It's an incessantly hot night on Jasper Avenue. Heat radiates from metal and concrete in a prolonged exhale. But it's a fine night for drivers to show off their tuned-up classic cars, trotting them out like pedigreed horses for the few short months when the roads aren't bedevilled with potholes and ice. It's an equally fine night to settle over sake and Japanese bar snacks at Ikki Izakaya
Ikki ekes out a cozy space a few steps off of Jasper Avenue, at the base of a Dubai-esque condo tower. The dark-walled room is adorned with Noh artwork, buoyed with chirpy J-pop and framed with a commendable sake collection. It imparts place without being gimmicky, and one quickly forgets that a river of roaring vehicles swarms by mere metres from the doorstep.
In true izakaya form, libations hold equal court with edibles. Hire-Sake ($11) comes together when a torched blowfish fin passes through flame and is capped for a few moments in a ceramic cup of sake. Rich "umami" – somewhere in the realm of dark mushrooms and well-marbled meat – permeates this ineffable beverage. Masu-Sake ($12) is presented in a tiny, dovetailed wooden crate. Served in wood instead of glass, this traditional presentation draws forth warm, organic notes one might find in a pine forest late in the afternoon. Many other interpretations of sake, from flavoured slushes, sake-tinis and everything in between, keep company with a concise selection of Japanese beer, ready to offset the summer heat.
Bar snacks, rather than full-on entrees, rule Ikki's menu, allowing one the latitude to assemble a meal skewed toward old-school standards, such as udon noodles or motsuni stew, or new-wave mash-ups, such as okonomiyaki hot dogs or Japanese poutine. Takoyaki ($6.99), a sextet of auburn, octopus-studded dumplings, embrace a tart-sweet ponzu drizzle and recline under a trembling layer of bonito flakes. Corn croquettes ($8.25), if a bit gluey, kick a quintessential comfort food (creamed corn) up a few notches by sending them for a toasty run in the deep fryer.
Proteins from both land and sea are testament to dextrous knife skills off-stage. Beef tataki ($12.75) arrives as six petals of rare beef that fan out from a translucent onion-cloud centre and rest upon a citrus ponzu base. Tuna appears twice; first as tuna sashimi ($6) and next as tuna tartar ($10.99). The former is an exercise in minimalism, where six deftly trimmed squares of tuna are as bright as watermelon and as rich as steak. The latter brings a multihued jumble of minced tuna, avocado and red apple, served like salsa on crisp spring-roll chips.
One might cap off the evening with a simple shot of intensely fragrant plum wine ($10), but taiyaki ($5.95) would instantly whisk one away to a Tokyo street market. These fish-shaped waffles, filled with sweet and mealy red bean paste, embody the Japanese penchant for whimsy.
Service is consistently polite and ensures logical flow from one end of the evening to the other. Ikki pushes no boundaries, but gracefully avoids any egregious missteps. Hot summer nights will come and go, and the pedigreed cars will soon retreat to their garages for the season, but as long as Ikki remains faithful to its Japanese roots, this institution of joyous, comestible hedonism will prevail.