Tuesday, September 18, 2012 2

Hapa Izakaya - Vancouver-based izakaya to join the Toronto family

By kc

Hapa is a Vancouver izakaya that opened its first Toronto restaurant in Little Italy earlier this month. Yes, another one joining the Toronto izakaya family! :D

Hapa's atmosphere is a little similar to that of a bar - small wooden tables, dimmed lights and a place where you can actually kind-of carry out a conversation with your dining companion (at least it was when I went). If you're looking for communal tables, frequent and random cheers, and a contagious boisterous crowd, then you should already know where to go. Hapa is slightly different in this aspect.

Interestingly enough, I was reading reviews on Hapa's existing Vancouver izakayas and many, many of these reviews mentioned the attractiveness of their young (and often Asian) waitresses. Sure enough, they seem to have brought over this characteristic to their Toronto branch.

Aburi Saba ($8.99) - Seared marinated mackerel sashimi.
As a kid, I never liked mackerel. It has this fishy taste to it that is pretty much an acquired taste. But in the recent years, I grew very fond of it, loving the fresh peculiar taste it has especially with green onions. Oshi Zushi at Guu Sakabar anyone?

This one was no exception - delicious. The searing made the skin a little crispy and burnt but without affecting the meat at all. The meat was still cold and very tasty (I was a little worried that the new waitress would accidentally cook the sashimi >_> Paranoid about food? Check). You can taste the freshness of the mackerel sashimi.

We gobbled this plate up very quickly.

Ebi Mayo ($8.99) - Tempura prawn, spicy mayo sauce.
In my pre-dinner research, this was hailed as one of the all-time favourites of Vancouverites. Of course I had to order it.

When I first bit into it (it was already peeled except for the tail), I had a sudden blast to the past. It tasted exactly like those frozen Pillsbury mini pizzas in the bright orange boxes that I grew up eating as a snack after school. Now, I'm not saying that it's a bad thing that they taste very similar (I swear! Go try it.); I just wanted to point this out because I find it very funny. I told my brother, who was my dining companion, this and when he bit into another tempura prawn, all he could think about was those frozen mini pizzas - he couldn't "un-taste" it anymore! Haha

Frozen pizzas or not, the Ebi Mayo was still very tasty. However, it wasn't crispy as it should be. We ate our prawns when it was still hot and it wasn't very crispy already. Imagine a few minutes later, when you're eating one of the last ones, the tempura batter around it has already softened and became doughy. Sadly, if the frying execution was better, it could've been an awesome dish - one that is definitely worth of the all-time favourites title.

Hello Kitty Cocktail ($7.50) - a sweet mix of strawberry purée, Calpica, Absolut Vodka and soda.
Okay, random drink picture time. This is the all-time favourite drink of Hapa in Vancouver - yes, it's called Hello Kitty. I think the name alone is already enough to get all the girls to order it (smart naming strategy!).

It's sweet but not overwhelmingly so as seen in many artificially flavoured drinks. At the same time, the alcohol is not very apparent, which is perfect for me. A great drink to cleanse your palette in between dishes and for those who don't like to drink beer.

Karaage ($8.99) - deep-fried boneless chicken, soy ginger sauce.
This is basically a must-order for any izakaya in Toronto. What's different about this Karaage from the others is the sauce - the soy ginger sauce is light, a little tangy yet savoury at the same time. The tangy sauce helps cut the deep-fried oiliness. Usually, karaage is paired with mayo at the other izakayas in town so this one is quite different.

The boneless chicken meat itself was moist and tender. The only problem was again, the frying execution. You can tell that the karaage was just begging for a crispier batter to complete the perfect karaage dish. Perhaps it's because the kitchen staff is still a little new since it had opened for merely a week when I went.

Negitoro ($8.99) - Chopped Albacore tuna belly, spring onions, toasted garlic bread.
I LOVE negitoro. I could eat it on top of a small bowl of rice and be content for a full day. Hapa's negitoro was definitely not the traditional one that I had imagined.

As you can probably tell from the colour, this version was quite spicy for those that can't handle heat. However, I found that the spicy red sauce, delicious as it is, took over the spotlight and covered up the freshness of the Albacore tuna. All I could taste was the sauce. I could feel the texture of the chopped tuna on top of the crispy toast but I couldn't taste it anymore. It was completely lost, which I felt was a pity.

Gindara ($11.49) - baked sablefish, sake-miso marinade.
Any Guu fans will know that they have a very similar one over there. Basically, it's the dish where the sake-miso-sauce-covered buttery fish melts in your mouth and creates a harmonious symphony in your mouth. Only thing is... the fish wasn't as flaky, soft and buttery as I hoped it to be. While it's still very good, I do think Guu's version is better.

