Anne DesBrisay is the restaurant critic for Ottawa Magazine. She has been writing about food and restaurants in Ottawa-Gatineau for 25 years and is the author of three bestselling books on dining out. She is head judge for Gold Medal Plates and a member of the judging panel at the Canadian Culinary Championships.
Clarence Street is where people tend to go when they don’t care so much what they eat, so long as there’s a party vibe. We wander the street to soak up the atmosphere, gawk at the bikers and the beauties, then walk a block to Murray Street to dine well.
Clarence also has a long history of having a hard time getting eateries to stick. Lots and lots of turnover. But now there’s Tomo, which means ‘long time friend’ in Japanese, and for it we wish for some long time-ness. The food hits some high notes here and there. The room is a real beauty. And I’ve been hugely impressed with the friendliness of the service, led by part-owner Mark Ngo. What’s more, there’s no grating music to ruin my dinner.
Once home to two businesses (Wonton Mamma and a place called Spoon Frozen Yogurt Lounge) Tomo takes over both. A custom mural vibrates off one wall, a playful installation of sake barrels suspends off another, nautical ropes droop over the back booths. Harvested from the recycle, sake bottles are refitted into chandeliers. The room has a democratic seating arrangement that meets a bunch of needs — an inviting bar in the middle, high tops at the front, communal tables of polished wood that seat eight, and cosy back booths hidden from the patio action.
The Tomo menu is split in half — cold snacks from the sushi bar down the left side, stuff from the kitchen down the right. If you’re in the market for seasonal delicacies with complex layers of flavour and texture, you’re out of luck. This isn’t that sort of sushi. But for the usual suspects — lead by salmon, tuna, crab stick — the well-calibrated vinegared rice at room temperature with cool, fresh slabs of well-cut fish fit the bill. And the presentation goes beyond fake fernery and curly parsley. Golden beet chips, say, and some tiny pickled tomato lend eye-pop to everything.Nigiri suishi. Photo by Anne DesBrisay
Perhaps in the fullness of time the sushi and sashimi offerings will become more interesting. For now, the rice snacks and specialty rolls are adapted to Clarence Street palates.
We did find some treats among the appetizers. Edamame, the beer nuts of Japan (soy beans steamed in their pods) arrive lightly salted and go remarkably well with the Cool Cucumber cocktail the barman hands me — gin, aperol, cilantro, cucumber, lemon juice, falernum, yuzu, and lemon bitters … lovely! Then pinched and pan-fried gyoza, some stuffed with well-seasoned chicken, some with vegetable. Skewers of tender duck arrive dusted with shichimi togarashi (a peppery, citrusy Japanese spice mix). A dish called ‘salmon bites’ is pretty straight forward — sushi grade nuggets of fish cooked tataki style just to crisp them up, the flesh still rare and wobbly, dressed with a pleasant teriyaki sauce.
Tomo Tataki is well done here, the steak seared for seconds and raw inside, topped with crispy onion, citrus, daikon, and finished with crunchy sea salt. Octopus balls (tako yaki) are pretty pop-able, and we like very much the Tomo slaw, with cabbage crunch and mango sweet, herbs for green grassiness and a tangle of fried taro on top, dressed with a spicy, sticky tamarind sauce.
Garlic butter woked broccoli is better than garlic butter woked bok choy but only because it is a superior vegetable.
Two dishes were only okay. The grilled squid looked very pretty, but was tough chewing. And a Vietnamese dish called Bo Luc Lac was missing fresh herbs and more interesting veg than celery and green peppers. Back to form with a perfectly cooked and very fresh tasting black cod, improved with a miso marinade.
Sapporo and Okanagan Pale Ale are draft picks, and Tomo offers a short, fairly ordinary list of wines. I stuck pretty happily with my Cool Cucumber.
109 Clarence St., 613-241-0990