There is so much more to Japanese cuisine than sushi. When North American diners think Japanese food, nigiri, california rolls (inverted maki), tempura vegetables, and, to some extent, teppan grilled chicken or steak come to mind. Did you know there is Japanese bar food?
In fact, one of the trendier things to do these days is to open a drinking establishment that borrows from the izakaya tradition. Not pubs, izakayas originated as sake shops with seating. Options beyond sake from cocktails to beer and wine were added. Food was served, from skewered meat and vegetables (yakitori or kushiyaki) to sashimi, tofu, and pickles. Like the Chinese tradition for banquets, small servings of noodles and rice are sometimes ordered to round off a boisterous evening of drinking and snacking at an izakaya.
Dishes at izakays tend to be small plates, larger than Italian tapas or Greek mezze, but designed to be shared. Take for instance Toronto’s growing collection of Guu-establishments, presently two with a third expected. Guu’s first izakaya (398 Church Street) serves edamame, tuna and salmon tataki (seared sushi grade tuna or salmon), beef and octopus “carpaccio”, deep fried chicken pieces (karaage), deep fried oysters, takoyaki (octopus ball dumplings), fried tofu, grilled beef tongue, and small portion hot pot (oden). Previously, they served Japanese takes on the scotch egg (squash replaced the sausage layer) and Korean bibimbap. Dishes cost anywhere between $3 and $9.
Now, Guu may be the pioneer of Canadian izakayas, originating in Vancouver, but people are catching on. Smaller seating izakayas have opened in Toronto with no affiliation to Guu. They all share the same warm and laid back atmosphere. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a suit and tie or a t-shirt, izakayas are places to leave your office troubles at the door, eat, drink, and be merry.
The izakaya draw according to our friend Pej Vongpaisal involves “addiction” elements. These include consistent dishes, varied menus, and daily specials. The daily specials, in particular, are what he looks for. Think something along the lines of first of the season fish dishes or slow cooked and fried pig cheek.
When we heard Chef Michael Radford, formerly of now defunct Savana Café had been tapped to run the kitchen of a new restaurant called Izakaya Asian Kitchen and Bar (339 Elgin Street) in Ottawa, we were more than excited to try it. We visited opening night with Pej.
Well respected, Radford honed his skills at Chef Matt Carmichael’s award-winning E18hteen, rising through the ranks to become Sous. E18hteen was and continues to be the standard by which high end fine dining in Ottawa measures itself. In 2009, Radford took the reins at Savana, reworking its menu to offer modern Caribbean dishes. He kept some longstanding fusion favourites like Savana’s pad thai. While he is known for combining punchy flavours and textures from different cultures, some regulars felt his modifications to Savana’s signature pad thai took away its characteristic heat.
A year after Savana’s closing, Izakaya opens, taking over the space left by Big Daddy’s Crab Shack and Oyster Bar. Walking through the front door, I saw no traces of the space’s former mallet-meet-crab past. Furniture, accents, and flooring, everything is modern and pseudo-oriental. Cocktail tables with high chairs surround a beautifully wood grain exposed and lacquered bar. Cushioned seating fence off sections around the tables. Behind the sections are booths. Izakaya’s walls are painted a dark tan, textured, and sport 1920’s Chinese advertising posters, mostly featuring thin women in cheongsam. Upholstery sports that cliche square spiral pattern in black against dark green. Well lit, the restaurant sits 70 people easily.
There was no Japanese to be seen, neither kanji nor kana, on the menu or elsewhere in the restaurant. There were no chopsticks on the tables.
At 9:00 pm, the place was packed with well dressed people, out to enjoy a Thursday evening. Many were enjoying drinks. Some were snacking on fries ($5), “General Tao’s” chicken wings ($13), open ended shrimp and duck egg rolls ($13/4), and lobster and mango summer rolls ($17/4).
Forgiving that it is opening night, soft opening to boot, basic gyoza dumplings were noticeably missing from the menu. Then we noticed, prices are 2 to 3 times what we expect at an izakaya. Dishes are fusion. Likely owing from its Savana heritage, jerk chicken is on the menu (made with cornish hen – $18) along with, oysters “rock steady” (with pork and “pineapple” kimchi – $13), Korean bo saam (slow cooked pork shoulder – $19), “burger” ($15), “chicken club” Vietnamese bahn mi (with pork rillettes and bacon – $14), and banana roti ($10). Small plates ranged from $7-$17. Large plates ranged from $15-$28. Sides of white rice, brown rice, and grilled plantains cost $4, $3, and $5 respectively.
Ordering four dishes to share brought mixed thoughts. Purporting to be an izakaya, complete with a giant lettered sign outside, this restaurant serves fusion dishes that are beyond pan-asian. Indeed, our server even mentions Radford’s leanings to African spices and Caribbean cuisine.
