Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Dining Out with Character (And the Crowd Goes Guu!)

Yet again I must apologize for neglecting my blog for over two months, but my schedule had not allowed me enough time to do any further culinary exploration, especially with my involvement in community theatre productions of the musical "White Christmas", which just finished over a week ago, "Much Ado About Nothing", which is coming up in January, and "Twelve Angry Jurors" in February.  With the Christmas break upon me now, I'm able to spend it in Toronto and Ottawa for a few weeks, which fortunately means trying new places to eat.
The open kitchen at Guu was constantly alive with activity and enthusiasm.

One of the first places I experienced for the first time was (Kitanoya) Guu, an izakaya on Church St. south of Carlton St.  In terms of Western equivalents, an izakaya would be comparable to a tapas bar.  Though several izakayas have been established in Vancouver now, they're still in the foothold phase in Toronto, where Japanese cuisine is predominantly represented by sushi restaurants.  Izakayas are a totally unique dimension to Japanese cuisine, and thanks to globalization some establishments have gone to create contemporary dishes using ingredients not normally found in traditional Japanese cuisine such as cheese.

My sister warned me that no reservations were accepted and that the place fills up quickly, and she was right.  Arriving at the entrance at 5pm we were advised of a 2-hour sit-in limit and we entered to see the place already nearly full.  Any tension I acquired from this was quickly dispelled when the greeter announced another arrival of customers at the top of his lungs, which in turn was answered by the rest of his colleagues shouting, "Irashaimase!" (Welcome to our business!)  I realized that this wasn't going to be like any other dining establishment I've visited to date.  (To further my argument, how many restaurants provide complementary Listerine mouthwash in the washroom?)

Fortunately there were still a few seats available at the bar, which allowed us to have a great view of the kitchen and all the action happening in it.  We were seated right at the centre, just to the chefs' left of the spot where the servers pick up the completed dishes.  The open kitchen at Guu was constantly alive with activity and enthusiasm, moving at a dizzying non-stop pace, producing dish after eye-catching and olfactory-nerve-tingling dish.  I was able to observe which of the kitchen staff was responsible for what aspects of cooking, making me feel like Rémi from "Ratatouille".  The only times they weren't fully intent on their cooking was when they had to greet new customers, acknowledge food orders shouted to them from the servers, shouting out completed orders (and, my sister and I suspect) the table(s) to which those dishes were destined, or shouting "Arigato gozaimasu!" while waving as customers leave.  It was a cacophony with an enthusiasm that is infectious.
Gyutangue - Grilled beef tongue with salt; mustard on the side.
My sister and I started by ordering six dishes at first to kick things off.  The first dish to arrive was Gyutangue, grilled beef tongue.  This was a simple dish, presenting the tongue on its own, grilled and lightly sprinkled with some salt, with some mustard as a condiment.  If you've never had beef tongue, it's a delightful cut of beef with a finer grain and slightly chewier consistency compared to the traditional body cuts.
Kakimayo - Grilled oysters topped with spinach, garlic mayo and cheese.

