Often when we think of Japanese food, we might automatically assume Sushi or Chicken Teriyaki. Both are fine and dandy (I would never turn away a platter of good sushi!), but the Japanese have always been very creative with their culinary vision, using modes of preparation and flavour combinations which are still very unfamiliar to the Western palette.
Izakaya (pronounced is-a-kai-a) is style of dining popular with Japanese 9 to 5ers. After a day at work, one can head to an Izakaya with friends for a beer or a cocktail alongside some intricately created Tapas creations, which can be shared. After a wildly successful run in various parts of Vancouver, the owners of Guu Izakaya have brought their act to Toronto, setting up shop in a very unlikely location on the southside of the Church x Wellesley Village, Boys' Town. After having been open just over a week, the line-ups have been out the door literally. The Japanese community in Toronto has hungered far too long for authentic cuisine versus the many Korean or Chinese-owned Sushi establishments that we often see. And it was actually my always cutting-edge BFF Fran's idea to give Guu Izakaya a try on Boxing Day.
Upon entering the restaurant, the mood was festive. Friendly servers and kitchen staff were shouting greetings and well wishes to customers as they entered and left. The decor was contemporary yet very traditionally Japanese with gray hues, stone walls, dim lights and unadorned wood tables and chairs. We had to get a picture and one of our servers, Masaru from Vancouver, wanted in on it too!
I myself ordered a Calpico Sawa to start. The refreshing beverage consists of Vodka and a sweet and slightly tart yogurt beverage, Calpico. No, it's not thick and goopy. It's hard to come by in these parts as I haven't had this in at least five years.
Arriving first was a plate deep-fried Mackerel fillets and a tangy home-made Tartar Sauce. The fish is covered in Japanese Bread Crumbs (Panko) and fried to a crisp. Exquisite and satisfying.
This dish, chewy Udon noodles topped with Kimchi (Korean pickled cabbage) was simplistic. Nothing to write home about, but it is sometimes necessary to fill the tummy with some starch, especially when having lighter Tapas fare.
Deep-Fried Octopus Balls covered in Mayo and Bonito Fish Flakes; these flakes are used in Miso Soup broth. Yes, it sounds absolutely mortifying I'm sure, but it's quite delicious. These crisp and chewy balls are stuffed with a small piece of Octopus for a fun texture.
Very similar to the batter base used in the Octopus Balls, although firmer, Okonomiyaki are a deep-fried Japanese style pancake. Rich and absolutely satisfying. Imagine a Latka or a Potato Pancake - but even better - topped with a tangy, savoury sauce and Mayo.
Another one of my favourites, Scallop Sashimi. Fresh and scintillating to the taste buds. As you can see, the Japanese love their Mayo.
Gyuu Tangue or Ox Tongue is often marinated and grilled, before being served thinly sliced. No, it isn't as disgusting as it sounds, considering we eat Cold Cuts, Sausages and Hot Dogs on a regular basis in the Western World and I'm sure there's far worse "things" in those. It's chewy and flavourful.
Perhaps one of the more disappointing items, these Oysters in Cream Sauce with Cheese weren't so stellar. For one, they didn't taste fresh. I have a feeling these shells might have been re-used as there two small oyster bits to be found in the pool of sauce. Just a guess.
The Pumpkin Croquette is coated in Bread Crumbs with a Hard Boiled Egg in the centre and covered in a Thousand Islands sauce. I was neither here nor there with it, but it is a good item to share.
I absolutely devoured the Stewed Beef Brisket/Tendon with Carrots and Daikon Radish. It absolutely melted in my mouth and is exactly what we need in this cold weather.
Fantastically buttery, the British Columbia Marinated Tuna Sashimi was delectable. Every bite went down so smoothly. I want more.
Although originally a Korean dish, the Bibimbap is a nice filler dish in case you have concerns about not getting full enough. Prepared in a hot stone pot with a raw egg on top, which cooks when the contents of Charred Rice, Red Pepper Paste, Kimchi, Bean Sprouts and Pork are stirred. Not quite as good as the variety you get in Koreatown though.
This dish is just to die-for. The Salmon Natto Yukke combines Salmon Sashimi with Raw Egg Yolk, Fried Garlic, Green Onion, Fermented Beans, Deep Fried Noodles and more, into a thick paste which you spoon onto strips of Seaweed. Such an odd-pairing, but the balance and combination of flavours is just right.
The Deep Fried Banana Tempura is probably the top-selling dessert item on the menu. The lightly battered Green Bananas are fried just enough to keep them firm to the bite. The homemade Vanilla Ice Cream in the center is the perfect accompaniment.
Sake and Cheesecake do not go together. I am unsure what would prompt them to pair these items into one dessert, Sake Cheesecake. They appear to have baked a very dry Cheesecake and spiked it on the surface to moisten it, but the result is not a desirable one.
Traditionally a Chinese dessert, the Creamy Almond Tofu is given a decadent spin at Guu Izakaya. The egg-white based, Amaretto flavoured custard is sinfully delicious and light, adorned with a Goji Berry.
And of course, what is Asian cuisine without the occasional typo on the menu? Can you spot the typo? Loves it. I do.
There are still a good number of items I'd love to try off the menu including the variety of daily stew/soups which also seemed popular. Fun. Guu Izakaya is located at 398 Church Street in Toronto, between Carlton and Gerrard.
*all photos were taken with the Blackberry Bold 9700.