We once ate at a vegan place in the East Village that had the best veggie burger ever. The ingredients didn't seem to be unusual, nor was the presentation -- there was something else going on that we couldn't identify. We asked the waiter what made the veggie burger so good.
"Love," he said. "If a cook comes to work angry, we send the cook home. The energy goes into the food -- food made with love tastes like love." Then he asked us if we'd like to "come upstairs for the service," and when we realized we were in a Hare Krishna den, we rama-ramaed outta there. But the lesson stuck: In our own home, we take care to prepare food with love (or at least not anger), and when a restaurant appears to do the same, we notice.
Tokyo, with its red-sheathed paper lanterns quietly heralding its location on the other side of the tracks from the Beer Garden, made us take this sort of notice. Its interior is that of a surprisingly old-school sushi restaurant -- surprising because we sort of assumed that pretty much every sushi restaurant in Astoria came about with the turn-of-the-millennium influx of Japanese students residing here. The worn posters of the Japanese landscape, the faded laminated sheets offering photos of what the different types of sushi are, the exceedingly polite waitstaff -- such things point to a restaurant that simultaneously needed to educate as much as appeal in order to survive.
Tokyo might never approach the technical levels of sushi mastery demanded at Manhattan restaurants that treat sushi as a competitive sport. Even in Astoria, Tokyo might take a technical-points silver to JJ's or Bistro 33, the latter of which boasts a minor brand-name chef. But -- jai guru dev om, everybody -- you can taste the love at Tokyo.
Which is not to say that its offerings are subpar on a technical level: They're not. The standard sushi offerings are all prepared well, but the house specials, the best of which are on the placards at every table instead of on the menu, are where the restaurant really shines (try the Jimmy roll, trust us). Even the warm sushi rolls, never our favorite, go down easy. What makes the sushi special is not the it's-swimming-in-my-mouth standard that seems to be prized by sushi lovers. It's Tokyo's creativity, care, and gentility that sets the restaurant apart.
And, yes, the love. One of us was to meet a friend for dinner once, and confusion about what "my sushi place" versus "your sushi place" (then the dearly departed Shima on Broadway) ensued. Our friend ran from Broadway to 24th Avenue in the February chill to meet us, arriving drenched in cold-weather sweat. Wordlessly, the waiter brought over a warm, damp washcloth for him to wipe his brow. It was a small gesture, but one that leaves a lasting impression.
Price In line with sushi; special rolls about $8.
Would we go again? Happily. We've never thought of sushi as comfort food until now.