The faceless Chris Nuttall-Smith just published his top 10 new Toronto restaurants. Not surprising, Alo tops the list and other clear favorites including Buca Yorkville and Dandylion made the cut as well. Perhaps a little more surprising was the inclusion of Hanmoto, the little and unorthadox izakaya joint hidden just outside the intersection of Dundas and Ossington (it’s on Lakeview Avenue however which, like the Lakeview Diner a block away, doesn’t have a view of a lake).
As Mr. Nuttall-Smith writes (in words much more eloquent than mine), it has no sign and has the aura of a flea market where you are not sure if you will get a great deal, bamboozled or stabbed with a sushi knife. The menu is as primitive as the make shift signs you would see advertising dollar persimmons along Spadina avenue.
I went with a few friends a while back as stage one of an Ossington food crawl. Arriving at 530 or so ensured that there no wait for one of the few makeshift tables scattered among the curio-filled hollow . The waitress was a pleasantly non-nonsense woman who had a fantastic grasp of the small menu. It seemed fitting to start with the somewhat famous arisaka sour, a gin based cocktail flavoured with yuzu, green tea and cucumber and finished with soda and lime bitters. It was quite refreshing but a bit flimsy so it was evident I had to switch to beer to avoid downing 8-10 of them before the end of the meal.
The tiny menu meant little deliberation and the table agreed on the hamachi tartare, the moto bun, the enoki, the masu dengaku, okra and famed dyno wings .
The tartare was nicely balanced from both a texture and taste perspective and was served at the correct temperature. The moto bun was a fun and flavourful twist on a sloppy joe and was next to impossible to share with the table. That said, I’m always appreciative of a bun that can withstand the assault of a sloppy filling for the duration of consumption.
The enoki with miso butter was a surprisingly simple take on those mushrooms you see at the Asian food marts and don’t know what to do with. Their texture with, when combined with the miso butter is somewhat reminiscent of a fat laden piece of steak.
The masu dengaku was an oddly attractive eggplant dish made pretty with fried beets and seasoned with a delicious miso hollandaise.
Each of the previous dishes did not shy away on extreme flavours but the crispy okra blanketed with bonito flakes and asiago (a very saline and odd combination) was a miss. We casually passed the dish around the table like a hot potato and there were no takers.
Finally, it was time for the fame chicken dyno chicken wings served in the signature take out box. These wings, stuffed with a pork dumpling, have already attained mythical status in snack food folklore and the label is deserving. The dumpling offers both stark contrast to the crunchy mouth feel of the deep fried wings yet both flavours are married with the sweet and salty sauce.
I’m a sucker for a good gimmick and there are no shortage of them in the restaurant industry. I was all over the Yakatori bar on Baldwin (which now ceases to exist) and I’m the guy who rushes to Harvey’s after not going in years to get my hands on a somehwat revolting pop tart ice cream sandwich. From the seedy surroundings to the focus on nothing by snack food, Hanmoto itself is a gimmick but one that gone from the exception to the rule in the hipster driven expanse with an Ossington epicentre.
It seems Mr. Nutall-Smith is also enamored by a good gimmick. In his review of Hanmoto, he forgives any hiccups (ie. farmed vs wild salmon) by saying that it’s not that type of bar. It seems his opinions are driven by the fact that the booze drives the food and not vice versa which I disagree with given the rather sleepy cocktail list and predictable beer choices. Don’t get me wrong..he is brilliant writer and one of the first people I go to for an objective opinion on a new restaurant but I’m left wondering if including Hanmoto on the best new Toronto restaurant list is synonymous with Jim Murray’s choice of Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye as the world’s best whisky. Maybe I can meet him halfway but saying the dyno wing is one of the top 10 must-try new dishes in Toronto in 2015 but even in my relatively limited exposure to novel eateries, I won’t go as far as generalizing the dish to the entire experience.