Scallop Tartare ($8.99) - chopped scallops, house made bacon, karashi mustard mayonnaise, served with wonton chips.
I really enjoyed this dish. The scallop bits were fresh and a little chewy at the same time, excellent . The only comment I have about it was that I didn't really care for the bacon bits - they didn't have much of that bacon-y taste and just seem to be random, hard pieces in my otherwise awesome scallop tartare.

Pork Belly Lettuce Wraps ($9.49) - Crispy pork belly, apple yuzu jam, pickled red onions and butter lettuce.
It's rather clear why we ordered this dish - pork belly? Yes please. Now I had imagined the soft fatty kind with the meat so soft, it shreds very easily like pulled pork. If I had read the menu correctly, it's crispy pork belly. Totally different.

While it was interesting with the sour apple yuzu jam and pickled red onions (to cut the fattiness of the pork belly) and that delicious red sauce, I still found the pork belly to be really chewy and dry. The fat part was very chewy and the meat part was very dry but I wouldn't call it crispy. Again, I hope it's because the kitchen staff are still new and it would be better next time. Hopefully. Otherwise, I would pass on it next time.

Spicy Pork Ishi-Yaki ($9.99) - rice, minced pork, garlic sprouts, egg, tomato, lettuce, spicy miso, served in a hot stone bowl.
If Ebi Mayo was Vancouverites' all time favourite dish from Hapa, then this would be the second.

Unfortunately... I didn't like it. It just didn't come together for me, the minced pork, the flavours, the texture etc. It's unlike anything I have eaten before so I can't even describe it. And boy, it was spicy. I guess it's just not my cup of tea.

Annin Dofu ($6.99)
One word: Creamy. Second word: Delicious. Now I thought I heard the waitress say "soy custard pudding" but since the receipt says Annin Dofu (which Google returns as almond tofu), I'm not so sure anymore. But either way, it was still a rich, creamy pudding without that strong almond taste (which some would prefer (me) and some would not). The taste is very light so don't expect bold flavours here. It was quite a big portion but I would've order another one if I weren't so full already because I enjoyed it a lot :). Next time, I would ask for the syrup on the side - it was a little too sweet for my preference.

The bill came up to $105 after tax and before tips. Yes, two people can dine for more than $100 here and devour 8 dishes + 1 dessert (with a little leftover). But I don't think most normal people eat as much as we do.

Overall, the food was alright. A few favourites here and there (the seared marinated mackerel, scallop tartare and the pudding) but some misses as well (sorry, Ishi-Yaki and pork belly lettuce wrap). But I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed in the execution of the Ebi Mayo and Karaage - they could've been so much better if only the frying part was executed properly. I definitely see the potential in both dishes but I'm just sad I didn't get to taste the way it should've been. I hope it's because the chefs are getting used to the dishes, the kitchen and are still working out the kinks.

I also wanted to note that our waitress Julie was, to simply put it, awesome. She was very kind, attentive (knew when we were signalling her or when we needed more water) and made very appropriate suggestions (for example, the Ishi-Yaki is rather filling - totally true - so if we were hungry, we should leave it for the second round of ordering). She never rushed us and actually cared for our dining experience. Excellent service (at least from Julie)!

Hapa Izakaya
602 College St
Toronto, ON
(647) 748-4272

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Wednesday, August 1, 2012 0

Kinton Ramen - Guu's expansion into the ramen business

By kc in

I was going to be ambitious and start attacking my pile of long overdue restaurant reviews... but then I was importing the photos I took of my recent visit to Kinton Ramen and loved the pictures too much to say no. At least there's still a review either way?

Having loved both Guu Izakaya and Guu Sakabar, I had to come try Guu's new expansion into the ramen industry. Besides, this is the beginning to a(n) (also long overdue) ramen trend growing in Toronto.

Staying consistent with their signature squares and wooden theme, their newest establishment is a ramen "bar". As you can tell from the photo above, the restaurant is deep and narrow, with 2 communal tables at the front (where we sat) and some more seats at the back.

We arrived shortly after 5 PM and since the hype has somewhat died down already, we didn't have to wait long until our table was ready. Except that one of our companions was late, hence we couldn't be seated until the entire party arrived.

Gyozas ($3.50)
I love dumplings. For more than 2 years now, I visit Northern Kitchen Dumplings at least once a month for my fix.
But these gyozas are slightly different from the usual ones found at Chinese restaurants. They are the delicate version - a slightly chewy wrapper and a calculated proportion of juicy meat to achieve a wonderful balance. Unlike the usual let's-stuff-as-much-meat-as-we-can type of dumplings.
I also liked how there wasn't much oil from these pan-fried goodies. Again, very different from the ones I'm used to but in a good way.

