Hailing from the West coast foodie heaven of Vancouver, Guu Izakaya is a Japanese restaurant/bar that offers a variety of tapas and drinks in a casual and lively setting. Since its establishment in downtown Toronto late 2009, the restaurant has gained enormous traction among the city’s community and has become a “must try” spot for foodies.
My first visit to Guu Izakaya last March unveiled for me a new understanding of Japanese food beyond the popularized teriyaki, sushi and sashimi. The food experience was wonderful and I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to go back. Needless to say, when my good friend Helen mentioned that she wanted to try Guu for the first time to celebrate her birthday, I nodded eagerly in firm approval.
Those who have been to Guu Izakaya are likely familiar with their “no reservations” policy, which, combined with the restaurant’s popularity, means waiting anywhere from half to two and a half hours for a table. Our party of 4 arrived at 6:00pm on a Saturday, and had to wait an hour before we were called – which isn’t bad, considering that the wait time was more than two hours for the groups after us. We ended up dropping by the Loblaws nearby to get Helen some rice cakes because she was starving.
But let me tell you, the wait was well worth it.
If you’re looking for a serene environment for an upscale meal, or if you are claustrophobic or not a fan of background noise, then Guu is perhaps not the best place to go. The restaurant is all about creating a casual and welcoming environment for the guests, tip-toeing on the edge of rowdy. Every time a group of guests enter or leave the restaurant, the staff synchronically clamours a greeting/goodbye; and every time a table puts in an order, the items are relayed by a shouting waiter to the kitchen. There’s a lot of hustle and bustle, if you can imagine.
The waiter took a while to get our order because the restaurant was so busy, which was okay because we took a long time to decide what we wanted. What amazed me was that despite how busy the place was, once the orders were put in, our dishes just popped out of the kitchen at the speed of lightning.
The first item served was the Kabocha Korokke – deep-fried kabocha pumpkin croquette with a boiled egg inside. It was a pretty unique dish. As with anything deep-fried, it tasted pretty good. But it wasn’t mind-blowing or revolutionary. The sweet pumpkin coupled well with the richness of the fried batter, though I wished that there was less egg and more pumpkin.
Guu Izakaya always has a “specials” menu printed on a sheet of paper to supplement their regular menu. On the day we went, I saw the sweet raw B.C. shrimp on the specials menu and immediately knew that I wanted to order it, recalling my last encounter with raw sweet shrimp at Solo Sushi Bekkan. The shrimp at Guu was fresh and tasty, but a lot smaller than the shrimp I had at Solo. Regardless, I still savoured every bit of it, including the rich liquid in the shrimp’s head.
The first time that I ever tried okonomiyaki (japanese pancake) was at Kenzo Ramen. Their version of the pancake was made in a pan, and I wanted to try Guu’s deep-fried rendering of the dish. The flavour of the okonomiyaki at Guu was similar to the traditional pan-fried version – rich, savory, and delicious. Yet the deep-frying resulted in a pancake that was crispy on the ouside and creamy on the inside, taking the okonomiyaki to an entirely different level by perfecting both taste and texture. I don’t recall finding any squid in the pancake, but that did not compromise how great it tasted.
Initially, I hesitated on ordering the Yakiudon because I didn’t think it was anything special. I mean, udon noodles are just…udon noodles, right? I’ve never been a huge fan. But upon the insistent recommendation of friends who tried this dish before, I put in the order. Let’s just say that, never in my life have I thought udon could taste so good. The noodles were chewy, not greasy at all, and perfect complemented by the beef, mushrooms, scallion, sesame, and tiny strips of nori. Helen said that it was her favorite dish of the night.
Beef liver was another item that we ordered off the specials. It was pretty unimpressive, especially next to all the other dishes we tried.
I tried Kakimayo on my first visit to Guu, and instantly fell in love with it. I knew I had to order it again. My second experience with it was just as good as the first. The toppings were cheesy, rich, and undeniably umami. All of the flavours melt together in a warm, perfect, mess; and each bite is better than the last. This is one of my favorites at Guu, and is undeniably a “must try” item.
Gindara is another one of my favorite items. Guu executes this dish fairly well – the flavours are amazing, and the fish is perfectly cooked. Although I have to say that Yuzu does this dish a little better, because unlike the soft and chewy skin on the Gindara at Guu, the skin on the Gindara at Yuzu is shatteringly crispy and crunchy. There really is no better way to serve skin-on fish.
What’s a birthday without alcohol, right? We ordered a 10 oz. bottle of pear-flavoured sake to go with our meal. Each of us got about 3 shots out of it, which makes for 12 shots for $27. Not a terrible deal. The sake was exceptionally smooth, with a tiny hint of sweetness.
I chose the Hotate Carpaccio because I love scallop sashimi. It was the only sashimi dish that we ordered because Helen doesn’t eat raw fish, since she doesn’t like the slimy texture of it. The scallop was fresh and melt-in-your-mouth.
Yellow tail collar was also an item from the special menu. This dish was temperamental. I was told that the “middle” of the fish, the parts next to the bone were really good. I, however, ended up eating the more fleshy part, which was pretty bland, dry, and over-cooked.
While we were waiting for our last dishes to arrive, Helen and Diane ordered some more drinks. Helen had the Bamboo, which apparently tasted like lychee juice.
Diane ordered the cherry blossom. We were all enamoured by the cute umbrella garnish.
The Karaage was a last-minute add-on when we realized that we weren’t full. The chicken was moist on the inside, and crispy on the outside. All of us burned our mouths eating it because it was fresh out of the fryer and crazy hot – eaters be warned! The flavour of the dish was alright, though I wished that it was seasoned more with spices. The popcorn chicken from Destiny’s, albeit a little too salty, has a much better flavour profile than the Karaage.
We didn’t order dessert with our meal because the plan was to visit the Queen Mother Cafe for cake. I now wish we did order dessert, upon reading so many positive reviews for Guu’s dessert selection on Urbanspoon. Oh well, I guess there’s always a next time.
Concluding our dinner was a pricey bill for about $160 after tax and tips, mostly because of the alcohol. And admittedly, we did order a whole lot of dishes.
Guu Izakaya has delivered a great experience that allowed us to try a myriad of unique and delicious dishes in a fun and lively setting. It’s clear why this joint is so popular. What’s more astonishing is the speed of service and the consistency at which the restaurant manage to produce high-quality items. Coming from a business background, I can’t help but think of their slick operations running from order, to kitchen, to table. If you live in the GTA or are visiting the area, make sure to hit up this joint for some outstanding casual Japanese fare in a warm and welcoming environment.