There was a point in Vancouver about a decade ago when you could scarcely walk along Robson or Denman streets, in that city’s west end, without bumping past gaggles of twenty-something Japanese men with wild, bleached-out hair and artfully ragged clothes.
Anyone who was not from the city, or not versed in its booming Asian food scene, might have thought the kids were everyday degenerates. But it was just as likely that they were cooks in Vancouver’s fast-expanding crop of izakayas, tavern-like spaces, soaked in beer, shochu and sake, that spun out inventive and proudly trashy Japanese drinking food. The city’s izakayas served deep-fried squid cartilage with curry salt, oysters baked with mayonnaise and melted cheese, as well as pizzas made from Indian naan and topped with scallops. The food was cheap: $10 or less for most dishes. For obvious reasons, food lovers fell hard.
It took a bit longer for Toronto to get its first real izakaya, in 2009, when Vancouver’s pioneering Guu chain opened a satellite here. Even three years later, the Church Street restaurant remains hugely popular. (Guu has since added a second Toronto spot on Bloor Street, as well as an excellent ramen operation, called Kinton, on Baldwin Street.) The cavernous room, with its communal bench seating and its shouting, bandana-clad chefs, feels like a Bavarian bierstube imported from Tokyo and run by knife-swinging, flame-licked lunatics; though the food is uneven, an evening there can offer an inordinate amount of fun.
But Vancouver’s Hapa Izakaya, which many West Coasters vow is even better than Guu, bided its time before finally coming east. Early last month, the restaurant company, with four B.C. locations, opened a branch on College Street. (Toronto is in a Japanese mini-boom; several other Vancouver- and Tokyo-based restaurants are expected to open satellites here in the coming months.)
With Hapa, something important has been lost in translation. In place of the easy, convivial intimacy of Vancouver’s best izakayas, or the daring or exuberance or playground feel of Guu on Church, Hapa feels like a discount sports bar crossed with a nightclub that’s also somehow a sushi joint. The restaurant seems to have been designed expressly to gather the worst College Street clichés into one convenient spot.
At the front of the room by the street, there are televisions at every viewpoint, tuned to baseball, a constant, flickering, distracting stand-in where design and warmth and atmosphere should be. The walls and ceilings have been painted matte black, as if there were stains that had to be covered, and many of the finishes are done in cheap-looking plywood, tinted to the colour of stripper tan.
The music is the sort that draws people who dress in spandex and order rounds of saketinis: It’s a parody of night-club music, with stiff, insipid, incessantly treble high-hat over muddy bass and booming, joyless beats.
Yet somehow – and I’m assuming that somehow is the reputation that preceded Hapa – the room is busy, packed with young, curious couples and parties of Asian kids. The best reason to come is for West Coast seafood, which is far better than the room would suggest. There are scallops, prawns, sockeye, ahi tuna and mackerel, often fresher and better-handled than at all but the top city sushi joints, and at lower prices than you expect to pay. The aburi saba, or marinated mackerel, is a prime example.
The server brings a butane torch to the table, clicks it on and whisks the blue flame over the shimmering silver fillet. The flesh sizzles, its oils darken and deepen in flavour. Ten seconds later, it’s done. The fish is firm, sweet, gently meaty, its fats teased with flame into complex, candied, atomic-level tastes. They charge $9 for this, which is about half of what it’s worth.
Chopped fish figures prominently: scallops with mayo, flying-fish roe and scallion, as a dip with wonton chips; albacore in a sweet, teriyaki-like sauce, with rounds of garlic bread. It’s delicious heresy, balanced so the fish never gets entirely lost.
The daily sashimi plate is also superb. One night recently, it included some of the best raw scallop in the city: tender, buttery, untainted by the tinny flavour of tripolyphosphate, the preservative that most sushi-joint scallops are soaked in. There were dark-pink slices of superb sockeye salmon, plus albacore tuna and excellent prawns that were laid on a bed of ice that was lit Curaçao blue, from below, with an LED. The fish here is certified sustainable by OceanWise. This is no small deal.
But sashimi isn’t izakaya food, it’s sushi bar food. Where Hapa’s kitchen fails, and miserably at times, is with what should be an izakaya’s mainstays, its cooked dishes. The agedashi tofu – blocks of battered, fried tofu served with sweetened soy – is limp and tasteless, its pale golden shell as soft and uncrunchy as a wet cotton sweater. The hot wings are served at the edge of cold, and their coating’s mushy and sticky. A halibut taco comes wrapped in floury, synthetic-tasting grocery-store tortilla shells. They taste like a Six O’Clock Solution. The grilled squid is tough and flavourless.
The spicy pork ishi-yaki, a jumble of rice, vegetables, meat and miso served in a hot stone bowl, is very good, however, especially when the hot bowl bakes the rice to crusty brown, as are the gyoza, the chicken karaage, the baked sablefish, the pork-belly lettuce wraps. Yet dishes like these aren’t inventive or edgy or even all that much fun any longer: They’re a dime a dozen, widely available in other places without the sad-sack surroundings.
In the end, if you order wisely, it is possible to eat well here without spending huge amounts of money. But should you? That probably depends on your feelings about spandex and saketinis.
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds.
** Very good, with some standout qualities.
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution.