The whole idea of izakaya, as practised in Japan, is being dismantled in Toronto by Guu. In Japan, where they're a dime a dozen, izakayas are glorified bars where salarymen (not so many women) go after work to "unwind" (a.k.a. get drunk) and snack. An office worker might hit several izakayas before heading home. It is not about dinner; the food is secondary to the alcohol.
Here in Toronto, the izakaya is about the food. It's not that we're either puritanical or teetotallers - we're such a food-obsessed town that we have turned the bars into another occasion for fierce epicureanism. We line up for it! The new Guu opened on Bloor Street just east of Bathurst less than a month ago and it already has lineups out to the street. Nice that they installed a long indoor hallway to wait in so one needn't freeze while waiting. But if attempting to dine between 6:30 and 9 p.m., the lineup could still take an hour. And longer on weekends.
Are you worried about eating food imported from Japan during this time of trouble? Most Japanese food imports (soy and sesame sauce and the like) arrived in Toronto long before the earthquake and tsunami created radiation issues; of the fish we eat in Japanese restaurants, usually only yellowtail (hamachi) comes from Japan and it comes from the southwestern part, far from the nuclear disasters.
The good news is that Guu is donating 50 cents from every bottle of Ramune drunk there to Japanese relief, so drink up. Ramune is cream soda's kissin' cousin, so unfortunately the taste is not highly motivating. Nor is everyone lining up for their charming but watery vodka drinks (how cute that they bring the glass with vodka on the rocks, and a grapefruit or orange with a squeezer for you to build your own fresh drink). But we're lining up for the food, which is fabulous!
Most of new Guu's menu is the same fun food as Guu Church Street, but a few new items have been added. I don't know what they were thinking, but skip the hotate butter, which is fusion foolishness: overcooked scallops and mushrooms on a scallop shell afloat in a sea of butter. Also skip the kushiage, wherein various foods that should never be deep-fried (bacon! quail egg! potato!) are rolled in too much panko and deep fried. And I would skip the rice burger: Pleasant pan-fried pork is crammed with a lot of cabbage and some garlic mayo between two "buns" made of crisped rice. All three items suffer from stodginess which is neither Japanese nor Guu-ish. That's what can come from fiddling with fusion.
Two of the new items are better, but neither shines like the rest of Guu. Barbecue pork is fat pork belly with bean sprouts and green onions - pleasant but unexciting. In carbonara udon, Italy meets Japan; udon's customary dashi broth (kelp-based) is enriched with heavy cream and parmesan cheese, fried bacon and onions. Fat rice noodles soak up the broth nicely; on top is a perfectly cooked egg, its yolk so runny that this too enriches the liquid. For my money I prefer either the sharp clean flavour of udon or the liquid velvet of carbonara rather than their hybrid, which lacks the thrill of both.
Luckily, new Guu is serving the glories of Church Street Guu, so one can ignore these unfortunate iconoclasms. Takowasabi - marinated octopus with chopped wasabi stem and tiny crispy veg, to wrap in ultra-crisp nori, is heavenly: hot and crisp. Barely seared B.C. tuna sits on piquant ponzu sauce with crisp-fried garlic chips. Daikon salad is a crazy cool slaw of cucumber, tiny greens and slivers of slightly marinated daikon. Isobe-age is charming batons of mellow, tender fish cake in crispy tempura batter studded with bits of nori for flavour … and green-tea salt for snazzy dipping! Oden is smoky kombu broth most deliciously populated with fried fish cake. Marinated mackerel has been kissed lightly by the torch and pressed into flavour-packed nigiri sushi.
Go raw, too. What could be more fun than salmon natto uke - raw salmon, with natto (fermented soybeans), crisp fried garlic and wonton chips, shibazuke (pickled eggplant and cucumber in plum vinegar seasoned with ginger), takuan (pickled daikon), green onion and raw egg yolk? You mix these elements and wrap them in crisp nori to make scrumptious rich/savoury crisp/soft packets.
Plain 'n' simple raw fish is also amazing. For the money, you get the biggest blob of super-fresh uni (sea urchin) in town. They also cream raw uni for a credible sauce under sweet raw scallops. B.C. sweet shrimp (also raw) melt in the mouth. At $6.80 for five shrimps, this is pretty friendly pricing.
Which is another reason for the lineups: Guu is such a smile-inducer. It's your birthday? Tell them. A dozen-plus staff will sing Happy Birthday very loudly, proffering a bouquet of multi-coloured shots. Other folks will join in. There will be shouting. (Always.) They shout when you arrive, they shout when you leave. You might even have to shout for food, because there's loveable mayhem at Guu.