Review:Toronto:Cabbagetown:Kingyo Izakaya

Kingyo is like a vacation hotspot I never seem to get to.  I see pictures of happy people eating pretty food without a care in the world plastered all over twitter.  At the same time, I’m cordially invited to the join the party and indulge in the daily specials with the fun employees.  I never seem to make it however. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m in town on business by myself and know I wouldn’t scratch the surface of the menu or I just didn’t want to head east all the way  to Cabbagetown.

There is a time, however, when you have to ignore the temptation to choose another destination and just book the trip. So I picked up the phone and made a reservation for a friend and I.   I announced my intention on twitter and received a resounding Yay! in return. All was set. I even  pondered taking an Advil in anticipation of a noise level similar that of Guu or other Izakayas across town.

I haven’t walked much past Jarvis for a while.  In fact, I think the last time I strolled down Parliament was when I used to carry groceries back from No Frills while living at Bloor and Jarvis in 1997. I’m not sure much has changed since then…except Kingyo of course. Upon arrival, we swung open the door and entered the oasis, a Japanese eatery carved out of an old brick building.   It was buzzing but not overly loud with the main noise coming from a large birthday party.  We were offered a choice of a table or the sushi counter facing the kitchen.  We chose the latter and our choice was sung out in glee by the waitstaff. A pleasant woman arrived quickly and produced a business card, introducing herself as Akiho.  I guess you could call her our travel agent for the evening.

Here are a couple of things to note about Izakayas:

1.  The menus are enormous.  There’s tofu, seafood, pork, beef, chicken, shellfish,  spicy, salty, sour, rice, noodles, raw, cooked or raw and cooked. It’s like trying to choose between puffin watching, bike riding or a wine tour.

2.  In many cases, you have to trust the waitstaff.  That said, there will probably be one thing you get that you didn’t order.  Call it fate…just smile, nod and eat it. It’s sort of like a foreign  tour guide…you don’t always understand what they say, but in the end it’s usually an enjoyable experience.

3.  Don’t be alarmed by excessive happiness or singing.  You are not on Just for Laughs, in a broadway musical or expected to join a flash mob to Styx’s Mr. Roboto. It’s part of the experience…like salsa dancing on the deck of a cruise ship.

So, after examining the menu like we were studying for an SAT, the ordering began…

I love yuzu and a good gin and tonic.  The three together were an automatic choice for a starting cocktail.  It was presented without bells and whistles like umbrellas or lotus flowers.  I sucked it back pretty quick, a testament  to a good drink. Not a bad price either.

Kingyo Gin and Tonic $8
Kingyo Gin and Tonic $8

The first dish was tako wasabi, It was served beautifully on a stone plate with seaweed paper and a wooden well that Tinkerbell makes wishes in.  If you don’t like wasabi, don’t order this.  I’m not sure if the request for half cooked and half raw octopus was heard because it seemed all  raw but it didn’t matter.  It was a delicious dish.

Tako Wasabi $4.20
Tako Wasabi $4.20

I can’t turn down pickles…or pickels as it was spelled on the menu.  Regardless, the pickles were presented nicely. A cute trio of onion, daikon radish and squash were presented in three distinct ways. Although each may not appeal to everybody, it was like a buffet in which at least one would appease any palate.

Tsukemono Pickels Assortment $6.80
Tsukemono Pickels Assortment $6.80

Since there were only two of us, the 3 kind assortment of sashimi made the most sense.  I have seen the phenomenal presentation of the sashimi on other food reviews, so I was looking forward to a little visual magic.  The plain, white bowl was a bit disappointing (it was like seeing a great hotel on their website only to find the real room a little drab).  Maybe it was because I cheaped out and only ordered the three kind as apposed to 5 or 7.  Although pricy, the sashimi, was delicious. a mix of delicacies stretching the pacific from BC to Hawaii to Japan.

Sashimi- 3 Kind Assortment 25.00
Sashimi- 3 Kind Assortment
25.00

Next was the red tuna & black tiger prawn avocado tartar.  It tasted exactly how it sounded.  The sweet house sauce was a great touch, adding an unorthodox dimension to a normally rich and buttery dish.  There was a substantial amount of tartar for the 4 garlic crisps..maybe a few rice crackers or other mediums of transfer would have been a practical touch.

Red tuna & Black tiger prawn avocado tartar $10.80
Red tuna & Black tiger prawn avocado tartar $10.80

When it came to the meat,  I was intrigued by the stone grilled beef tongue because it required me to cook it myself.  Served with lemon, a hot sauce and and a savory oil, it requires you to slap some raw tongue on a hot stone and listen to the sizzle. The whole cooking process took less than 30 seconds (see below for my simple three step instructional).  It was fun and delicious and each of the condiments added a contrasting sensory dimension to the salty meat.

Stone Grilled Beef Tongue $10.20
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue $10.20- Step 1
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue- Part 2
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue- Part 2
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue- Done!
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue- Part 3

For those who like sizzle but not a little tongue, the stone bowl seafood sea urchin don is a smart choice. served with an array of seafood including prawn, squid, scallop and salmon roe.  After presenting the attractive dish, the waitress mixed it for us as it sizzled against the bowl. The suggestion was to let it sit for a while so the rice could caramelize a bit.  In the end, it’s a decent dish with a variety of texture and tastes, although with the ingredients, I expected a bit more of a pop.

