My friend Vanessa is pretty cool and has great taste in restaurants and just about everything else so when she recently blogged about her trip to Japanese tapas restaurant Guu Izakaya, I knew I had to copy her and go. Last week, I met with another food-fanatic friend I'd met in a faraway land this summer (and who just happened to be from Toronto!) who'd also been to Guu and gave it the thumbs-up. I was excited.
Guu had its Canadian opening in Vancouver in 2000 and has since opened four more locations there, as well as two in Toronto and one in China. The literal translation of "izakaya" is a "sit-down sake shop" but it we know it now to represent most japanese drinking establishments that serve food, although Japanese pub grub is far from the piles of sticky wings and other deep-fried delicacies we North Americans chow down on while getting drunk. Guu's share plates are small and beautifully presented (perhaps this encourages actual manners while eating under the influence of alcohol? Imagine?!)
The atmosphere is loud, bustling, chaotic and fun. From the entire staff screaming "welcome" in Japanese at you as you walk through the doors to the crowded communal-style tables and bar-front, Guu gets the casual-chic vibe spot-on; the sleek decorations keep this place from feeling like a cafeteria serving booze. We chose the quieter patio as it was a gorgeous night and we had a lot of gabbing to do, ordered a couple ume-shu mojitos ($6.50, made with ume-shu -a plum wine- rum, lime, mint and soda) and threw caution to the wind and asked our server to bring over some of her favourites. Here's what she came up with.
Our gomaae ($3.80) came first and was a fantastic start to the feast. The blanched spinach tower with black sesame sauce was perfectly tender and saucy (thanks to that generous and gorgeous drizzle) and we immediately wanted to order another - but held off as our next dish arrived.
Maguro Tataki ($6.80) came next - seared B.C. tuna with punchy ponzu sauce and crisp garlic chips on a bed of daikon strips. Guu uses sustainably-farmed and impeccably fresh tuna that melts in your mouth, the crisp fried garlic added a great crunch and the tart ponzu sauce was drain-it-while-no-one's-watching good.
Kakimayo ($7.20) was two big B.C. oysters (love the B.C. love!) baked with mushrooms, spinach, garlic mayo and cheese. Rich, creamy and divine - but don't drop it in the bed of salt it's served on!
Scallop & enoki mushrooms wrapped with pan-fried bacon and drizzled with soy sauce and karashi mayo ($6) got rave reviews from our server but fell flat for me. Found the bacon and mushrooms to be a bit too chewy (note to self: these badboys are not a two-bite kind of thing) but my dining companion didn't mind the texture. To each their own, I suppose!
Yakiudon ($7.80) was a bamboo bowl of pan-fried udon noodles with mushrooms, scallion and beef. The udon noodles were thick and meaty in texture and the subtle flavour was a nice break from the intensity of the previous dishes.
And finally came the fried brie ($6.80). While brie cheese isn't something I'd ever associate with Japanese fare, it was a recommendation from a friend who'd been, so we tacked it on to our order - and boy, were we glad we did. The panko crust - or so we decided, although it wasn't described as such on the menu - was perfectly light and crisp and gave way to the creamy brie, which went wonderfully with the mango and blueberry compotes it was served with. Four perfect little towers of indulgence, and a perfect savory-sweet ending to our meal.
Having heard about Guu's two-hour time limit -this place gets that busy- we grudgingly kicked ourselves out after our blissfully drawn-out meal. Definitely check out Guu for a cool, casual and cheap variation from your usual Japanese grub (our entire feast, including six drinks, came to $50 each, tip inclusive -an even better surprise than the brie!) Guu doesn't take reservations, so show up early and grab a drink at the bar - apparently they serve Sapporo in mugs as big as your head! And make sure to bring a gorgeous date who's good at sharing (which Hilary, thankfully, is!)
Guu Izakaya Toronto
398 Church Street