Jun 11

Izakaya Mania!

I shall always remember 2011 as The Year I Discovered Izakayas. Upon my discovery, I was ashamed that the concept of “izakaya” had passed me by for so long, especially given my love of food, and my particular fondness of Japanese food. (I proudly brag that my family cultivated my love of sushi before sushi was really a “thing” in North America.) Thanks to a mix of accidental happenstance and the influence of two of my dearest friends, Tenny and Andrea, I am now a true convert to the many wonders of izakaya, a Japanese type of eatery that serves up tapas-style dishes. Over the course of the last few months, my boyfriend and I have had the pleasure of visiting three izakayas in the Toronto and Montreal areas.

Chosen simply because it happened to be next door to our conference hotel, we nevertheless knew we had encountered something special when we stepped into Izakaya Tsuki (5182 Yonge street, North York, Toronto). Like descending into the hull of an ancient Japanese sailing vessel, its dark, wooden décor exuded a warm and comfortable ambiance. We selected an assortment of conventional (and less conventional) dishes from the varied, colorful menu: the barbecued eel was sweet and flaky; the grilled fish roe sack, soft and granular; the deep-fried octopus balls, crispy and tender; the fish liver, silky and smooth. We also ordered a curious dish that can best be described as sushi-in-a-bowl: seasoned rice topped with seaweed, vegetables, chunks of raw fish and a creamy sauce, all mixed together into a delicious bowlful of raw comfort. In addition, the staff was very helpful, kindly talking us through how to tackle the less familiar arrangements. Two months later, in Toronto for another conference, we chose to celebrate our anniversary with the friendly staff and rich flavors of Izakaya Tsuki, and gladly made the 40-minute metro ride to re-experience our favorite dishes.

Guu (398 Church Street, Downtown Toronto) provides a more contemporary take on the traditional izakaya. Its décor is sleek; its lighting, dim; its dishes, fine and diminutive. Patrons are enthusiastically and thunderously greeted and bid farewell by all chefs and serving staff. Indeed, entering Guu makes you feel like you’re joining friends, rendering the camp-style seating, on long benches and shared tables, almost appropriate. We started with an assortment of dishes, which included marinated jellyfish, and boiled egg enveloped within a deep-fried kabocha pumpkin croquette. The standout dish, however, was salmon natto yukke: chopped salmon sashimi, natto (fermented soy beans), shibazuke (pickled cucumber and eggplant), takuan (pickled daikon radish), wonton chips, garlic chips, green onion and raw egg yolk. The ingredients are mixed together and wrapped, tortilla-style, in nori seaweed. It was my first time eating natto, a pungent and filamentous concoction best described as an acquired taste… Another first was Ramune, a Japanese carbonated soft-drink. The bottle, which looks like invisible hands are strangling its neck, is sealed with a marble that must be pushed down in order to access the sweet, bubble-gummy nectar within. You may have to wait over one hour for a table, so go enjoy a drink at one of the many nearby bars while you wait; the hostess will give your cell phone a ring once a space opens up within the ongoing party.

Kazu (1862 Saint-Catherine Street West, Downtown Montreal) features a more casual setting, its quarters quaintly cramped, fitting only half a dozen tables, and another half-dozen or so seats at the stool-lined bar. We were seated at the bar; right beside me, our elbows occasionally rubbing against each other, the hostess tended to the bills. Kazu has a regular menu, but daily specials scribbled on sheets of paper that layer the walls are the reason to dine there, and the second reason to arrive early, in addition to limited seating. Portions here are, happily, more generous than at other izakayas. The most memorable dish was the grilled tuna belly (the best 30 bucks you’ll ever spend), with its succulently juicy and occasionally fatty flesh. Close seconds were the grilled octopus, so tender it almost melted in your mouth; the shrimp burger, bursting with juicy flavor between a freshly baked bun; and, sushi-in-a-bowl again. All were washed down with perfectly chilled pints of Sapporo beer. Depending on your hunger level, it’s either an annoyance or part of the experience to wait in line between 45 minutes to a couple of hours. Don’t fret the wait, though; we passed the time with an amusing bunch of excited co-izakayans.

Each of the three izakayas we visited displayed their own particular strengths: Izakaya Tsuki boasted the most impressive menu; Guu featured a stimulatingly kinetic ambiance; while Kazu struck the best balance between chow and character. If, like me, you did not know about the wonderful world of izakayas, I recommend you undergo the experience for yourself, regardless of where. In the blink of an eye, you will find yourself transported to the famed Land of the Rising Sun, only without the pesky airborne commute; trust me, both your wallet and your taste buds will thank you!

Note: Many izakayas are currently donating part of their profits to relief efforts in Japan. If you would also like to make a donation, please click here.

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