I am used to feeling estranged from my generation. Never more so than when I'm confronted by the lust people my age possess for pan-Asian/fusion restaurants. I find places named after an ingredient with which every dish on the menu is bludgeoned-Lemongrass-or after a natural disaster-Thaifoon-slightly suspect. It isn't just the Ikea-meets-Zen décor but the clientele that kills me: tables of yoga-yuppies dressed in their retro best, discussing juice among the bamboo trees. There's also my feeling that pan-Asian/fusion is a complicated idea requiring the right chef to make it transcendent. I would in fact welcome the epiphany. So, as a girlfriend of mine was on her way to Japan for a year and I was heading west, we decided to meet in the middle, on College and Clinton in Toronto-that corner of Little Italy the Utne Reader called one of the ten hottest spots in North America-for some cross-cultural cuisine at Tempo, one of Toronto's hottest Japanese-fusion restaurants.
Cuisine: Japanese Fusion/Pan-Asian/Sushi
Price: $25-$30 per person
(taxes and tip not included)
Drinks: Wine, starting at $6.50 a glass,
$24 a bottle; saketinis, $6.84 each
Vegetarian Options: Yes
Smoking: Sadly, no
Reservations: Highly recommended
Veronica's Verdict: You had me at hello.
Tempo is named for its self-described atmosphere wherein a "cool Japanese/Italian/New World style + downtempo souljazzhouse vibe" supposedly permeates. It is, after all, the dining choice of "urbanites" and "savvy sophisticates." In terms of ambiance, think early Star Trek-meets-yoga chic. Everything is the colour of taupe or sickly green, including our waiter, including the food and the drinks. It was both nostalgic and futuristic in the way that only a bubble-shaped décor can be. I liked it, despite myself. The music was pleasantly understated. St. Étienne and the like. You need a cocktail here, or at least I did. And Tempo has an extensive list of sakes, sake martinis and wines from which to pick your poison. My blood sister ordered a lychee martini. And I had a green tea one. I loathe green tea on principle, not because it tastes all that bad but because, whenever I drink it, the word "antioxidant" clangs in my ear, accompanied by the sound of monks softly chanting. But I was here to blast away presumptions. The drinks were fantastic.
ILLUSTRATION BY MORGAN CHARLES
We were not drunk enough to look at the menu with the glee of gluttonous whores on a hen night. Sighingly, we opted for one order of the tasting menu, which offers your choice of three courses at a reasonable price and a dish of sushi to share. The competent waiter, impressively unintimidated by two steely-eyed amazons attempting to stare him into dust, helped us make informed selections. "Urbanites" and "savvy sophisticates" began to pour into the restaurant in glossy packs. A young couple sat behind us loudly discussing their weights and auras. I snorted at their outfits from behind the veil of my pillbox hat and I think they heard me.
I'm a sucker for that sinus-searing lemongrass soup you find in Thai restaurants. In attempting the pan-Asian side of the menu, I selected it as our first course. It was not as mindnumbingly spicy as the masochist in me would have liked, but it was full of kick and fat with two shrimp curling out of the steaming herby broth in Beetlejuice fashion. A pale seaweed of enoki mushrooms and angel-hair-thin lemongrass swayed at the bottom. The second course was fried tofu. I hate most kinds of tofu as much as I do green tea. Again, it's less the thing itself than the sinister forms it can assume. If those packets of strawberry soy cubes anorexic women swear by aren't the true shape of evil, I don't know what is. But this tofu was on the side of angels: fried, fat silky slabs of it came smothered in a thick chili-ginger-miso sauce. It was so positively unctuous it brought tears to our eyes. If an earthquake had struck, I believe we would have kept eating, kept weeping, oblivious.
The combination of the sweet and salty lobster with the cool cucumber, the rich avocado and the fragrant oil melted in the mouth.
Next came the main course, a French/Portuguese/Japanese fusion dish: roast cod fillet and caramelized shallots in a Japanese-green-tea and sage reduction. I didn't have my doubts about this one. It sounded like it would be as rich, exotic and unique as it was. The creamy jade-coloured sauce, voluptuous and smoky, sweetened by the shallots, made the flaky white fish sing. We battled each other for forkfuls. As I won, I got to eat the remaining sauce with a spoon, moaning. For the sushi, we chose their most infamous maki: the one stuffed with steamed lobster, avocado, cucumber and white truffle oil. The combination of the sweet and salty lobster with the cool cucumber, the rich avocado and the fragrant oil melted in the mouth.
They did not have the green tea crème brûlée about which I had heard so much. And drunk on green tea sauce and liqueur, I wanted something else with green tea in it. So we went for the ice cream. I must have been drunk, because green-tea ice cream, as lovely and refreshing an aloe as it can be to the wasabi-scorched soul after a sushi orgy, never quite feels like dessert to me. This creamily textured icy green ambrosia was just the thing after our meal, but the puritan in me just didn't feel like she had sinned sufficiently. I felt far too virtuous and cleansed afterward for my liking. But I would soon be going west, where the ice cream is chock full of guilt and misery and everything teeth can crack, so I didn't complain ...
Veronica Tartley (Mona Awad) has eaten, shamelessly or barely at all, in nearly every city in the world. She enjoys rain, hurling things against walls and walks on the beach. She lives beautifully in an undisclosed location at the edge of the known universe. There, she weeps her mascara tears, churns butter in the old style and listens to French accordion music.