330 Frazier Ave., Suite 124
Chattanooga, Tennessee 37405
11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
12 p.m.-3 p.m.
5 p.m.-10 p.m.
4 p.m.-11 p.m.
4 pm.-9 p.m.
An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.
A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you’ll want to come back for again and again.
A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.
A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.
A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it’s the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it’s worth it.
After crossing some red-bricked road and practicing some dance steps along the sidewalk of Chattanooga’s North Shore strip, I hopped and skipped-though no jumping-into the newly opened Totto Sushi and Grill, immediately thinking, “Totto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Though I was not in Kansas and have never been to Kansas, I have also never been to Japan, so I wanted to see if Totto would take me there.
After being greeted by the hostess, then seated and my drink order placed, I looked around the restaurant. The atmosphere was low-lit and had a cosmopolitan vibe. As a brand-spanking-new restaurant, everything was spotlessly clean and shiny, with warm wood tones, gleaming brass and stacked-stone-style walls, as well as a patio in the back. A large sushi bar ran down the side of the small main dining area, where the sushi chefs prepared their artistic creations made to order. I didn’t particularly care for the American pop music playing in the background and would have preferred something more relaxing to fit the atmosphere, or at least something Japanese, but that’s just my personal preference. Regardless, it was a comfortable ambiance.
My server was very friendly and knowledgeable about the menu, checking on the table often and able to answer any question I asked-with this restaurant being new, he was well-prepped and knew the dishes like a seasoned veteran. The menu itself was bound with leather-style covers and had a good amount to choose from without overly stretching itself. There were also two separate sushi menus with a wide array of sushi options: one a laminated card and the other a paper list to mark down the desired items for the server to give to the sushi chefs-the sushi menus are different, so make sure to check both before making selections.
I started out trying the soup and side salad that come with most meals. The side salad had a creamy ginger dressing on fresh iceberg lettuce and was satisfactory. The chicken broth soup was flavorful, with mushrooms and green onions floating in a savory chicken stock. Both were good flavor combinations to whet the appetite for what was to come. I also tried the miso soup, which is one of my favorite soups, and I make it several times per week at home-for several reasons apart from the fact I love the taste.
I want to take a moment to briefly discuss miso because I find it fascinating in my own nerdy way-and despite the usually high salt content, the health benefits from regular consumption are enormous. Miso is a fermented paste made in different ways from various grains and beans, and it is consumed daily in Japan by much of the population. It contains living enzymes (much like yogurt) that help to aid digestion and strengthen blood and the immune system. Researchers also suggest it helps to both combat and drastically prevent many types of cancer. This magical concoction is low in calories and contains a nutritious array of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, essential oils, complex carbohydrates and protein (though the amount depends on the various ingredients and preparation). Miso is vegan-friendly and could fit into almost any diet as a healthful addition-though in moderation because of the high amount of sodium-and is a base for the popular macrobiotic diet.
Though there are almost endless uses for miso, the most common method is in miso soup, which is often eaten for breakfast and throughout the day by many in Japan. One thing that has me so into miso (bad pun intended) soup is that it is an excellent, low-calorie appetite suppressor for a snack or before a meal, in addition to facilitating digestion of other foods. The traditional method of making miso soup removes the vegan element by mixing it with “dashi“-which is typically made with dried “bonito” fish flakes known as “katsuobushi” (for which the method of preparation is fascinating as well)-but to keep it vegan, it isn’t necessary, though it provides an amazing boost of flavor.
Totto uses dashi as a base in their miso soup, as is traditional, helping to make it extremely flavorful. It also included tofu, green onions and “wakame” seaweed (which is believed to be a fat burner). And, oh man, was this soup rich in fantastic “umami” flavors-the concept of umami is also intriguing, but I won’t bore you further with my nerdy enthrallment with miso soup, and there is ample information to research for those interested. Totto’s miso soup was excellent and helped to set the course toward the main course-much like a tornado of flavors sweeping you off to the following faraway land.
For the main course, the first dish I sampled was the beef “bento” box, and there was much to sample. The artful presentation of this dish will have many gawking at your plate with jealousy. Though not served in a “box,” the reason for this naming is because the bento is a traditional complete meal of items often taken on the go in Japan-though also served at restaurants on a divided plate in this same fashion. This bento was an attractive spread of grilled beef and veggies with fried dumplings, shrimp and veggie tempura, California rolls and steamed rice. A creamy white sauce and sweet ginger sauce were served on the side.
The beef was a tad tough but well-seasoned in a flavorful combination of grilled onions, carrots, mushrooms and zucchini slices. The fried dumplings (or pot stickers) were packed with a nicely spiced ground beef, cabbage, onion and carrot mixture, and the dumpling itself was crispy on the outside and not too chewy, as they can sometimes be. The shrimp, green and orange pepper, onion and zucchini tempura was cooked perfectly on the inside with the batter coating the outside fried to a crispy, light and airy consistency.
The last item I tried on the bento was the California roll, which is the most common type of sushi in the U.S. This one was prepared with sticky white rice and “nori” seaweed wrapped around avocado, cucumber and crab. This sushi was good but was a basic, simple roll, and one of the great things about sushi is the visual appeal good sushi artists can create. So next, I went for a couple of Totto’s more colorful creations.
The “Tennessee crunch roll” was sticky rice and nori wrapping a mix of crab, crunch flake (made from tempura batter) and cream cheese. Each piece was laid on its side and topped with baked spicy crab and “masago” (roe [eggs] of the capelin fish that are highly sustainable). The crab provided a spicy kick, and the tempura flakes added a nice, crunchy consistency to the roll-this is how we roll in Tennessee, apparently. An extremely spicy wasabi was served on the side with all the sushi to add even more heat-better described as an inferno-as well as ginger slices to serve as a palate cleanser between each roll.
The incredible “hulk roll” was rippled with green muscles of avocado covering the sticky rice and nori housing of fried shrimp, crab, cucumber and cream cheese and was drizzled in an eel sauce. This tasty “Avenger” roll was assembled to “hulk smash” all evil sushi everywhere (sorry, I’m such a nerd).
Next I tried the chicken teriyaki, which is a staple in most Japanese restaurants of all persuasions. The tender, marinated chicken breast and onion, zucchini, mushroom and carrot slices were coated with a thick, sweet ginger and soy sauce-this was not the type of teriyaki you get at the mall or some sketchy Asian food buffet. After bringing out the initial dishes, the server brought out a plate of nicely grilled noodles in the teriyaki sauce to go with the dish, which I didn’t expect, and it was a nice addition. It was also served with creamy white sauce, shredded carrots and steamed rice on the side.
I didn’t see desserts listed on the menu, so I asked my server if they had any. A few kinds of cheesecake were available, so I went for the raspberry. The cheesecake was very cold and a little hard, but I actually like cheesecake served that cold (though I know some don’t). It was creamy, not overly sweet and satisfying. The whipped cream and cherry were a nice touch.
I am giving Totto Sushi and Grill 3 stars for excellent food, a comfortable atmosphere and a knowledgeable, attentive staff-which is a good beginning for a restaurant merely a few weeks old. Totto’s sushi artists will have your chopsticks hovering somewhere over the rainbow of their colorful creations.
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga’s food scene. You can follow him on Twitter or contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
Updated @ 9:10 a.m. on 05/31/12 to correct missing hyperlinks.
Updated @ 9:07 a.m. on 06/01/12 to correct typographical errors.