1184 Bishop St. (below St. Catherine)
Hours: Mon - Fri 11:30 AM to 10:00 PM; Sat 5:30 PM to 10:00 PM. Price range $30 and up per person with saké. Licensed. All major cards. Reservations recommended. Tel: 876-0056
Tokiwa is Commodore Perry in reverse: Japanese ambassador of good will sails into barbarian harbor.
Bishop St. is well known as being the haunt of itinerant Montreal boulevardiers, authors and newsmen, mostly in the heydays of the 70s and 80s. Nick auf der Maur hung his fedora on many a hat-tree on this street and downed a fair number of . . . sakés?
Hmm. Didnt think so. A Japanese resto on Bishop is like a plaice out of water. Japanese Row, as we all know, is on Mountain, with Katsura, Sakura and Toyo ruling the roost in this part of downtown.
We didnt probe too much into why Koji Ishikawa, formerly head chef of Kojis Kaizen in Westmount, decided to settle around here, but lack of competition may have had something to do with it.
As an invader, Tokiwa maintains a decidely low profile. There are no trendy graphics, no android waitstaff. No jazz music, no halogens. Its a homey, close-quartered space, warmly-lit and littered with Japanobilia. There are noren curtains partitioning off the kitchen, adorned with Hiroshige geisha-babes. There are crimson imitation-lacquer chairs. There is blond wood and freestanding shoji (rice-paper screens.)
The food gets raves from the hoi-polloi, but that doesnt mean what you think it does.
The evening began with a bottle of saké. Your choices are divided into cold and hot, though in reality the Japanese make no such distinctions; saké isnt especially brewed to be either cold or hot. Any saké can be served cold or hot.
In Tokiwas case, though, cold is inexplicably more expensive: a medium bottle for $15.50 versus $12.95 for the hot.
Since we were three, we opted for a bottle of the Hakutsuru for $25.95.
The menu is substantial: there are two pages just for the appetizers. Theres a separate menu for à la carte sushi, with prices starting at $3.50 for the cucumber roll (two pieces) and up. Its mid-priced for Montreal Japanese restaurants.
Going for an à la carte dinner will quickly add up here; youre better off doing one of the numerous tables dhôte. There are basically two packages: the 6-course and the 7-course. The former includes appetizers (but doesnt specify which ones,) a choice of kani-su, (which turns out to be crab sunomono) or yakitori (skewered chicken,) a green salad, miso soup, rice and dessert. This combo ranges from $15.95 for Samma Shio Yaki (grilled mackerel) to $26.95 for the sushi platter, with such entries as steak sirloin, tonkatsu and various teriyakis in between.
The 7-course choice adds Agedashi Tofu (deep-fried tofu,) more appetizers, and other items such as vegetable and shrimp tempura and sushis and sashimis. They range from about $33 to $36.
An arresting start to the culinary portion of the evening was a single morsel of . . . something . . . on a slim rectangular plate, flanked by tiny green beans and tsukemono (pickled vegetables.) The cold and gnarled morsel in question tasted vaguely fossilized. Opinions of what it was ranged from aged tofu to pork. The server informed us that it was marinated chicken. This was not a great start, but things thankfully got better rapidly with a savory o-sara of skewers of piping hot yakitori, moist and chunky and coated with an unctuous teriyaki glaze.
The miso soup was similarly good, scalding hot and very authentic. A green salad was an indifferent iceberg concoction with a salty dressing. The crab sunomono was quickly judged to be imitation crab (surimi.) Although it was quite good, the crab was rubbery and obviously not something that had come from a shell.
Where Tokiwa shines is in the rice. It seems sometimes that only a Japanese can make Japanese rice correctly, and this was good stuff, strong and fluffy and without the usual gumminess that one comes to dread at Japanese restos in Montreal.
The sushi part of a sushi table dhôte was substantial and gorgeous. Since there was no longer an issue with the rice, it was only a matter of the freshness of the fish to round out the equation of sushi = good rice + fresh fish over X tumblers of saké. We were not disappointed. There were delicate cubes of maguro and cucumber wrapped loosely with tender layers of rice and crackling nori. There was the silken twang of unagi (broiled eel) morsels sandwiched with crunchy vegetables in an inside-out roll studded with sesame seeds. There was hamachi and shaké (salmon,) shrimps and toro. There was nostril-exploding fresh wasabi and mounds of pickled ginger.
The sashimi plate was equally tasty, but an inquiry as to the provenance of two dark slices of fishto my eyes more like seared Ahi than regular tunawas greeted with a shrug from the server. Its tuna, she said. I dont know how the chef makes it.
The one hot dish, a ginger beef, was surprisingly robust; a peppery layering of thin-sliced beef in a ginger-teriyaki sauce sprinkled with scallions on a bed of rice and beansprouts. Delectable.
Koji himself orchestrates from behind the sushi counter with quick jokes and deft strokes, at home in his harbor among the barbarians. Reviewed by Nick Robinson