At noon on a Tuesday, the tables at Tomo Japanese are packed. Business lunchers, solo diners and office workers happily order spicy tuna rolls, or chicken teriyaki bento boxes. The sushi bar is not so packed. But that's where I sit, huddled over a plate of flawless raw fish with a raucously colored salsa accompaniment. I scoop the red and orange sauce onto the fish's delicate flesh with a tiny silver spoon. On the tongue, the oceanic fat gives way to the juicy burst of the salsa, all tomato juice pucker and sweetness, with a slight spicy afterburn. The final note is perhaps the most surprising of all — cilantro.
The dish is a fusion in the best sense of the word; a melding of Japanese and Southwestern flavors that would fall flat if a lesser chef were responsible for the preparation, ingredients or conceptualization. But Tomohiro Naito's vision for his Vinings Japanese restaurant is one of modernity, and the chef excels in technique, quality and creativity. If I want a meal that employs all my senses, as well as my intellect and sense of playfulness, Tomo is one of the first places that comes to mind.
The irony is, I ate at Tomo soon after moving to Atlanta and hated it. I found the food too precious, too expensive, and not particularly satisfying. A few things have happened in the intervening years to bring my heart and tongue around to Tomo's way of eating.
First, the menu has changed and expanded. During my initial visit, a few dishes, creative but minimalist, took up the majority of the menu's real estate. Now, those same dishes share space with new dishes, many of them heartier and more daring.
Then I went to eat at Tomo with a friend who knows the chef. On this visit, everything was different. Sitting at the sushi bar, Naito sent out dish after dish, the best of what he had to offer that day. A few of those dishes were revelatory, such as the "Tomo uni," sea urchin wrapped in a shiso leaf and tempura fried. The outside hot and crispy, the inside creamy sexy marine goodness, it felt at the time like the best thing I had ever put in my mouth. The friend-of-the-chef routine may seem a little like inside baseball, but it's a common tactic when angling for the best a Japanese restaurant has to offer. And I've found at Tomo that an actual personal connection isn't required, but rather the interaction and enthusiasm that does the job. That recent Tuesday lunch delivered dish after dish of perfection, and the chef wasn't even in the restaurant. But I sat at the sushi bar and engaged the folks behind it. I asked for an omakase — tasting menu — even though the option doesn't appear on the lunch menu. And I gave copious thanks for each new dish as it came out.
But I think the main thing that's changed since my initial meal at Tomo is my own understanding of Japanese cuisine, and perhaps even my whole attitude about eating in general. That first meal was back in my very early days as a professional eater, and I was still enamored of big, rich meals and a certain brand of gluttony. But Japanese food is very much about pacing, flavor and texture. The best meals at a Japanese restaurant will leave you feeling satiated but not stuffed, your palate awakened but not overloaded, certain dishes and tastes still ringing clear in your mind. Naito is a master at this style of dining, at pacing dishes perfectly, at putting tart dishes before heavy ones, at giving you time to breathe and savor before offering the next stunning but small burst of flavor. I never go to Tomo with the expectation of being stuffed, and you shouldn't, either. I also don't go with the expectation of saving money. Tomo is a splurge, but worth it in every way.
And so now, with my preconceptions and loyalties changed, I go to Tomo to enjoy featherweight slices of fluke, served with a tart wiggle of ponzu jelly. Crispy flounder presents meaty tenders of fish alongside crunchy fish bones, fried enough so you can eat them like potato chips. A hunk of soft pork belly sits in a warm, clear gelatinous broth, so savory it tastes like instant comfort. The fat of the meat and the unctuous broth give way to the sting of Chinese mustard and freshness of a few bright green stalks of bok choy.
Naito is originally from Osaka, and came to the U.S. to study theater in New York City. But eventually he ended up in the kitchen, and worked in many genres, culminating with a three-year stint at Nobu Las Vegas. Nobu's influence is clear on Tomo's menu, with a few items successfully replicating Nobu signature dishes. But Naito has a style of his own as well, a leanness to his cooking that allows singular flavors to work their way into your very being.
It's still possible to eat at Tomo and miss the particular rhythm and brilliance of this chef. But put yourself in his hands, and Naito offers an unparalleled experience in modern Japanese eating. He teaches us to eat with our hearts, minds and tongues rather than our stomachs and egos, and for that we should be grateful.
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