See how there's still space inside the dumpling?

Having read quite a bit of reviews on Kinton prior to coming, I decided to order the crowd favourite - Shio Ramen ($9.50) with pork belly and a regular soup - sea salt, beansprout scallion, nori (seaweed) and a seasoned egg.

Like everyone said, the noodles are on the firmer side with a very, very slight "al dente" bite. While the soup itself is flavourful, it wasn't the deep, full bodied flavour I had hoped. It was also too salty. I had heard the other soup bases such as Shoyu (soy sauce) were even more salty and had hoped Shio would be better in this aspect.

However, I did enjoy their soft-boiled egg. I loooooooooooove runny eggs. In fact, I think one of my mom's biggest pet peeves is my adoration for raw eggs in everything. Yes, I know salmonella exists and the dire consequences of it. But but but there's tsukimi udon! Hot pot! Runny scrambled eggs! Poached eggs! Life just wouldn't be the same without it. Right??
(And if you're ever in the mood to make your own soft-boiled marinated ramen egg, Serious Eats does an in-depth run-down on it).

This is the ramen that made Kinton Ramen stand out from its competitors: Cheese Ramen ($10.80) - miso and light soup, Swiss cheese, choice of pork shoulder of belly (we chose belly), beansprout, corn and basil.

Truth be told, I was a little hesitant about the marriage of cheese and ramen. But I figured if the people behind Guu thought it was good enough to put on their menu as a permanent dish, it probably is good. And it was GREAT!

As the sprinkled handful of Swiss cheese gradually melted on top of the steaming bowl of ramen, the more it dissolved into the soup. It give the ramen a slightly salty yet delicious flavour.

Extra Pork Ramen ($12.80) - choice of Miso, Shio, Shoyu or Spicy soup base (we chose Miso and heavy) with extra choice of pork (we chose belly).

Notice the colour and opaqueness of the above soup is much more cloudy than the rest. It's because my friend chose "heavy" for soup - meaning the amount of fat. It gave the soup more richness but I still think it lacked depth. I also found that the Miso soup base was not as salty as my Shio one. The extra fatty pork belly was chopped up into large chunks and were charred nicely (a better char than mine in fact >_>).

Out of all 3 ramens we've tried, I liked the Cheese Ramen the most. The combination was unique and surprisingly delicious. I liked the Shio the least due to its saltiness (it's very possible to make a sea salt soup base without it being too salty!). The noodles were good but nothing special. As a matter of fact, I didn't find the ramen as a whole to be exceptional or incredible. It was good ramen (and at affordable prices) - just not amazing ramen. But on the up side, it's still better than what Toronto previously offered!

Now we'll have to sit tight and see how well Kinton will fare with the upcoming competition (I can't WAIT for momofuku!!!!!!!!!!!). In the mean time, I hope they can tone down sodium and perhaps add a milky pork bone soup base next?

Kinton Ramen
51 Baldwin Street
Toronto, ON M5T 1L1
(647) 748-8900

Hours of operation: Sunday to Thursday: 11:30 AM - 3:00 PM; 5:00 PM - 10:30 PM
Friday and Saturday: 11:30 AM - 3:00 PM; 5:00 PM - 12:00 AM
* no reservations *

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Tuesday, July 17, 2012 0

Khao San Road - long waiting lines, delicious Thai iced tea, and even a Vegan menu

By kc in

Khao San Road is undoubtedly the most popular Thai restaurant in Toronto at the moment.
I remember walking past this restaurant with a barely noticeable restaurant sign and there at 5:20 PM, was already a waiting line out the door. Reservations cannot be made here but they did kindly make a Waiting Time Estimates chart for patrons. And yes, there's even a vegan menu!

Small, loud, and bustling, Khao San Road is the perfect place for colleagues to relax after a long day of work, for friends to catch up or for Thai-food lovers.
Having forgot to bring my camera the first time around, I was more than ready to pounce on the chance to visit KSR again.

Thai Iced Tea ($4.50)
If it's your first time at KSR, I completely recommend ordering the Thai Iced Tea. Fragrant, milky and sweet, you'll be surely hooked onto this delicious iced drink from the first sip. I wanted it a bit less sweet, however unfortunately they pre-make it everyday and weren't able to make adjustments.

Squash Fritters ($10)
With a thin crispy exterior, this is an delectable dish that's perfect for sharing.

