent lunch. I would give chef Tomohiro Naito a budget and then put myself in his hands.
I could always count on a few sudden shivers of bliss during these meals — of that lovely feeling when sensory input flips a switch of emotive pleasure and neurochemical release and, aaahhh, you’re so alive to the beauty of the moment.
No food does this for me as well as great sushi.
The Vinings restaurant had a funny dual nature. Fans like me came for this experience of rare excellence. We counted on Tomo to bring in stunningly good fish and to wow us with his palate, his invention and his finesse. Others came because it was the neighborhood’s reliable Japanese restaurant, where the lunch bentos provided good value, and the chicken teriyaki didn’t disappoint. Naito and his wife, Kimiko, welcomed all equally and graciously.
About three months ago, Naito moved the restaurant to a larger space and a swankier address on the ground floor of the new Ritz-Carlton Residences in Buckhead. Overnight, it became the kind of restaurant where a valet swoops in to take your car and a hostess escorts you to your table, her heels clicking across the tile. Your eyes look up and around; the space is glittery and glassy, grand in that way that the ground floors of new towers often are.
Now, in this space, Tomo must prove itself as a different kind of dual-nature restaurant. On the one hand it remains in the small club of top-tier local sushi bars; on the other, it has given up its cozy suburban mall vibe for a shot of big-time glamour. Tomo is trying to be Atlanta’s answer to Nobu, the iconic Japanese restaurant with multiple locations in world hot spots. Naito trained at the Las Vegas Nobu, and you see the influence in his menu, which focuses on creative, boundary-pushing dishes meant for passing and sharing. Never a cheap restaurant, Tomo has become squarely an expensive one.
After three visits, I can tell you I experienced several aaahhh moments thanks to an impeccable performance from the sushi bar. But I also found the new personality hasn’t quite jelled, and the kitchen doesn’t always show the finesse and consistency needed to sell this menu. There are many huge pleasures to be had, but I think this restaurant needs a bit of time to achieve the lofty goals it has set for itself. For one visit I sat at the sushi bar and marveled at everything from the wonderful selection from Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, to the ideal proportion of fish to rice, to the way each piece was cut to bring out the best in its texture. What I most love about Tomo’s sushi is the rice — each plump grain so separate and so well seasoned with sugar and vinegar that it buoys the flavor of the fish it supports.
Tomo’s Japanese mackerel ($9 for two pieces) was pure melt-in-your-mouth loveliness, its pungent oils captured at their peak of freshness in a brine. Octopus ($5 for two pieces) was gorgeously tender and scallop-sweet. Kampachi ($9 for two pieces), a young yellowtail, was cut to best show off its near-sticky texture and mild flavor. (Great sushi is about paying attention to mild flavors as well as the strong ones.) Uni ($11 for two pieces) was so firm-creamy and sea-fresh it made my toes curl in pleasure. Benchmark uni like this seems a miracle to me.
But my lunch did have a couple of minor glitches. Miso soup ($1.50) arrived perfectly tepid; ginger salad ($3) had some slimy greens and a pool of water in the dish. When high-quality food makes you notice the superlative small details, you also pay equal attention to the troublesome ones.
One more thing: I would have liked an oshibori (one of those warm towels other Japanese restaurants serve) as I like to eat fine sushi with my fingers. (Don’t hate; lots of people do.)
Another time we ordered off the menu and enjoyed several of the signature dishes, from foie-gras-like monkfish liver terrine ($12) with ponzu jelly to lobster a la musso ($26) — an assemblage of raw lobster, uni, garlic, ginger, olive oil and white truffle oil (not too much) with a wham-bam flavor that justified the price. Only a grilled yellowtail collar ($12) felt like a letdown. It lacked the seasoning and char I was looking for; you really want to taste the sizzle in a fatty grilled fish collar.
While there’s a nice enough assortment of sakes to try, this East-meets-West food really needs better wine than the list provides.
On another visit I tried to see what a chef’s choice omakase menu would be like in the new Tomo. The waiter said the chef generally starts with a 10-course menu for $100 and goes up from there.
Our $100 meal started promisingly with two Shigoku oysters, one topped with domestic sturgeon caviar, the other anointed with yuzu juice, cilantro and chile.
And then we wait. And wait. Servers stop by every five minutes to top off our glasses with our $84 bottle of tokubetsu junmai ginjo sake (a premium grade sake made from highly polished rice). We drank — a bit too much — and looked at our neighbor’s California roll with great interest.
Once the food started to arrive in earnest, there were some memorable moments in the meal — perhaps none more so than a gorgeous trio of uni preparations. One piece was fried in a shiso leaf, one came wrapped in raw marbled Japanese beef and a third came in a black seaweed puree. Ping. Ping. Ping. Bliss.
We ate carpaccio of shima-aji fish in a tomato-shallot salsa, a salmon fillet broiled in the sweet funk of sake lees and an amazing piece of fatty tuna belly sushi. At one point we marveled to a combination of seared lobster and snapper in a glossy, starch-thickened fish broth with spoons. The texture of that broth reminded me just a little too much of the gel they put on a pregnant woman’s tummy before an ultrasound. But its flavor haunts me to this day.
The prestige centerpiece contained slices of seared duck breast and foie gras in a truffle teriyaki glaze. I found it flavorful but clunky, with the sauce sweet and wiggly thick, the duck chewy. For dessert, we got our choice of Kimiko Naito’s whimsical creations. Her chocolate plant, served in a flowerpot, was a terrific and not-too-rich mouthful of Belgian Callebaut chocolate mousse. But I love her fun bacon and eggs dessert with spherified mango gelee and coconut panna cotta playing the role of a sunny-side up egg.
Later, Tomo stopped by the table to check on us and apologize for the delays. We were one of three omakase meals that night. He tries to accommodate customers when they ask for one, but it’s always better to order in advance.
I could hear the subtext in his voice. He’s still figuring things out, growing into his role as a big deal. I think Tomohiro Naito is an Atlanta treasure, and I suspect this move will let him spread his wings.
But strange as this remark sounds about a sushi establishment, his new Tomo Japanese Restaurant needs just a little more time in the oven.
– John Kessler, for the AJC Food and More blog