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Tomo Japanese Restaurant review, Buckhead

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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.

Review by John Kessler

Review by John Kessler

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.

Sushi (from front to back): Toro, amaebi (shrimp) with fried head, Japanese snapper, and pickled ginger. (All photos by Becky Stein / Special)

Sushi (from front to back): Toro, amaebi (shrimp) with fried head, Japanese snapper, and pickled ginger. (All photos by Becky Stein / Special)

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.

Omakase uni trio (left to right):uni with hijiki sauce, Kobe beef with uni and Tomo urchin — medium-rare sea urchin tempura wrapped in shiso and seaweed, sea salt, yuzu and tomo salsa.

Omakase uni trio (left to right):uni with hijiki sauce, Kobe beef with uni and Tomo urchin — medium-rare sea urchin tempura wrapped in shiso and seaweed, sea salt, yuzu and tomo salsa.

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.

Dessert, not breakfast: Fresh strained mango and coconut panna cotta as the “egg”  and crepe “bacon” with raspberry mango-chocolate puree sauce.

Dessert, not breakfast: Fresh strained mango and coconut panna cotta as the “egg” and crepe “bacon” with raspberry mango-chocolate puree sauce.

Our $100 meal started promisingly with two Shigoku oysters, one topped with domestic sturgeon caviar, the other anointed with yuzu juice, cilantro and chile.

Heaven.

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.

Innovative chef Tomohiro Naito.

Innovative chef Tomohiro Naito.

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

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TOMO JAPANESE RESTAURANT
3630 Peachtree Road, Buckhead. 404-835-2708

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Food: creative Japanese

Service: Very good; new manager Cliff Sinon is a treasure.
Best dishes: any sushi; Tomo fried uni in shiso leaf, lobster a la musso
Vegetarian selections: better than usual vegetarian sushi and other items
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinner, 5-10:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.
Children: fine for older kids
Parking: self-parking at lunch, valet at night
Reservations: yes
Wheelchair access: full
Smoking: no
Noise level: moderate
Patio: small
Takeout: yes
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13 comments Add your comment

Jeff

January 19th, 2012
6:41 am

Thanks John, now I’m desperately craving uni for breakfast. By the way, are reservations necessary and how crowded is the sushi bar itself?

EJ

January 19th, 2012
10:27 am

I count myself lucky to be a Georgian and have had both Elliot Mackle and John Kessler as food writers for my favorite newspaper. Thanks John. I love your Food and More team. You all bring a lot to the table.

M.Johnson

January 19th, 2012
12:01 pm

Great review. I may get to Tomo’s someday. Until then, thanks for giving me a tour of the menu.

Kevin Mitchell

January 19th, 2012
12:21 pm

I love Tomo. But it must be nice as a writer to go and spend 80+ dollars on a saki and 200 on fare on one occasion. Just guessing another 200 on the other two stops. So with gratuity, taxes, and dining costs I am assuming close to 700+. Seriously????? We wonder why the paper is teatering on bankrupcy.

Billie

January 19th, 2012
1:54 pm

teetering.
Hey, don’t blame John for that!!!!!!!

eatoutatlanta

January 19th, 2012
5:00 pm

HUmmmm… TOMO moves to buckhead and MF closed….

Ted

January 19th, 2012
9:15 pm

Thanks for the review. This restaurant sounds fabulous.

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Freehawk

January 20th, 2012
7:51 am

I second EJ’s comment. I am not a foodie but I look forward to what John Kessler writes about what he eats.

ALM

January 20th, 2012
9:25 am

My family and I have been long-time Tomo fanatics and share John’s mixed reactions to their new digs, which we’ve already been to three times. First of all, although the new space is beautiful, we miss the coziness and relative informality of their former location. Also, Tomo used to be a pretty good value given the extraordinary offerings, creative preparations and serving sizes. Now, the portions are noticeably smaller and the prices noticeably higher. Also, they took the black sesame flan off of the dessert menu, which was my all-time favorite! We’ll still keep coming back (generally without the youngins), but perhaps a bit less frequently than before.

blackland

January 20th, 2012
3:02 pm

First, Chef Tomo is a great guy! I like the new space, the service is excellent, the food has been great in 6 visits. Ate at MF a lot in the past, but the new hip hop room they added in the back really took away from the atmosphere there. Tomo is a much better dining experience and I am thankful to have it in Buckhead.

crackbaby

January 22nd, 2012
2:17 pm

Nice review JK.

2 things on my wish list:
1) quality sushi bars that don’t use kamaboko (fishcake) in lieu of crabmeat (kani), and
2) a return to the use of flavored rice, absent from most Korean sushi (plain rice)

John Kessler

January 23rd, 2012
12:27 pm

Thank you all for the nice comments, and sorry it’s taken me a while to get back. I’ve just returned from a trip. Tomo is an expensive restaurant, and I’ve got a very cheap one coming up. I do think it’s important to help guide people who are spending a lot of money on food.