Now, I could mention the overpowering acidity from too much sherry vinegar with the beef tiradito ($15 – small plate). I could point to the unevenly crispy egg rolls that borrow from Ottawa’s venerable Golden Palace egg roll tradition. But, given Izakaya’s new kitchen was working with new dishes and new equipment, I suggest we overlook these minor flavour and texture infractions. We informed our server of our disappointment and asked what sauce was plated with the egg rolls. “Nam jim”, he said. Thai nam jim is supposed to be sweet from palm sugar, sour from lime juice, savoury from fish sauce, and spicy from chiles. It also tends to be rustic, prepared by pulverizing the ingredients in a mortar and pestle. None of the above applied.[with king oyster mushroom chips, truffle oil, cracked pepper, sherry vinegar, honey, shiso] [with bean sprouts, cabbage, and a red pepper sauce]
The server then called the manager over. Clearly they were not managing our expectations. We chat. She brings out the chef. “No, we do not serve authentic izakaya food,” echoed both the manager and server.
“We have researched the food thoroughly,” the manager continued. “Ottawa is not ready for it.”
She then reiterated, “At least, not Elgin Street Ottawa.”
When asked if there will be daily specials, she explained proudly, “When we get off the ground, our chef will be preparing special fried rices.” We noticed the menu includes a listing for “Izakaya fried rice” at “market” price.
When we pressed the chef about Izakaya’s approach to food, he explained he had to reduce the spice in his dishes to account for the palates of his patrons, the “typical” Ottawa diner. He then apologized for our first two dishes and replaced them with an off-menu version of the tamarind braised short rib dish. A large dish, its menu listing includes “bara dumpling.”
What we were served was essentially a standard main at a finer dining establishment. Two pieces of braised beef short ribs rested on several boiled or steamed chunks of taro. Everything was garnished with old snow pea leaves and what resembled small Caribbean johnny cakes. The snow pea leaves were stir fried with a little garlic. They were overcooked and conservatively portioned. The johnny cakes were light and freshly fried in very hot oil. They were not at all greasy. The short rib was wonderfully tender, falling apart, likely owing to a long slow (non-sous vide) braise. It tasted sweet and savoury. While the dish was otherwise well executed, it was extremely starch heavy.
Our final two dishes arrived.
Black cod, otherwise known as sable fish, is one of those ubiquitous restaurant proteins, a white fish that is relatively inexpensive to source, mild tasting, and somewhat difficult to overcook. You will find it pan fried, deep fried, or roasted in many oriental restaurants. Ours was prodigiously cooked, tender, and succulent. I found the vegetable escovitch menu listing amusing as it involves a Jamaican take on Spanish escabeche. For escovitch, a firm white fish is grilled or browned and then marinated in acid and spice. Escovitch “vegetables” is essentially salsa. The sweet potato “hash” was yellow potato puree.
The udon carbonara, however, was quite the let down and the dish that exemplifies why fusion cuisine can be dangerous. Combining aspects of different cultures needs to be respectful. One cannot make so many twists that the dish is no longer recognizable to the originating cultures. That is when dishes cease to be intelligent and become patronizing.
Dry udon noodles were employed in Izakaya’s udon carbanara with slices of uncured and unsmoked pork belly. The noodles were over cooked, almost falling apart. The dish was drenched in a sour agent that destroyed what should have been a rich and satisfying egg sauce. The greenness of the edamame and cilantro was a strange addition. The dish did not work. It also barely resembled classic Italian carbonara with its elemental egg (either whole or egg yolks), cheese (parmesan or pecorino romano), black pepper, pasta, and cured but unsmoked pork (usually quanciale).
And, contrary, to what our server said, Radford did not originate udon carbonara. Udon carbonara has been served in Japan long before Izakaya opened. New York’s Chef David Chang published a recipe in his 2009 cookbook, Momofuku. There is also a much simpler take with fewer competing ingredients served at Toronto’s Guu Saka Bar. Innovated by Chef Ippei Iwata, Guu’s udon carbonara involves egg (coddled), cheese (parmesan), black pepper, pasta (fresh udon noodles), and pea meal bacon. His twist involves garnishing with nori and creating a butter, whipping cream, and soy sauce dressing-base for the noodles, which integrates with the egg to form a very creamy sauce. The nori and soy bolster the Parmesan, adding savoriness. The butter and cream bolster the egg, providing fat and richness.
The “beef” tiradito above is another example of fusion confusion. Tiradito, a Peruvian version of Spanish ceviche, involves dressing thin strips of fish in a salsa made from citrus and yellow chile. Unlike ceviche, the fish is not marinated in the salsa. This is why tiradito is often compared to Japanese sashimi. Radford’s tiradito is essentially beef tataki, garnished with mushroom chips.
Most of our issues with Izakaya’s food have to do with it not managing expectations and reinforcing my misgivings with fusion cuisine. For an izakaya, Izakaya’s menu is over engineered. There are too many muddled ethnic cues. For a contemporary restaurant, Izakaya’s menu is borderline pretentious.
Service at Izakaya, however, was beyond reproach. On opening night, this newly minted restaurant succeeded where most others falter and fail. Servers were reasonably organized, well informed, polite, and attentive. They seemed earnest and genuinely concerned about their patrons eating and drinking well.
That said, Ottawa does not yet have a true izakaya. Izakaya is to Japanese food what Lone Star Texas Grill is to Mexican. Consider it more of a high end bar with oriental decorations, which seems to be the intention. If you want a place to grab cocktails with friends before hitting the club, Izakaya fits the bill. “Edgy” snacks anyone?
Izakaya Asian Kitchen and Bar
339 Elgin Street