I've been thinking of this post as my 'In honour of TCAF' post. If you didn't know, TCAF is the Toronto Comic Arts Fair, and happens to be where I spent my whole weekend volunteering, and also happens to be really awesome. Everyone I worked with was a peach. One of the co-founders is the lovely Chris Butcher, who I've followed on twitter for ages...and the man LOVES the izakaya joint GUU which recently landed two locations in Toronto (we went to the 559 Bloor St. W location)! Naturally I had to go there, especially given my interest in trying Japanese food that isn't cookie-cutter dull sushi.
So here's to Chris, the other organizers, the staff of the Beguiling, my co-volunteers, and of course the amazing comic artists who brought so many people together this past weekend. Itadakimasu!
This place has so much character. It's like walking into a crowd scene from a Miyazaki film, with colourful characters yelling back and forth and literally cheering each arrival, and thanking every departure at full voice. I don't know how the staff can act so cheerful and animated, it's hilarious, it's fun, and it's catching. At one point they swarm a table to sing 'Happy Birthday' and for some reason they have maracas. No wonder the vibe inside is of boozy joy, the patrons all getting drunk on the novelty. The staff are very accommodating, giving us hot damp towels to clean our hands on, though they're very slow to serve. There's plenty of staff, but there are WAY more customers; the narrow and dark eatery is jammed. With three seating areas, we go for the speediest and eat at the bar, which is quite wide. There's also an area with large communal tables, and another area where guests must remove their shoes and sit on floor cushions. I'd like to try that next time, when it's not a 40 minute wait. I think the other location on Church street has a summer patio (just don't quote me on that).
We started with the Oshinko (house pickles) off the special menu, with a side dish of confusion. We were told the kitchen ran out of pickles, and a little bit later, were told they were making us pickles! Which doesn't quite make sense since pickles need to marinade and, well... pickle, for a while. Or else they're just vegetables. What we wound up with was a gorgeous plate of raw vegetables, mostly cucumber, daikon, carrot, radish and some crazy sushi-esque deal that I have no name for, just appreciation. The vegetables had had SOMETHING done to them, and even if it wasn't pickled, it was tasty. They were soft and salty, with a dash of sushi vinegar and ginger. A very pleasant, refreshing start to the meal, along with a few huge steins of Sapporo, and a Ramune for me (it's a Japanese soda that taste like a light cream soda... and fifty cents from each purchase goes to help Japan when you buy it at GUU).
A while ago I tried jellyfish. I don't shy away from strange foods, rather I seek to embrace them. It was a weird, mushy disappointment served on watery iceberg lettuce. Gross. I guess I should have expected as much from ordering anything other than the eponymous dumplings from Dumpling House. It was finally time for a second chance from a proper restaurant, and my friends joined me in this deep-dish salad. It was an even blend of lettuce, heaps of noodly jellyfish, chapchae (seasoned cold glass noodles), and crunchy wonton. The jellyfish was SO good! Enjoying the not-too-meaty chewiness, I was happy to be able to reverse my original opinion. The salad really was a chameleon, with the two main toppings, jellyfish and chapchae, taking on the sweet and salty flavour of Japanese dressing. The dressing was the same as at any other Japanese restaurant. There was also jicama which is a variety of turnip, that added plenty of crunch to the salad. Not too special overall.
This was a major hit with us! I would like to call it 'chicken balls for adults", where the chicken is replaced with lumps of squid tentacle, and instead of being dipped in fake, electric red sweet 'n' sour sauce, the balls are instead drowned in a creamy cheese gratin, with stringy crusty cheese melted on top and a savoury sauce throughout. It had a surprising and delightful flavour of hot mustard, which may have come from wasabi, and a sweetness from ponzu. The dough was very soft, like fresh baked bread, and just sopped up all the juice and cheese. A very rich dish for those in harmony with their arteries.
