Izakayas were never meant to serve dinner. In Japan, an izakaya serves after-work bar snacks with liberal doses of alcohol, in a ritual meant to sweeten the transition between work and home. It has been mistranslated in Toronto as a place to go out for dinner.
Both Guu restaurants get away with it because their food is too damn good not to eat for dinner. Crazy good. Good enough to put up with lineups and constant shouting and cramped uncomfortable seating – like an izakaya is supposed to be, because it’s a bar, not a restaurant.
Toronto’s newest izakaya, Don Don Izakaya, on Dundas just west of Bay Street, is far more faithful to the original idea in that Don Don serves actual bar food. After you have climbed the long staircase to their second-floor digs, the welcome is fun, as it is at Guu: they do some shouting when you arrive and they bang a huge drum in welcome. Seating is also similar to Guu, with benches at long wooden tables or seats along the long bar. .
But, unlike at Guu, I am having trouble figuring out why anybody would line up for Don Don’s food. How is it that Daisuke Izutsu could possibly be cooking there? Mr. Izutsu was chef/owner of the ineffable Kaiseki-Sakura on Church Street and is, apparently, cooking at Don Don. I say apparently because what they’re dishing at Don Don has about as much resemblance to Kaiseki-Sakura’s quality as my singing does to Adele’s.
Seaweed chips are strips of nori that have been coated in sweetened wasabi. It’s a great idea and it tastes pretty good but the nori has gone tough and leathery. Tako wasabi is octopus simmered in wasabi-tinged broth – eentsy-weentsy little pieces of octopus, so small you can hardly taste them. Miso-marinated mackerel is overcooked mackerel in lovely-tasting miso broth with equally overcooked green onions. Don don soup is better, a credible, although not notable, miso broth with burdock, pork belly, onion and carrot.
Seafood dorea is a heinous crime against sea critters. It is a gummy mess of rice and breadcrumbs atop badly overcooked dried-out mussels, octopus and shrimp. This dish, like much else at Don Don, seems to be an experiment in cross-cultural fusion. Take, for instance, their Caesar salad, which is mostly a normal American Caesar (romaine, parmesan cheese) with the addition of a poached egg. Why, in a Japanese restaurant? And why overcooked mussels in white-wine sauce? Or a weirdly 1950’s salad of off-colour, brownish, hard-boiled egg halves stuffed with bland egg salad with smoked salmon and an erect piece of cold bacon stuck on top?
Soft fish cake is the only cooked item that works well. This is, literally, soft, white fish cake of delicate flavour, topped with wasabi-inflected, salted fish eggs. But the stuff that is simpler and more genuinely Japanese fares better in Don Don’s kitchen. Or, more accurately, the less they do to the food, the better it is. Their sushi is just fine. The skewers that they’re constantly grilling over gas in the open kitchen are okay too.
And they do one thing that requires them to do no cooking at all: Jaja-yaki is raw beef with sides brought to your table with a very hot, small black iron sauté pan. You put in the beef and pull it out when it’s cooked. It comes with pleasant Japanese barbecue sauce and good veg.
Smoky hay sashimi is their other minimalist cooking opus, and equally good: In the open kitchen, a cook throws a handful of hay into a small stainless-steel vessel with a hot burner at the bottom. The hay ignites and she then holds raw fish over it with long stainless-steel chopsticks for less than two minutes, turning the fish to and fro till its outside is just barely charred. She then leaves the fish in the steel box for another couple of minutes till it’s lightly smoked. Clever. Warm. Subtle.
The service ranges from really fast to appalling. Despite wearing iPads on waist belts, servers sometimes forget orders; sometimes the first three things arrive within ten minutes and the next three require reminders. Some of the staff seem unable to answer any questions about what they’re delivering.
And yet Don Don is mobbed. And with mostly Japanese people. Maybe they’re just so homesick that any port in a storm will do.