How the team behind Bao Bei is combining a classic look with cutting-edge culinary fusion

You walk up a thin flight of stairs into what looks like a dimly lit jazz lounge, find a seat at the bar, and order up an amaretto sour. But when you look at the dinner menu, it tells a different story than the one you were expecting. Kasu-braised pork ragout on tagliatelle? Welcome to Kissa Tanto (263 E. Pender St.), a new Chinatown restaurant where the vibe evokes a bygone time and place—a Tokyo jazz café from the 1960s, specifically—but the menu is aggressively modern. After all, it’s practically inventing a new culinary category: Japanese-Italian fusion. “We were worried by saying we were Japanese-Italian that people would automatically come to their own conclusions about what that food would be,” says Tannis Ling, co-owner of Kissa Tanto as well as Bao Bei, the popular “Chinese brasserie” located only a block away from the new restaurant. It was chef Joël Watanabe, the person in charge of both kitchens, who first suggested Japanese-Italian. “It sounded kind of weird at first,” Ling says, “and then I thought about it and realized it could be really interesting because a lot of people are actually already doing it. They’re not actually saying they’re doing Japanese-Italian, but they’re putting Japanese flavours into Italian food.”

READ: Our Q&A with Kissa Tanto owner Tannis Ling

As for the 80-seat room itself, the second-storey space had been unoccupied since the early ’90s, back when it housed a nondescript Chinese restaurant. Ling liked the location and the fact that it was on the second floor, and she especially liked the old terracotta roof tiles. After all, Kissa Tanto is all about history. “We’re going for mid-century modern,” she says. “Cozy, dark, moody.”