After living in NYC for 5 years, I sometimes feel like a tourist in my hometown of Toronto. So when I went back last month, like any other trip, I researched local publications on the newest and best places to eat. I was excited when I read about Guu Izakaya (one of Toronto's best new restaurants in 2010 - and the most affordable amongst the top 10).
I was even more excited when Toronto-based Mardi of Eat Live Travel Write mentioned that not only was she free for dinner, but that Australia-based Conor of Hold the Beef was also in town. It was truly an international blogger meet-up!
Izakayas are Japanese pubs that are known for their fun atmosphere and inexpensive food and drink. Toronto had certainly embraced this izakaya, with potential 2 hour long waits for tables. The manager had kindly allowed us to take photos before the restaurant opened, which also meant we would not have to wait in line (there were only 4 other people waiting in time at the 5pm opening anyway). The space itself was warm, natural, yet sleek. There are long communal tables inside, which lends to the loud, echoing, party atmosphere inside.
Once we were let in, the entire staff greeted us (as they do with every guest) with a rousing hello. We opted for the quieter (and brighter) outdoor patio and would soon enjoy a 2+ hour tapas-style dinner. (Luckily the manager also waived the 2 hour dining time limit, which gave us more than enough time to photograph every dish multiple times!)
Bring on the drinks! I started with the Berry Sakegria ($6.80 CAD) which had black peppercorns in addition to tons of fruit. It tasted like fruit juice with a very light kick. Then I moved on to the light and refreshing Bamboo cocktail ($5.50 CAD). The Bamboo cocktail contained melon liqueur, white wine, lychee juice, and soda but wasn't too sweet nor strong. Mardi went big with her Big Mug ($9 CAD) of Sapporo beer.
Mardi and Connor also opted for fresh fruit vodka sodas. Both received glasses of soda and vodka plus juicers and sliced citrus. It was fun as Mardi worked for her pretty pink grapefruit drink ($5.50 CAD), while Connor tried making (spiked) lemonade ($5.50 CAD) with her lemons.
So much food! We chose the Kakimayo ($6.80 CAD) which were grilled oysters with spinach, garlic mayo, and cheese on the top (so good!). I enjoy takoyaki in NYC, so I was eager to order the deep fried octopus balls ($5 CAD) with Tonkatsu sauce and mustard mayo. We also ordered the Ebimayo ($7.80 CAD) or deep fried prawns in crispy batter with spicy mayo plus the Sweet Potato fries ($5 CAD)
This Salmon Natto Yukke ($8.30) or chopped salmon with 7 friends (natto or soybean mixture, shibazuke or Japanese pickles, takuan or pickled radish, wonton chips, garlic chips, green onion, and raw egg yolk). It looked pretty when we first got it, then it's mixed all together into a gooey mixture. Conor and I ate it with seaweed. It was interesting, but I prefer salmon sashimi on its own.
Pork belly? Yes please! We got the Kakuni ($6.50) which had sweet miso braised pork belly with boiled egg. There was a bit of wasabi on the bowl (the yellow paste) which gave the mild soup, fatty pork belly, and savory egg a nice kick.
The Tofu Salad ($5.80) with tofu and garlic-sauteed mushrooms on greens with crispy wonton chips gave us all a much needed fresh dish (to offset all of the deep-fried goodness we were eating).
One of my unexpected favorite dishes was the Kabocha Korokke ($4.50) which was a curious mix of deep fried pumpkin croquette with a hard-boiled egg inside. I liked the mix of sweet pumpkin with salty egg.
The Kinoko Cheese Bibimbap ($8.30) was the group's favorite dish. With rice, garlic-sauteed mushrooms, and cheese with seaweed sauce, it was like a mushroom risotto. I also love hot-stone dishes because the rice turns crispy on the bottom.
Despite all of the food we ate, I always have room for dessert. I suggested the milky Almond Tofu ($3.50) because I always enjoyed eating almond jelly at the end of a large dim sum meal. The tofu was so creamy. We also couldn't resist the Banana Tempura ($5.80). There was coconut ice cream plus chocolate and mango sauce on top of the deep fried banana tempura. It was a rich and decadent dessert. As a final touch, our bill came with frozen grapes to end our meal.
With a rowdy good-bye from the staff, we left our easy trip to Japan very full and satisfied. Some tips on going? Go on a weekday and get there when they open at 5pm. Because the food is served tapas-style, going in a group of 3-4 people is ideal (a large group would be even more fun, but it'll be very difficult to get seats at this no-reservation restaurant).
Guu Izakaya is located at 398 Church St (at McGill St) in Toronto, ON, Canada.