There was little to get excited about with these chicken nuggets in tempura batter. They did all seem to have a frightening appearance like small birds, which I'm sure was completely unintentional, and a great source of amusement for someone with as bizarre a mind as mine. The flavour wasn't much to write home about, since they are just boneless chicken wings in essence and flavour, and taste how you would expect. The mayo on the side had a nice zing, and the portion was generous for 5.20$
Again we ordered something delectable and deep fried in tempura batter, this time the fish cake called isobeage. If you can imagine a deep fried sponge that tastes like everything good to eat in the sea, you're starting to imagine the isobeage. It's really unusual, and is shamelessly bar food. I found it really interesting that it came with a heap of matcha powder on the side as seasoning. The matcha tasted bitter and strong, and was soaked up by the oil of the crust of our fish cake cones. I don't think it added much other than a wow for presentation.
With this arrived another dish of shapeless fried indulgence. This one is ika-nan, deep fried squid cartilage. I'm glad someone has found a use for that part of the cephalopod, because I always eat around it when I cook at home. Yet again the meat is battered in flaky tempura crust, this time also tossed in a spicy sauce. The cartilage has crunch and chewiness, but isn't an unpalatable texture. It tastes like squid, but also like a pork rind. It's all fat, all crust, all sauce. This also came with a side of the hot, tangy mayo.
One of the bigger experiments of the night was ordering a mixed bowl- a yukke. We got the salmon natto yukke, mainly because of my insistence on trying natto- Japanese fermented beans. Natto dish is HUMONGOUS in Japan, it's a national staple (from my understanding, anyhow). It's also notorious outside it's country of origin for being one of the more horrible foods you can order, and opinions on it differ widely. Not all fermentation tastes bad after all, or we wouldn't enjoy wine and beer. The dish was so pretty and colourful, with a raw quail egg adding a yolky dash of yellow to the heart of the bowl, which also had salmon sashimi, wonton chips, green onion, shibazuke (a mixture of cucumber and eggplant pickles), takuon (daikon pickle) and of course, natto. The dish is served with all the ingredients separate in the same bowl, meant to be mixed together and served in dollops on squares of crisp nori. I'm a huge nori advocate, but first I wanted to try the natto by itself. I just tried a couple of the little beans. Oh no! Call me uncultured, I'll accept it, but I cannot eat natto by itself. It tastes sour, and the gooey, stringy texture of fermented gloop that coats it is a turn-off. We followed through and mixed the dish all together. The natto helped it stick. In the end, the different flavours harmonized, and even though some of that fermentation came through, the nori and tender salmon saved the dish. I ended up enjoying it as a whole, though I can't say I would order a natto yukke again.
My favourite dish perhaps was the assorted kushi age (Japanese kabob made with unexpected items). This is very similar to tempura, but served on a skewer, and with a more robust batter. We ordered a skewer of quail egg (soft, fluffy yolks and the most tasty snack I never imagined), one of potato (predictable but delicious comfort food), one of ham (served as a slab, just a big chunk of meat that tasted a bit like a hot dog), mushroom (sadly it was only crimini or button- I had hoped we would have shiitake, or some less run of the mill deep fried fungus), and lotus root (this wasn't actually a skewer, and the dense slices of root were pleasantly refreshing and watery while maintaining their body. A bit sweet). All served with an out of this world ponzu sauce, and that ever-present wasabi mayo.
I insisted on desert even though we were all full after sharing all the greasy dishes. I had seen a picture of this sesame troika of a dessert called 'goma senkushi' that I needed to try- not because I'm nuts for sesame, but because I knew I could draw it beautifully. Sometimes that's what motivates me to order a dish. It arrived, and was as lovely as I had hoped. It was tasty, too. The rice cracker wafers were flaky and not overpowering. The two rice balls were warm and glutinous, one had been deep fried with a sesame seed crust. The ice cream was black, and tasted more of cream than seeds, but for the visual alone I would have loved it. Less of an overwhelming aroma than I expected, but a filling dessert that suits the menu going at GUU.
Thanks to my guests Anthony (of the band The Ethers) and Nate (design editor at large) for experimenting with me!