Zakkushi received a Cheap Eats restaurant rating.
If you like smallish pubs that aren't too loud and aren't too quiet, that sell exotic-tasting cocktails for $6.50 and odd cuts of meat grilled on sticks over Japanese charcoal, then you might like Zakkushi, near the grotty Western edge of Cabbagetown.
Zakkushi, the first Toronto satellite of a Vancouver-based chain, serves both yakitori cooking – charcoal-grilled meat, fish and vegetable skewers; the term "kushiyaki" is also used – and izakaya food, the cheap and cheerful Japanese pub grub that's become a staple in recent years for the city's late night set.
But unlike Guu, the pioneering and all-popular izakaya chain with the Tokyo frat party vibe (it's fun if you're in the mood), and unlike many of the izakayas that have opened since Guu's launch here four years ago, Zakkushi feels relaxed and welcoming, far more like a neighbourhood joint than a brand extension.
The first time I ate there, after 9 p.m. on a frigid weeknight, a dad who looked to be Japanese-Canadian sat across from a girl who can't have been more than 10. They were having dinner together while he helped with her homework. Even amid the tables of Japanese twenty-somethings and college students, they didn't seem at all out of place.
On another night, with the simple, 60-seat space at full capacity and Taylor Swift rotating through the room's upbeat, pop soundtrack, a trio of septuagenarians drank roasted barley tea over delicate seaweed salads and skewers of thin-cut pork belly grilled with garlic chives. That this wasn't their crowd, exactly, hadn't seemed to cross their minds: yakitori cooking is still relatively rare around Toronto; at other places it's nowhere near as good. (A case in point: the new Kintaro, on Church Street. Lovely room, lovely service, you've-got-to-be-kidding-me cooking.) Zakkushi's grilled skewers and izakaya plates taste a lot like they do in Japan.
The best way to make a night at the place is with plenty of drinks, a few plates of skewers and plenty of the izakaya dishes to round things out. That seaweed salad – a tangle of bright, surprisingly crunchy wakame ribbons – glimmers with soy, sesame and rice vinegar flavours under its refreshing seacoast salinity.
Zakkushi's cucumber salad has been marinated with tart-sour ume plum paste, so that it's recognizably cucumber but something entirely different; it's finished with wisps of deep-marine dried bonito, called katsuobushi. If you're not accustomed to these flavours, it's a breathtaking dish; if you are, it is merely delicious. Either way, it costs $3.50.
There's a terrific daikon salad, also: thin, crisp ribbons of chilled white radish tossed with sharp-tasting scallions, nori and more of those bonito shavings. As with the seaweed and the cucumber it's a great way to front-load a meal here. The menu goes intense and savoury very fast.
Now order the chicken thighs cut into cubes and threaded with shiso leaves onto bamboo sticks before being grilled to a sizzle. That floral note you'll find yourself marvelling at is more of that plum paste, applied more thickly here than on the cucumber salad. Have the gizzards if you're adventurresome – they're chicken, but with twice the flavour and a cartilaginous little crunch in their middles. There were also chicken livers when I last ate there (more livery than I like my livers, even as a liver-lover), hearts (excellent) and chicken balls slicked with cheese sauce (extremely popular; I don't get the attraction; also, a clarification: they're balls of minced chicken). Pass if you have to. But at very minimum, be sure to get the chicken skin, which is weaved loosely onto skewers and grilled to golden-crisp. It's a go-to yakitori dish: crunchy, chewy, decadently salty, superb with one of Zakkushi's boozy yuzu honey sours.
I also liked the grilled beef tongue, enjoyed the grilled eel that numbs your mouth with Szechuan peppercorns as you eat it, loved the garlic chives wrapped in fatty pork belly and went crazy for the bacon-wrapped mochi, which are little balls of glutinous rice. Mochi is chewy and starchy – it has the sort of satisfying flubbery bounce that's popular across much of Asia. Perfumed with molten bacon fat and toasted to the colour of campfire marshmallows, mochi is creamy-chewy and golden flavoured, an epiphany of whitebread deliciousness.
Yet some of Zakkushi's best dishes come from the restaurant's monthly specials sheets. We had a superbly satisfying chicken-and-egg rice bowl the last time I ate there (the cost: $6.80), as well as an excellent, if trashy (in the best way possible) sio yakisoba, which consisted of spaghetti noodles (they're big in Japan) pan-fried with fatty sliced pork and vegetables, anchored with bonito flakes.
If you feel an urge to order sashimi, don't. It's not bad, but it isn't good. Same with the anemic little overcooked lamb chops, which cost nearly $7 apiece and will leave you feeling alone and sad. The grilled mackerel fillets, however, are some of the best I've had in town: fresh and juicy, sizzling with rich-tasting fat.
And Zakkushi's desserts are uncommonly good, none better than the house-made black sesame ice cream that tastes a lot like a Japanese take on Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and comes with a dribble of raspberry sauce. Like so much of the cooking here it's simple, direct, cheap and delicious – pub food, but as if from a dream.