Stone Bowl Seafood Sea Urchin Don $13.80
Stone Bowl Seafood Sea Urchin Don $13.80
Stone Bowl Seafood Sea Urchin Don- Mixed
Stone Bowl Seafood Sea Urchin Don- Mixed

By this time I needed another drink so I ordered the signature gold fish cocktail. I enjoyed it…refreshing with a bit of a kick.  As with the yuzu gin and tonic, I do appreciate $8 cocktails in this world of the numerous double digit offerings by other establishments.

Goldfish Cocktail $8
Goldfish Cocktail $8

The last dish was the Spicy Chopped Tuna Mango Roll.  It’s inevitable that I order a spicy tuna roll every time I visit a place that offers sushi.  Based on the rest of the menu, I wasn’t surprised to see that these rolls had a twist.  The spice was moderate and tuna was roughly chopped to protect it’s delicate texture and taste, The tobiko was a appropriate, salty touch.   The mango was fresh, bright and sweet but a bit overwhelming against the rest of the roll.

Spicy Chopped Tuna Mango Roll $9.80
Spicy Chopped Tuna Mango Roll $9.80

Japanese restaurants and good dessert can rarely be mentioned  in the same sentence. but not all offer “famous” almond tofu.  Touched with a cap of jasmine syrup and a belt of  tart berry sauce, it had a silky texture and great flavour balance. The key was digging down to the bottom to experience all the complementing flavours in one bite.

2 Color Almond Tofu $5.80
2 Color Almond Tofu $5.80

The final touch was a couple of frozen grapes hidden among yellow flowers in a tiny vase.  Perhaps picked by Tinkerbell or Pollyanna, they were a final reminder of the attention to detail and artistic flare that Kingyo prides themselves on.

Thank you grapes
Thank you grapes

My Take

The izakaya movement has hit Toronto, leading to a plethora of interpretations.  Some have taken the boisterous, karaoke route and others have chosen to go down the route of creating dishes that look straight from travel brochures.  Kingyo opted for the latter and attempted to create an oasis in an otherwise rustic and some would argue rundown and eccentric part of Toronto. Akiho brought us on a tour of wishing wells, hot rocks and bright flowers (although she did disappear for a bit).    In a world of all you can eat sushi menus similar to  all inclusive vacations, Kingyo offers a unique experience filled with good times, fun scenery and good food with enough variety to please meat eaters, pescatarians, vegans and the gluten intolerant alike. Plus, if you’re lucky, you may get serenaded by the wait/kitchen staff or actually spot a fairy hiding behind a mushroom or casting magic wishes in a tiny wooden well.

Kingyo Izakaya on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:The Annex: Guu Sakabar

The dining scene in Toronto has diversified over the past few years. Gone is the choice between snooty white linen, chain restaurants  or seedy local bars. Diners are looking for more than food, they want an experience which will either complement or overshadow the  food itself.

Guu Sakabar is marketed as an experience gone Gangnam style, characterized by loud music, singing cooks and a modernized version of old school  Japanese dining including removing your shoes to sit at a kotatsu (low Japanese table which puts your head at eye level to your server’s knees).  Some may see it as fun, hip and lively, others may see it an adult Chuck-e-Cheese or a glorified Lick’s.  Most of the dishes are simply prepared and presented. 

Must

The Hokke (mackerel) was a simple grilled fish, lightly seasoned and presented bone-in. No instruction was provided on proper boning technique so it may present an annoyance for some.  The fish was cooked perfectly, moist and flaky and it was a good-sized  portion.  The only issue was it came 10-15 minutes after everything else which made it a little less appealing to eat. 

Hokke (mackerel)

Maybe

The Ebimayo (fried prawns with spicy mayo) were decent. The prawns themselves were a good size, cooked right  but were too slathered in the less than impressive mayo which made them a bit soggy. 

There are a number of maybes on the menu depending on one’s personal taste.  The grilled beef tongue (Gyu Tongue) was a unique dish simply seasoned with salt.  It had a good flavour but has challenging liver-like texture which may not appeal to the masses. The Tontoro (pork cheek), is once again simply  prepared  but may be a bit too fatty for some palates, especially if the fat is not rendered enough.

Ebimayo (prawns with spicy mayo)
Gyu Tongue (beef tongue..partially eaten)
Tontoro (pork cheek)

Mundane

Regarding the experience, the environment is loud and the service is sketchy.  It was very difficult to order extra food, get a drink or even the bill.  I’ve already commented about the mackerel. Some may argue that the organized chaos adds to the fun but to me it’s an annoyance especially if it interferes with the flow of the  meal.  In addition, they have a rather ridiculous reservation policy which can be summarized as “We will only accept reservations when it’s not busy”. 

My Take

A visit to Guu is like landing a gig as an extra on a bad Japanese game show or a B-rated film.  The “fun” atmosphere is loud, chaotic and only adequate for conversation if you’re on a bad first date or with your mother-in-law.  The set-up  is not conducive to organized and efficient service.   There is a wide variety of well-prepared  simple and more exotic  foods in reasonable portions for sharing which appeals to a spectrum of diners (including about a dozen vegetarian options if you don’t include the free smiles, passion and cheers). 

In sum, it’s a good place to go if you have a small group with a variety of  taste, if you don’t care about talking to them too much and  if you have a lot of patience.  Just keep an eye over your shoulder in case you spy Psy eating tontoro in Toronto or there is a random attack  from Godzilla  or Mothra.

Guu Sakabar on Urbanspoon