A Cheap Eats pick, where you can dine well for under $30, before alcohol, tax and tip.
Hanmoto is a new izakaya and dive bar on Lakeview Avenue, just north of Dundas West. It is run by the young chef Leemo Han, who is also the chef and co-owner of Oddseoul, the Korean-American-themed dive bar a few blocks away on Ossington Avenue. Like Oddseoul, Hanmoto has no public phone number or website, and apart from a mention on its Twitter page (it's @hanmoto_, and note the not-at-all-easy-to-miss underscore at the end there), the place doesn't seem eager to disseminate its business hours to the general public. I've been twice now, both times after 7 p.m. on Thursday nights, and it was open, so you can always go on that.
Hanmoto has no sign, of course. Until you walk right up close, the windows appear to be covered from the inside with cardboard, as though the building is not, in fact, an izakaya and dive bar, but a squatter camp for photophobics. It can not be long before the appearance of an enormous spray-painted "Go Away!" sign and a moat kept brimming with flaming dog turds.
Would you eat at Hanmoto? Have a closer look at the space and the food.
Inside, it's warm and loud, bare brick walls and bamboo accents built around an open kitchen. They play old-school hip hop. The hip hop is punctuated now and then with odd bits of R&B and reggae. (A standout from my most recent visit: Wayne Wonder's cover of Eternal Flame, the Bangles hit.) The first time I ate at Hanmoto, we sat at the counter, pressed up against a glass prep fridge that was filled in part with sushi knives. We ordered most of the menu: torched salmon aburi, hamachi tartare, the sea urchin and crispy chicken-skin-based "uni bomb," the roasted half salmon face, a chicken sandwich.
As we ordered the sandwich, the server stopped us. "Do you want to order two?" The sandwich, a flaky, deep-fried Jamaican coco bun mounded with Japanese curry chicken and coleslaw, would be sloppy to share, she said. "We don't have knives to, like, cut them in half."
I pointed to the sushi knives not eight inches in front of us. "But there are knives right there that they could cut it with," I said. The server smiled and shrugged. "Yeah, we can't," she said.
The second time I ate at Hanmoto, after a half-hour wait, a server directed my party of four to a two-top that was scarcely big enough for a couple of Asahi bottles and a rice bowl. (We held out for a bigger table.) So you will no doubt read the rest of my thoughts about the place as either a cautionary tale or a qualified rave. Either interpretation would be accurate. Hanmoto is one of the most thoroughly annoying restaurants I've been in the last six months. I also can't wait to go back.
Izakaya food is Japanese drinking food: the wild, table-dancing, salt and fat and shochu-fuelled bastard child of a culinary tradition that otherwise runs on reverence. Mr. Han grew up in Philadelphia and Toronto on a diet of North American junk food and his mother's Korean samgyetang, the ginseng and chicken soup. His first restaurant job was as a dishwasher at Edo, on Eglinton Avenue. He quickly became a cook, and worked his way up to sushi chef.
At Oddseoul, which he runs with his brother Leeto, Mr. Han proved himself a master at repurposing such disparate influences into breathtakingly delicious sops for cheap beer and cocktails. (The Loosey, his Philly-style griddled white-bread hamburger sluiced with kimchi hollandaise, remains one of my favourite sandwiches of all time.)
It's a wonder he didn't branch out into izakaya cooking until now. The cooking at Hanmoto is izakaya cooking, but with an extra dose of American-style swagger and incaution – or at least the carefully cultivated appearance of incaution – that makes it devastating stuff to eat.
Hanmoto's uni bomb is a bowl of sushi rice and four large sea urchin gonads, with salmon roe for juicy pop and shivs of oven-crisped chicken skin for guilty umami snap and salt. If you close your eyes as you eat that chicken skin, you can see the ticking timer on the 27 kilotons of animal fat that will some day explode in your superior vena cava. You get wasabi and chopped scallion to offset the creamy uni, sheets of nori and a squall of tiny roasted arare rice balls – they look like hailstones – for toasty crunch. Mr. Han's uni-bomb isn't cooking. It's food engineering. If he didn't run restaurants, you begin to realize, the chef would be a star product developer for a villainous multinational food conglomerate.
His katsu bun is a sort of modern Japanese burger made with a slab of pork belly that's cooked in ginger beer for 24 hours so that it takes on the light, flaky texture of good halibut, but then it's rolled in panko and deep-fried hard and dressed with iceberg lettuce and "soy remoulade," which really tastes more like Big Mac sauce with life experience. Mr. Han sells it for $7. It's worth more than that.
A lot of the cooking comes on sizzle plates: the fat tranche of enoki mushrooms that's seared hard under a weight so it tastes as meaty as it does vegetal, nearly as substantial as a hunk of flatiron steak. The nasu dengaku Japanese eggplant dish also comes sizzling. Chef de cuisine Joe Kim (ex-Electric Mud, Momofuku) deep-fries and then broils it to the texture of molten bone marrow and tops it with miso hollandaise, as well as a tuft of deep-fried angel hair made from beets.
The salmon aburi – aburi is the sushi technique of blowtorching raw fish – would be better if it were made with wild salmon rather than the flabby-tasting farmed stuff, but the torching crisps and sweetens it nicely. (This is not a wild salmon sort of bar.)
The dyno wings, as they're called, are boneless chicken wings stuffed, dumpling-like, with ground pork, ginger and Portuguese smoked bacon. They're then deep-fried and slathered with tare, the reduced soy, mirin and roasted chicken bone glaze. If those wings don't drive you to drinking, nothing can.
I ordered the salmon face out of morbid curiosity: I am not a face-eater generally. It might have been the cocktail I'd already drunk (lime-leaf infused vodka, ginger liquor and ginger beer) or the several tallboys of Pabst Blue Ribbon, but I quite enjoyed its jiggly-gangly-custard-like textures. My dinnermate bogued the eyeball when I looked away.
We had the sweet miso ice cream for dessert; it is dense and rich (it's done kulfi-style with condensed milk, frozen in blocks instead of churned). It comes dusted with nori powder. The flavour and texture are reminiscent of cheese as much as of ice cream. It's delicious stuff, though far too savoury for more than four bites. A slap of acidity would make it a knockout dish.
As we were leaving, I asked for the bill and reached for the wad of cash I'd brought; Hanmoto accepts credit cards, the server said, smiling. How … hospitable. Whether from the food or drink or the shock, I'm not certain, but I nearly fell out of my chair.