Izakaya isn’t common in Toronto and what has existed isn’t anything to write home about. On the other hand, Guu is five restaurants strong in Vancouver, so they know a thing or two about running a successful Izakaya joint. And so there’s been this anticipation around Guu‘s Toronto outpost that has foodies abuzz. Since Guu officially opens its doors tonight, I foresee people eagerly biding their time in line for a seat at one of their communal tables or a stool at the bar. And as I found out on one of their soft-opening nights, Toronto’s never experienced anything quite like Guu.
Walking up to the newly renovated space that Guu occupies and you immediately notice that it stands out from its less-sleek surroundings. It is set back a bit from the street, with a small parking lot out front and a tandoori place next door. But you’d never know it from the inside. Unfinished wood and dangling bulbs somehow complement the grid of boxes and glass elsewhere. The view to the lot is mostly obscured – randomly spaced square windows give us tiny chunks of the outside world, alleviating the feeling of being trapped behind a wall.
Immediately as you enter, a welcoming chorus of voices greet you from the open kitchen. And through the evening, the noise never quite dies down. At one point, the thought that it vaguely reminded me of Lick’s ran through my head, with cooks hollering your order down the line like a game of broken telephone.
We ate and drank a lot. So much so that I decided to organize this by sections on the menu. Otherwise, it would be far too chaotic. Numbers in brackets denote how many dishes we ate in its respective section. Ready?
Special Menu (2/3)
There weren’t too many specials, but we did like what was on it. I was tempted to get the uni, but ultimately decided to pass. This time!
Marinated BC Albacore Tuna sashimi with jalapeño sauce. Really quite good. I liked the spice from the japaleño. Off the special menu.
Amaebi Being the Vancouverites they are, of course this made the menu. Sweet and delicate. Don’t forget to suck the head! A good order.
Apps were pretty strong all-around. I liked all that we did order, with the Takowasabi as my top pick.
Takowasabi Cooked octopus with chopped wasabi stem and vegetables. To be wrapped in nori. I really really like this dish. I first had it at Kingyo in Vancouver and Guu’s version is just as good (or better). Cruchy, wasabi-hot, a little bit of vinegar or something like that and a sweet hit. I asked for a second order of this. Though I was told later that this probably isn’t house-made (and bought from a supplier). True? False? Someone else will have to ask. Me? I will order this again next time!
Kurage Marinated jellyfish and vermicelli (fake shark’s fin). Small dish, but a nice crunchy snack. This makes my potential re-order list. It was tasty.
Gomaae Boiled spinach with black sesame sauce. Despite looking like a baby sludge monster, this was really tasty. Sweeter than the white gomaae you can find around town, I’m told. I quite liked this, though it verged on being dessert. Maybe a good intermezzo order..?
I found the salads okay but none that I would order again.
Tofu Salad Tofu and garlic sauteed mushrooms on greens with crispy wonton chips. Nice plating/stack, but entirely meh for me.
Gyu Shabu Salad Thinly sliced boiled beef on greens with black sesame sauce. Needs more beefy flavour or something.
Sashimi Salad Assorted fish on greens with mayo. It wasn’t bad (some good ingredients in there!), but I think this is not why you would come to Guu. Also on my “meh” fence.
Daikon Salad Daikon with greens, scallop and spicy cod roe mayo. I somehow missed the taste of spicy cod roe. Could be just that I didn’t make note of it and I’ve now forgotten.
Cold Dishes (2/5)
Interesting dishes to eat and try, though there are some repeats that swap out the main ingredient for a like one.
Aburi Salmon Lightly seared Atlantic salmon sashimi with ponzu sauce and wasabi mayo. Tasty enough, with the notes of garlic adding a nice depth to it.
Salmon Natto Yukke. Chopped salmon sashimi with natto, shibazuke, takuan, wonton chips, garlic chips, green oinion and raw egg yolk. To be mixed and wrapped in nori. Needed more natto – you get the texture/goo of it, but I wanted more natto taste. Of the two, I preferred the Takowasabi, though this was a significantly more substantial dish.
Deep Fried (4/8)
There were a couple things on the deep-fried menu that we were hesitant to order – the Brie Cheese being one of them. Someone else will have to try that out first! We also passed on the Ebimayo because we figured that we knew what it tasted like. There was no logic in that thought though – I mean, what if we missed the best fried shrimp ever?! Oh well. Next time!
Karaage Deep-fried chicken marinated with soy sauce and served with garlic mayo. All my dining companions really liked this – and they should. It’s lightly battered, crispy, and juicy inside. Don’t know why I couldn’t get into it. I still prefer the chicken at Ajuker – and I know they’re two different animals.