Pad Kee Mao ($14)
Stir fried rice noodles with fresh green chili, fresh garlic, long green pepper, egg, bamboo shoot and Thai basil leaves. Customized to have chicken, no bamboo shoots and no cilantro.
I personally love Phat Si Lo (stir fried broccoli and chicken with flat rice noodles) and this is a variation of it. It was tasty and more filling than it appeared but as I struggled to finish the last few bites, I wished the ratio of noodles to chicken would be a bit more.

Khao Soi ($14)
Egg noodles in a coconut milk enriched curry, garnished with crispy noodles, green onion, coriander and lime.
This is the most popular main entree at KSR. It has a creamy, rich soup base that coats every strand of egg noodles along with a nice crunch from the noodle toppings. I find that the fried noodles on top actually help cut down the heaviness of the coconut milk curry. A very, very heavy dish indeed. Many girls that ordered this at our table couldn't finish it in the end.
The Khao Soi also reminds me of the Malaysian Laksa but without the spicy kick, a thicker soup base and more coconut milk.

Pad Gra Prao ($13)
Stir-fried minced meat with holy basil, topped with a fried egg, served on rice.

Chef's Special Pad Thai ($15)
When I had their special Pad Thai, they had chopped up the cilantro and stir fried it along with the noodles, hence it was scattered on every strand. Because of this, I wasn't able to fully enjoy it :( However, everyone else who had it said it was pretty good. And one thing to note is that the noodles did not clump up together like many bad Pad Thai's. Phew.

Vegan Pad Thai ($15)
I have to say that the Vegan Pad Thai looks equally delicious and probably tasted just as good.

While I wasn't blown away, I do think KSR offers tasty Thai food at a premium price that's well supported by the district it's in. The staff are also friendly and patient. But as I've already been here twice and with long line-ups that matches Guu, unless I'm craving for Khao Soi I don't think I'll be back for a while.

Khao San Road
362 Adelaide West
Toronto, ON
(647) 352-5773

Hours of Operation:
Monday to Saturdays: 11:30 AM - 2:30 PM, 5:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Closed on Sundays

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Friday, July 6, 2012 0

Guu Sakabar - a look at Sakabar via pictures

By kc in ,

It's been well over a year since I first visited Guu Sakabar (back when it first opened). I have previously reviewed Guu Izakaya but I thought I should still give a picture review despite the delay. Because you can never get sick of Guu - it's too Guu'd!

I really love the uneven cubic decor at the Sakabar, on both the walls and ceiling. Sticking to their signature theme of the colour black, wood and dimmed lights, the second Toronto Guu establishment also has that festive, bustling environment.

Sapporo Big Mug ($9.60) - Big is an understatement. This mug is GINORMOUS!

Takowasabi ($3.50)

Deep-fried chicken knee cartilage ($5.20)

Oden Moriawase - 6 kinds of assorted oden ($7.50)
I've tried oden a few times, in Asia and at Guu, and I'm still impartial to it. Although I like the softness and the juice that is absorbed into each variety, I'm not a big fan of the blandness.

Oshi Zushi ($9.90) - pressed mackerel sushi
My must-order dish at Guu Sakabar! I LOVE how fresh the mackerel is at Sakabar. Paired with some chopped green onions to balance any fishiness, this is definitely the best dish at Sakabar.

Rice Burger ($5.80)
One of the weakest dishes I'd say. The burger was bland and the meat was rather dry. A let-down compared to our envisioned beloved rice burger from Mos Burger.

Magutata ($6. 80) - torched marinated big eye tuna
Delicious tuna that's perfectly seared on the outside and scrumptiously raw on the inside.

BBQ Pork - Char Siu ($6.00)

Carbonara Udon ($8.30)
The signature Guu creamy carbonara udon.

Temari Zushi ($8.90)
One-bite salmon sushi balls. Yum.

Hotate Butter ($7.20)

Kushi Moriawase ($7.80) - 5 kinds of assorted kushiage
I am also not a big fan of their fried skewers; nothing particularly special about them.

Saba Pon ($5.20) - marinated mackerel with ponzu sauce
I remember being disappointed by this dish. Definitely pales in comparison to the oshi zushi pressed mackerel sushi.

Almond Tofu ($3.50)
Love the silky, smooth almond tofu at both Guu locations.

Cheese cake ($4.00)

Since these pictures and prices were from a year ago, the prices and variety might've changed by now. Regardlessly, I definitely still think Guu is the best izakaya in town, in terms of both atmosphere, quality and value. However, I slightly prefer the Guu Izakaya over the Sakabar due to wider variety and more seafood-based daily special items.

Guu Sakabar
559 Bloor Street West
Toronto, ON M5S 1Y6
(647) 343-1101

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