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)!
602 College St
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Tuesday, September 18, 2012 2