Takoyaki I’m used to the smushier ones from Manpuku, but I enjoyed these crunchier ones all the same. I can’t vouch for authenticity, but I liked them enough to try these again sometime.
Kabocha Korokke Deep fried kabocha pumpkin croquette with a boiled egg inside. I liked the kabocha part a lot – lightly sweet, crispy exterior, with a smushy and hot interior. Really nice. Until the hard-boiled egg. Would have preferred a tea-egg with a liquid yolk. I could also pass on the sauce, but I think I’m wandering into preference territory now vs actual taste.
Agedashi Tofu Deep fried tofu in dashi broth. Not bad, though they used the hard/spongy tofu, which I enjoy less.
Okonomiyaki Deep fried japanese style pancake with tonkatsu sauce and mustard mayo. Not like the okonomiyaki’s I’ve had in Osaka with noodles in it, this is a crispier cabbage-only(?) pancake. Still, it was quite tasty. Nice to see this dish at Guu. Pretty filling.
Oden & Stewed (2/2)
100% completion on this category. Both are interesting orders.
Oden Egg, radish, squid & fish cake, puffed fish cake, deep fried tofu, bamboo shoot, fish cake, taro jelly. Can be ordered individually or as an assortment. I think the bamboo and taro jelly were the most interesting for tasting purposes.
Kakuni Sweet miso brasied pork belly with boiled egg. While the Tontoro would be my pork pick out of the two, this was a slightly sweet and fatty pork that reminded me of Chinese braised pork belly. Though, in this shot, all you see are eggs. The pork belly is peeking from behind the green onion shreds.
Of the dishes we ordered, it was really good or just bad. Enjoyed the Gyu Tangue and the Tontoro. Both are re-orders in my book. The Kakimayo? Not so much (only according to me, though!).
Grilled Saba mackerel with garlic, lemon, and herb, on vegetables. Thought this was okay – I prefer standard Korean preparation of mackerel better. Depends on your taste – this certainly wasn’t bad.
Gyu Tangue Grilled beef tongue with salt. Really nice and tender pieces. Salt level was just nice. Would re-order.
Tontoro Grilled pork cheek with yuzu pepper. Really tender and tasty. Well salted and I really liked the yuzu pepper. I consider this a re-order!
Kakimayo Grilled oysters with spinach, garlic mayo, and cheese on the top. If this sounds really bad to you, it does to me too. However, many of my dining companions liked this, but there were a couple of dissenters. Me, I thought this was a bit too odd for my tastes. One friend who doesn’t like cooked oysters liked this basically because you couldn’t taste the cooked oyster…
Rice & Noodles (1/6)
We slacked on the rice & noodle section.
Kimchi Udon Boiled udon noodle with spicy cod roe. Topped with kimchi. Everyone else thought it was just okay, but I really liked this one. I just really liked the taste of the kimchi + noodle. Reminded me of a packet-of-ramen flavour.
Didn’t have too many sweets, as we were really stuffed. Also, it’s your run-of-the-mill Japanese restaurant desserts. Albeit, the one we did have was really good.
Sake Cheese Cake Smooth and pretty good. I don’t love cheese cakes, but the smoothness won me over. Had the subtle taste of sake mash.
Frozen Grapes At the end of the meal, this was brought out to us. Reminded me of the skewers I had at Kingyo not too long ago.
Drinks seem very interesting on the menu and it was decided we should do our best to sample as much as we could. I didn’t shoot many drinks, but highlights include the Cassis Oolong (not to be mistaken with the Oolong High!) and Bamboo (pictured up top). The Nama Gure (grapefruit/vodka/soda) was interesting, but more gimmick than substance. I enjoyed the Ume Mojito, but without the mint, I hesitate to call it a mojito. No one dared ordered the Matcha Coco. We’ll have to save that for another time.
Overall, I feel that this is a real destination dining place – where the hustle and bustle adds to your gathering or events. Not good for a romantic evening and I can’t see this being someone’s every-day eatery. While Izakaya is set up for beers and snacking, I’m don’t know if the area would lend itself to that kind of clientele (I would have opened in the business district for that). Still, this is just the beginning. I’m hoping we will see more dishes that dive into cartilage and organ-meat land. Thought it was a really strong soft-opening and if they can maintain this level of enthusiasm and service, they’ll do very well.
Leaving the restaurant amidst a chorus of Japanese thank yous, we were already making plans to return soon.
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