Ever since returning from Vancouver for the Christmas holidays, I was suffering from Vancouver Withdrawal Symptom – my appetite was spoiled by 3 weeks of fresh sushi and authentic Japanese izakaya cuisine on the west coast: Hapa Izakaya on Robson (the best experience of my trip), Zakkushi on Denman, overhyped Ebisu at Robson, Take Sushi in Burnaby, surprisingly good Tanuki Sushi while in Langley, and Guu at Gastown from my last visit. No Japanese food in Toronto will ever taste good again. (And of course, I missed my awesome friends too). I thought I was going to have to withhold or find mediocre imitators, then guess what? Guu just opened a location in downtown Toronto.
I believe in miracles.
Caution: image heavy post. I’ve been waiting for 2 weeks for these pics and I’m posting them all up for maximum Guu seduction.
As with everyone of these izakaya restaurants, whether east or west coast: anticipate a long wait! On a Saturday night (March 6th) my friends and I, a party of 6 including the birthday girl, began lining up at 5:30 and expected a two hour wait. During that time we could have wandered at Eaton’s Center and returned, but fortunately the day wasn’t too cold (it’s only 9°C and we Canadians do live in igloos) and they had outdoor heaters (yes, the line up is outside the building). Instead, we peeped in through the tiny squares which were windows, pointing out the good looking male staff ;) Every time the heavy wooden door opened, we were hit by the entire body of staff’s loud greeting and the chatter of guests. It felt like a different world inside.
We were seated by 7pm, so we were happy the wait was merely 90 minutes. The warm lighting, the chatter, the smells, and warmth surrounded us. Don’t expect cushioned chairs, because the interior is traditionally Japanese with wooden tables and benches or stools. The noise and seating were nicely cozy (Note: we were all skinny Asians and we were barely comfortable. A 200 pound Canadian dude would be more comfortable by the benches – if you get to choose that is). We ordered a pitcher of Sapporo to share and also:
- Maguro Tataki
- Hotate Butter
- and off the seasonal menu, Hiza Nankotsu (deep fried chicken knee soft bone)
While in Vancouver, my most vivid recollection and best experience was at Hapa Izakaya, so I ordered several dishes that were my favourites there. I was surprised with how regular deep fried chicken could taste so amazing, so I had to order Karaage. The other favourites were takowasabi, maguro tataki, ebi-mayo, and gyu-tangue.
And now, the review of the dishes. For those of you want a quick review: Guu Toronto made my life worth living again. I was cured. Be warned: I am biased – I love Japanese food, but west coast has set a high standard. I will begin with my favourites.
I appreciated how the cold appetizer Takowasabi came first. It is served with nori (seaweed) to wrap the cold octopus mixed with wasabi, sesame oil, and other seasoning – just a hint of spiciness and the perfect appetizer. Maguro tataki (seared tuna) was good, but could not compare to Hapa Izakaya’s sauce which was extra tarty and the seared layer was thin as an apple’s peel (Well, it might be unfair to compare anything to Hapa because that was the epitome of my izakaya experience).
Ebi-mayo embodied everything I love: shrimp, deep fried, and mayo. Karaage was piping hot and and tender as expected, and it was juicy without being oily. Gyu-tangue (grilled ox tongue) was incredibly tender, and it tasted like Chinese beef balls you have in noodles or hotpot – which was a pleasant surprise for all six Chinese of us. The table’s other favourite was Gindara (black cod), which is hard to do wrong but the miso and white wine sauce perfectly accented the juicy melt-in-your-mouth fish.
What makes all these izakaya restaurants amazing is that their food is always cooked to perfection. They are never overdone, always perfectly seasoned, served straight from the stove, and the atmosphere entices warmth and belonging. The price was not overpriced for such high quality cooking. Anyone who loves an authentic Japanese experience must go!
A group of 6 was ideal for maximizing the menu, as most dishes came in around 5 or 6 pieces. There is a 2 hour limit seating, but that was enough of us to make 3 rounds of orders. Our bill came to $24 each and we were fully satisfied, both in terms of taste buds and stomach saturation. Come spring and summer, bring a book and tanning oil to have some sun time while you wait. It will be my choice destination for future special occasions. This couldn’t be a more rightfully biased review :P Feel free to ask me about the other dishes!!