“IRASSHAIMASEEEEEEEEEEEEE,” roars the entire staff at Guu each time the door swings open and startled-turned-amused-or-slightly-embarrassed diners file in. The only way to top such an enthusiastic greeting would be to have fires soar in unison from the kitchen. Seriously, if you think you know what a we’re-happy-to-see-you reaction is like, you know nothing until you set foot in here.
The izakaya with Vancouver origins made its way to Toronto in 2009, quickly establishing and maintaining a highly-acclaimed reputation that follows it well beyond the borders of Ontario’s provincial capital. Ask any serious foodophile where to dine in Toronto and I can guarantee that they’ll cite Guu as an urgent priority. Believe them. Believe me. It’s fucking guu’d.
The set-up is as intimate and inviting as your reception. Wooden benches for communal seating take up most of the warmly-lit space, with a handful of tables for two to the right of the entrance and my favourite seats in the house: the stools at the bar overlooking the magic made in the kitchen.
Whatever your gender, I hope you get one of the ever-so-gracious, soft-spoken Japanese waitresses with a warm smile and doe eyes to wait on you. They’re the epitome of cute – but not that insufferable I’m-helpless-and-I-speak-like-a-5-year-old-in-between-giggle-fits thing some Asian girls do – and looking around the room, guys, usually white, specifically Jewish, totally dig it. If you get one of their male counterparts, their loud and animated personalities will surely entertain you.
I should mention that you have to be in a certain mood to enjoy the Guu experience. The noise level is off the charts with the staff constantly shouting welcomes and goodbyes, and putting in and getting out orders to satisfy their rowdy, red-faced customers of the night. Stay home if you’re suffering from a headache or seeking peace and quiet.
Pure gluttony will persuade you to order everything on Guu’s tapas-like menu along with the daily specials, but you’re no match against all that food. Some say it’s best to go as a large group, that way you get to taste a variety of dishes, but that’s what you get, a taste. I’d rather split the food two ways and try less to really savor what I’m eating…and return as soon as I can for the rest.
Let’s talk food – specifics.
What I wouldn’t give at this very moment to shove some Kakimayo ($7.50) in my face. Think twin giant B.C. oysters baked with mushrooms, spinach and garlic mayo covered under a blanket of bubbly, gooey cheese. The results? Hot, briny, creamy and slippery bites of pleasure.
Yes, yes, fuck, yes to the Salmon Tataki ($6.80). Buttery slices of B.C. salmon, raw and pink underneath the seared surfaces, rest on a tangle of finely-stringed daikon for a crisp contrast and a heightened fresh effect. Drizzled overtop are a wasabi mayo that fizzles in heat and ponzu that brings the dish to life with its citrus and vinegary notes. For the final touches: green onions and garlic chips. Clean and refreshing, I’d rather take someone’s eye out with my chopsticks than share.
Don’t like your animals cooked and served with their faces still intact? Then you’ll be delighted by the beheaded Saba ($8.80). Served on a sizzling platter, I basically inhaled a boneless body of tender grilled saba mackerel and the bed of sweet caramelized onions, tart tomatoes, bitter garlic chips and dill it sat on, but not before squeezing the citrus life out of that wedge of lemon.
Takoyaki is a safe word at Guu. A quintessential Japanese street food, they sell these scrumptious pan-fried octopus balls in sets of five for $5.00. The exterior of each puffy, golden orb starts off crisp but softens by the time its creamy core nestling a piece of octopus is cool enough to eat – the works of the sweet tonkatsu sauce, Japanese mayo, seaweed flakes and salty, pungent, paper-thin slices of bonito shavings chilling on top.
You can’t go wrong with another izakaya staple: the Okonomiyaki ($6.80). Guu’s only rendition of what is often referred to as a Japanese pancake or pizza involves squid folded into a cabbage-based batter. Cooked on a griddle, the soft, wet and springy center is enveloped in a delicate brown lattice that wilts after the addition of sweet tonkatsu sauce, creamy Japanese mayo, seaweed flakes and bonito shavings.
I’m squeamish about eel, but I couldn’t stop reaching for the Unagi Doria ($9.30). Sticky white rice served as a base for the BBQ eel and its slippery skin paired with shredded cheese. At the surface, sesame seeds, green onions and thin seaweed strips were set in tonkatsu sauce that also sank through the cracks of the bottom layers. I don’t have any complaints about it being predominantly sweet from the brown sauce masking the flavor profiles of the other ingredients. It was the happiest I’d ever been to eat eel.
The B.B.Q. Pork ($6.50) wasn’t what I thought it would be. I was expecting chars and grill marks branded on plump pork flesh, but what I got was more akin to braised pork – equal parts extra-tender meat and artery-clogging fat – sitting in a runny pool of juices mildly flavoured with yuzu and honey soya sauce. I didn't care for it.
If you’re longing for pork, I’d go for the Tontoro ($6.50) – bite-size pieces of pan-fried pork cheek seasoned with salt and yuzu pepper, and garnished with sesame seeds and green onions. Firm flesh, plenty of fat, simple in taste.
The Ikapiri ($6.50) falls under the deep-fried portion of the menu, and no, it’s not what you’d suspect. Forget greasy, battered squid rings. Embrace naked tentacles flash-fried in oil until tender with a little chew, coated and flavoured with spicy ketchup and finished with a why-bother amount of wasabi mayo.
Guu’d Lord, the food and the experience absolutely excuse and justify those hideous lineups that form despite the fact that they take reservations. Everyone just wants a shot at the guu’ds of what I consider a highlight of Toronto's food scene.
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