Stepping through the dark glass doorway into Tónico604 restaurant lounge, the delicious smells and vibrant music could transport any customer to a Japanese-style izakaya bar in downtown Vancouver, Canada.
An izakaya bar is perfect for unwinding after work, according to Garett Ellingham and Ian Mellor, Canadian co-owners of Tónico604. In Japan, people flock to these establishments to drink and experience food with associates and friends. The tapas-like menu is designed for sharing.
Originally from Vancouver, Ellingham and Mellor have enjoyed the emerging izakaya trend in their home city, so much so that they decided to bring the concept to their adopted Costa Rica in the hopes that Ticos will also appreciate this different cuisine and dining experience.
“The type of crowd we expect to attract would actually be into trying new foods,” said Ellingham. “They wouldn’t just come here to get full.”
The sheer size of Tónico604 is disguised by its black walls and dimly lit ambience, making a room that can house 200 still comfortable for 20. Besides traditional tables and chairs, the restaurant features more comfortable options such as white couches and love seats that line the walls and back corners.
The menu is written in Spanish and English, and the bar’s main waitress, San José native Katherine Castro, is friendly, helpful and speaks both languages fluently. After handing out the menus, she rhymed off the night’s specials, offering explanations for uncommon ingredients such as shiso, ponzu and yazu.
The sake-tinis have a menu all their own, where Tónico604 combines the rice-based liquor sake with natural juices, making delicious but stiff concoctions. The cocktails’ presentation is so spectacular one would think the taste would pale in comparison, but the natural juice has such a powerful flavor that an unknowing patron could have a few too many quite easily.
Three types of sushi rolls are offered: one with lobster (¢6,200/$11), one with unagi (eel) (¢5,200/$9) and one with smoked salmon (¢4,500/$8). An impressed diner described the smoked salmon rolls, named “604 pockets” on the menu, as “little pockets of heaven in each piece.”
The staff is accommodating to any allergies or diets, and will even invent new items catering to those needs.
“We always try and accommodate the customer,” said Mellor, who made his first vegan sushi for a customer that very night. “I just went with what I thought would taste good – avocado, shiitake mushroom and cucumber on box sushi,” he said, referring to square-shaped sushi with ingredients piled on top.
Mellor and Ellingham say they don’t have favorites, but acknowledged some items have become more popular than others with their patrons.
Among the few non-Japanese items on the menu, Tónico604 serves two variations of the popular citrus-marinated fish dish ceviche, but theirs pack more zest than the average Tico version. The Honduran White Ceviche (¢4,750/$8.50) is made with ahi tuna, cubed and cured in coconut lime dressing, cilantro and fresh grated coconut flakes, while the Ecuadorian Red Ceviche (¢5,200/$9) is made with shrimp, scallops and lobster, tossed in a spicy tomato chili sauce.
Popular entrées include the shrimp, lobster and shiitake mushroom spring rolls (¢4,800/$8.60) served with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce, or fried soft shell crab (¢5,200/$9) served with ponzu, a tangy sauce made with citrus juice, rice wine vinegar and soy sauce.
The Hiaburi Shime Saba (full order: ¢4,000/$7) is perhaps the most popular dish, though whether the taste or preparation accounts for that preference is arguable. The mackerel is soaked in spices for days before the chef flame-broils the fish at the customer’s table, bringing it to a perfect crispy brown.
For the less adventurous diner, Tónico604 offers tamer dishes such as chicken wings (¢4,950/$8.80), though they still manage to spice up the taste by serving them in a sweet and spicy lime and cilantro dressing. The restaurant also offers pork and beef dishes. Ellingham and Mellor both came here about eight years ago, planning to travel for about six months before heading back home. Eight years later, Mellor is married with two kids while Ellingham has a girlfriend of four years. Both restaurant owners reside in San José.
Though they had mutual friends in Vancouver, they hadn’t met before being introduced by friends in Costa Rica. Over the years, their passion for food and their desire to stay in the country evolved into the dream turned reality of opening a restaurant together.
But they’ve always kept a few taste buds open to what’s cooking back home.
“We’re both so passionate about food,” said Ellingham. “Whenever we’d be back in Vancouver one of us would be out to eat, and if the food we tried was amazing we’d call up the other and say, ‘We have to make this.’”
The dishes started piling up. “We had about 50 recipes, and by doing a lot of tasting ourselves and with friends we managed to minimize and choose our favorites. But it wasn’t easy,” Mellor said.
They plan to change the menu items once every couple of months to keep the options new and interesting, as well as offer different specials on a nightly basis.
Mellor taught the three chefs at Tónico604 how to prepare the food, and he’s always in and out of the kitchen ensuring it looks and tastes the way he designed it. Ellingham is more involved with the ambience of the restaurant, making sure the music is good and the place maintains the right vibe throughout the night. He was a DJ for years in Costa Rica, and though he invites guest DJs on occasion, normally he controls the music.
Right now the majority of the music is house (electronic), but he wants to have a different theme every night, and maybe incorporate a rock night on Wednesdays.
Since the restaurant opened just over five weeks ago, Tónico604 has dealt with diverse crowds and numbers of customers. Friday and Saturday nights have been very busy, with 150 to 200 guests per night. The weekdays are a little slower, but the owners are initiating happy hour specials from 6 to 8 p.m. to encourage more after-work customers.
Tónico604 is also open to hosting events, and has already been the hot spot for two birthday celebrations.
“It’s hard to tell at this stage what will happen,” said Ellingham, “but so far, the outlook seems good.”
Location: La Sabana, San José, 150 meters east of the National Gymnasium, on Avenida 6, diagonal to Yamuni.
Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 6:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. (soon to be open Sundays as well).
Phone: 2258-5330, www.tonico604.com.