The next dish to arrive was Kakimayo, grilled oysters topped with spinach, garlic mayo and cheese.  These beauties were apparently allowed to cool down enough to be handled but still warm enough when served for the cheese to be slightly gooey and for the oysters to be eaten with some care.  I actually felt slightly frustrated that I couldn't clean all that garlic mayo off the shell with my chopsticks, and no, I refused to either lick the shell or wipe the shell with a finger.
Salmon Natto Yukke - Chopped salmon sashimi with seven friends (Natto, shibazuke, takuan, wonton chips, garlic chips, green onion and raw egg yolk), served with nori to make wraps.
Before we could even get to our second dish, however, the Salmon Natto Yukke arrived.  The dish originally came with the ingredients in their own piles in the shallow dish that the server mixed for us before she left.  Along with salmon sashimi and natto (fermented soybeans), the other chopped ingredients were shibazuke (pickled eggplant & cucumber), takuan (pickled daikon radish), wonton wrapper chips, garlic chips, green onion and a raw (you read that right) egg yolk.  I had to be careful with the sticky natto strands flowing in a slight breeze, and it got slightly messy once or twice when I bit into my self-made wraps, but it was a good choice; the softer textures of the natto and salmon were countered by the crispiness of the chips and the crunchiness of the shibazuke.
Yakiudon - Pan-fried udon noodles with beef and vegetables
Next to arrive was the Yakiudon, pan-fried udon noodles with beef and vegetables.  Those noodles had to have been freshly made as the texture was totally unlike the supermarket-bought variety.  These noodles were softer in terms of chewiness and appeared slightly less opaque.  The soy- and garlic-based sauce was very nice and not too rich nor overpowering.  Of all the dishes I tried that night, this was my second-favourite dish, but it was a very close second.
A Guu special: Chopped Spicy Tuna on Rice with Quail Egg Yolk.
The fifth dish that arrived was one of Guu's specials, Chopped Spicy BC Albacore Tuna on Rice with Quail Egg Yolk.  The spicy kick was slightly more than what I expected, but it was still quite tolerable.  This was another enjoyable dish.
Kabocha Korokke - Deep fried kabocha pumpkin croquette with boiled quail egg

Inside the Kabocha Korokke
The sixth, but as you can rightly guess, not the last, dish we got was Kabocha Korokke, a deep fried kabocha pumpkin croquette, inside of which was a boiled quail egg. Coated in a sweet mayo, it was one of few sweet-and-savoury dishes that I was able to not just tolerate but enjoy.  Surprisingly, it didn't seem that filling, though admittedly my sister and I each had half of the korokke.
Hotate Carpaccio - Hokkaido scallop sashimi with wasabi dressing
With still some room left in our stomachs, we decided to order three more dishes to try.  The seventh dish for us was Hotate Carpaccio, Hokkaido scallop sashimi with a wasabi dressing.  Raw scallops have an inherently mild flavour, but fortunately in this dish they were not overpowered by the dressing, which, in spite of containing wasabi, actually did not have a significant zing.
Unagi Doria - Rice with BBQ unagi, mixed mushrooms and cheese.
The next dish we had was Unagi Doria, a rice dish with BBQ unagi (freshwater eel), mixed mushrooms and cheese.  This was arguably my favourite dish of the night.  Garnished with shredded nori and chopped green onion, the flavouring was wonderful, and surprisingly I didn't find the cheese clashing against the rest of the ingredients in this dish.  In fact, the cheese gave this dish a Western twist by giving a gratin angle to this otherwise Japanese dish.  The eel was tender and cooked and flavoured just right.
Tontoro - Pan-fried pork cheeks
The ninth and last dish to arrive was Tontoro, pan-fried pork cheeks.  Drizzled with a light, savoury sauce, the pork cheeks were delightful bites of meat.  They were firmer and, for lack of a better term, bouncier to the bite compared to cuts from the body of pork like ribs or chops.  Like the beef tongue, the pork cheeks' flavouring was kept simple, allowing more of the meat itself to shine.

Guu certainly is a place with character, energy, flair and excitement.  It didn't cease to amaze me during my entire experience, and I was entertained both by the food that was prepared and by the enthusiasm of the staff.  As my sister and I left with the doorman declaring our departure and his colleagues shouting "Arigato gozaimasu!", I had a grin on my face, thinking, "Who else would be interested in joining me for dinner there?  And who could help me translate all that shouting there?"

Name: (Kitanoya) Guu
Address: 398 Church St., Toronto, ON
Cuisine: Neo-Japanese
Price Range: Dinner $25-$50 (depending on diner's appetite)
Accessible: Yes

1 comment:

  1. Great post =) I have been to Guu about 3 times now but have never ordered the Unagi Doria, I definitely should do so next time~