It’s not the first time Watanabe and business partner Tannis Ling have made the top 10 list. In 2010, the team’s French-Chinese brasserie Bao Bei was second.
“We’re all pretty thrilled,” Watanabe, 40, said from Vancouver. His 1960s Tokyo jazz bar-inspired Kissa Tanto — which means House of Plenty — is located in Old Chinatown on the second floor of a faded building. The 74-seat space opened in the spring.
“There’s a bit of a journey getting into this space, but I think people are usually blown away when they get in here,” he added, explaining the decor “really harkens to somewhere that is not Vancouver so you feel literally transported, I think, when you’re in this room. You feel New York or L.A. in its heyday.”
Watanabe refuses to let his food be pigeonholed into one cuisine. As an example, he’s now serving a lamb dish topped with tosaka seaweed and olive oil, accompanied by the Sardinian pasta fregula that is flavoured with anchovy butter and sesame and garnished with egg yolk puree, scallions and pickled chilies.
“Sometimes dishes tend to feel more Italian and sometimes more Japanese. It’s very rare that it’s right in the middle,” Watanabe said.
A blend of cuisines is not surprising for a chef who grew up in Ottawa dining on multicultural cuisine — French Canadian from his mother’s influence and Japanese from his father, while his grandfather was Corsican.
“My parents met hitchhiking in Guatemala in the ‘70s so there’s also South American and Mexican influence in the food I grew up with.”
The other restaurants on the top 10 list, marking its 15th anniversary, span the country, from Bay Fortune, P.E.I., to Victoria.
At FireWorks in Bay Fortune, celebrity chef-turned-innkeeper Michael Smith creates feasts served at communal tables with ingredients foraged from his land and cooked over live fire.
In Montreal, restaurateur Jen Agg teamed up with members of Arcade Fire to build Agrikol, a Haitian restaurant with a vibe straight from Port-au-Prince.
Kraken Cru in Quebec City, featuring seafood expertise in a raw bar, is an intimate and homey 12-seat space, while Victoria baker Cliff Leir takes his ethical, all-organic approach a step further with the French-by-Northwest cuisine of Agrius.
Backhouse in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., won the Eat & Vote people’s choice award from among 35 nominees.
Here are the other nine winners in the top 10 list:
2. Alo, Toronto
3. FireWorks, Bay Fortune, P.E.I.
4. Agrius, Victoria
5. Foxy, Montreal
6. Agrikol, Montreal
7. Kraken Cru, Quebec City
8. Le Fantome, Montreal
9. Highwayman, Halifax
10. Savio Volpe, Vancouver
Winners will be profiled in the November issue of Air Canada’s enRoute magazine and at enroute.aircanada.com.
The top 10 restaurants will receive their awards at a Nov. 10 gala at Toronto’s Design Exchange.