In a Sea of Sameness, Vancouver's Kissa Tanto Dares To Dismantle Your Comfort Zone

How a meal at Joël Watanabe's 'House of Plenty' can redefine what we think we need.

January 25, 2018 ● 3 min read

By Mallory Farrugia | Photo Kissa Tanto

Chinatown, Vancouver. A lilac neon sign marks the spot on an otherwise dim block.

Venture upstairs, and it’s as if you’ve crossed over into a Murakami novel (the homage is, in fact, intentional), with an undercurrent of jazz among the voices in the dining room, a bar perfectly suited to imagining lonely characters nursing a mournful whiskey or two, pondering their vanished true love. A low ceiling and seating upholstered in dusky rose make things cozy, and the space feels distinctly analog—there’s a shelf full of vinyl, mid-century lamps with lights down low, and drawn curtains against the purple glow from outside. It’s a stage set for intimate conversation.

I may have walked into Kissa Tanto for innocent reasons—a friend whose taste I trust recommended it, and it had just claimed the top spot on Canada’s Top 100 —but I walked out questioning everything I thought I knew about food.
My dining companion Patrick and I ordered the way we always do in these settings: A couple of starters, a side, a couple of pastas. We try to make the most of our appetites, parsing them across the menu with shrewd consideration, careful not to be too contained.

The fish crudo, served Sicilian style, came slathered in peppery olive oil and punctuated with capers and olives. The second dish, “Tonno Mantecato,” arrived. Thick, crusty pieces of sourdough toast, piled startlingly high with glistening tobiko and accompanied by a spreadable, smoky fish mousse of potato, furikake, and albacore confit. Slender Japanese eggplants stuffed with béchamel followed—when was the last time we’d had béchamel sauce on anything? Our stomachs began to flag.
The panic of a suspected over-order set in. Had we so fundamentally misunderstood the scope of what we’d asked for? Would we have to shamefully peck at the pasta course, which our server told us was not to be missed, offending everyone in the kitchen?

Once the house-made Tajarin, Piedmontese egg noodles coated with butter, cheese, mushrooms, and miso-cured egg yolk, hit the table, we realized we needn’t have worried. The twirled heap of pasta was like a velvety hug from an old flame—at once deeply comforting in its familiarity and uncomfortably titillating because something you can’t quite put your finger on is different. We devoured it with unexpected urgency. Then the lasagna with sausage and basil cream sauce hit the table.
It was in this moment that I realized that all the meals I’d had recently had altered my vocabulary. The language I normally used to describe food didn’t apply here—it wasn’t “bright,” nor was it “delicate” or particularly “refreshing.” Without the familiar descriptors, I was lost. Finally, grasping at any word that felt right, Patrick found one. “Maximalist,” he declared.

Maximalism is usually reserved for the art world—it’s emotional, it’s rich, it’s excessive. It’s layers of patterns and colors in a room; it’s embellishment on your clothes; it’s the hammered redundancy of details in literature. But what exactly qualifies as maximalist cuisine? Is it the intensity of flavor, the complexity of the recipe, a large portion size, an abundance of luxury ingredients? Is it just…more?

At Kissa Tanto, it’s texture. It’s the crunch of a charred crust of bread coupled with a briny burst of fish roe; it’s perfectly al dente pasta redolent with silken, earthy cream. It’s the conspicuous but unapologetic absence of fresh herbs and winter citrus. The relentless procession of the rich and savory hinted at the cuisine classique you might have in rural Europe, but in this setting, it felt like a sly kind of test. It was a welcome demonstration of what creative possibilities lie outside of the well-executed but increasingly homogenous blob that is the coastal metropolitan restaurant scene.

The chef of Kissa Tanto, Joël Watanabe, already has a reputation for reorienting the expectations of the masses in pursuit of his truth. When his first restaurant, Bao Bei, was deemed not authentically Chinese, Watanabe responded by saying, “Look, I’m not cooking your grandmother’s food.” Which means, perhaps more pointedly: I’m not cooking with the intention of comforting you.

Because that’s what we want when we go out to eat, isn’t it? To be comforted, to be coddled, to be impressed. To be served food that reaffirms our aesthetic preferences—preferences which, in 2017, seemed to be: delicate, pretty, light, digestible, and pleasant. A gorgeous escape. But the food of Kissa Tanto signals a burgeoning desire for fiercer creativity, conviction, and volume; for, well, more.
Perhaps we shouldn’t want to be comforted anymore. Maybe we want to be challenged.

Watanabe—who is half Japanese, half Corsican-Italian French Canadian—cooks in a way that feels substantive. Different. Unafraid of intensity. In light of the meal, the luster of pink banquettes and dark wood and vintage desk lamps become more than just design gloss; instead, they are nods to a world more sensuous than our own, one in which people take pleasure in the tactile experience of a meal, rather than consuming just the image of it.

One in which people are driven by curiosity, and a furious hunger.