Tuesday, July 17, 2012

guu izakaya

Have I talked about Guu Izakaya before?

If you were to tell me that you were unimpressed by Toronto's culinary scene, that while it could definitely be trendy and quirky and classy, there is nothing particularly remarkable about the small piles of food stacked perilously high on square white plates, representing a fusion of whatever ethnic ingredient is popular for the day but mixed with a different ethnicity's twist on a bed of quinoa or whatever grain is trending now so as to justify fixing a $40 price on the plate rather than the $5 price you'd get for the original dish in its original country...

...I would pat you on the back and then I would take you to Guu Izakaya.

A restaurant called Izakaya recently opened up in Ottawa. After having visited Guu, I had incredibly high hopes for the Izakaya in Ottawa. Izakaya, however, is not a restaurant name or brand, but rather it's just the Japanese word for, like, "bar" or "pub" or whatever the Japanese equivalent. The Izakaya in Ottawa serves a creative menu of clever fusions of various Asian dishes to maybe justify its un-Asian prices, but it is not an izakaya. An izakaya is where the Japanese go to drink, and order small plates of bite-sized snacks that they share with everyone. An izakaya is more than a restaurant; it's an experience. Guu Izakaya is the only place in Canada that I've found so far that has gotten this right, and for that reason it is my favourite restaurant in Toronto (outside of Koreatown, that is of course).

To be fair, Guu originated in Vancouver, which really would not surprise anyone, given Vancouver's reputation of being a culinary paradise as well as being one of the few places in Canada where you'll find a signficant Japanese population. Guu in Toronto, however, does not lose any of its amazingness.

I took my partner there, because he was a skeptic. When we arrived there with my friend Soo, we were told there was an hour's wait. I'm from Ottawa, not New York City, so normally I do not have patience for such wait times. Restaurants with wait times like that generally come with a pretentiousness that I don't have a patience for - that's not our scene. But Guu was an exception. I would be willing to go to all sorts of lengths to eat at Guu, and in fact we already had, having driven five hours to get to the city. So we waited and tortured ourselves by looking at the menu posted outside.

finally after one gruelling hour of prolonged hunger, our name was called. Guu does not take reservations. Anybody living in the gay Village can probably actually make some good money, getting paid to go to the restaurant to put their names on the waiting list for other people.

But I digress! I was going to talk about the experience of dining at Guu. This is what happens when you go to Guu.

You walk in through the door. You step into Japan. The entire kitchen staff greets you loudly and cheerfully in Japanese, probably something along the lines of "Welcome to our restaurant, may you have a good meal" but they could actually be saying "You have no idea what we are saying to you, foreigner" for all I know. All I know is that I want to record this greeting and rig my front door at home to play that greeting every time I come home.

You are seated at a big table, probably where a bunch of other strangers are already seated and eating. This place is a bit like Schwartz`s in Montreal in that aspect. No chance whatsoever you are getting that long table for yourself and your party of three. Asian culture is not about private property or individualist ideals. It`s about sharing. It`s about having strangers intrude uncomfortably close to your personal space.

A server attends to you right away to give you your personal oshibori, warm wet cloth, to wash your hands. This is an important part of izakaya tradition. What people also tend to notice right away is that the whole izakaya is noisy. The kitchen is open so you hear all the cooking and pots and pans banging. The server is constantly calling out something in Japanese and the cooks reply in unison, as though your whole dining experience is actually a scripted part of a bizarre Broadway musical of some sort. You do not go to Guu to chat with a friend, to catch up on lost times. You go to Guu to eat. And to listen to people yelling in Japanese.

So you order some drinks.

drink menu

Man, even the drinks are unique and amazing. You can order sake, of course, but you can also order Japanese vodka. You can order aloe juice (a popular Asian drink) with vodka. You can order Japanese style hard lemonade, and you get your own lemon and juicer to squeeze into your vodka. You can order something called the three samurai; I have no idea what`s in them but they are bright happy colours and perfect for a party of three.

And then you order food. As mentioned, the plates are small and meant to be shared. They`re modestly priced, as authentic Asian food should be, in my opinion, but the truth is you end up falling in love with the whole menu and you try to order everything off the menu and those little plates add up.

pork cheeks

the most incredible piece of salmon you will ever taste

tuna in a soy sauce that makes it taste just like Korean jangjorim

beef tongue

My sadness in being a writer and not, like, I don`t know, some kind of tasting experience reproducer is that I can write and write and write about how good the food is, but I just cannot get across the wonderful feeling when that beef tongue hits your tongue. How can I explain it? I generally do not like seafood and try to avoid it whenever I can. When I eat scallops or tuna or salmon at Guu though, I forget that I hate seafood because they make it taste so good I want to lick the dish, if I could do it without offending.

You know, half the time I can't even remember the dishes we ordered, partly because we order so much, and partly because the food is so good, I fall into this blissful trance where my mouth believes it is in heaven and everything becomes a beautiful blur. Also, the drinks are good, so we tend to order more rounds of 3 samurai. But bits of it come back at random times, when I'm at the office, or in my car driving back to Ottawa. That wasabi mayo dip. That soya sauce base. That fried chicken, the tenderest fried chicken you will ever eat.

the bill, no joking matter.

And as you leave, the entire kitchen staff cheerfully sends you off at the top of their lungs, probably "We are glad you dined with us; please come again!" but maybe they're saying "You ate a lot, fatty! Go for a run." And as you leave, you're hit with that feeling of sadness when you realize that all the food you've ordered has been eaten, and you're going to have to wait till the next time you come to Guu before you can achieve such culinary ecstasy again.

portrait of a happy couple