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DONDON IZAKAYA (130 Dundas West, at Bay, 416-492-5292, dondonizakaya.com) Complete dinners for $35 per person (sushi lunches $20), including tax, tip and a discounted domestic beer. Average main $8. Open for lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 4 pm, Saturday and Sunday noon to 4 pm; dinner Sunday to Thursday 4 pm to midnight, Friday and Saturday 4 pm to 1 am. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNN
Almost everyone in the culinary world is going seriously down-market.
Susur Lee has traded over-the-top tasting menus served backwards for cheeseburger spring rolls; Top Chef Canada recently roped in hunky TV handyman Mike Holmes as a judge; and that rapscallion Greg Couillard just popped up - however briefly - at a f*ckin' Firkin in the condo district.
Daisuke Izutsu has also read the tea leaves. Since folding his upscale Kaiseki-Sakura at Church and Wellesley last fall after a five-year struggle to find an audience for elegantly plated Japonica, Izutsu has teamed up with the folks behind Sushi Time to give us DonDon Izakaya in the old Sai Woo.
They might as well have called it Guu Too, such is the slavish evocation of that insanely popular Church Street resto, although the original's bombastic volume and frenzied revelry have been considerably muted. There's also no two-hour drinking limit, and you don't have to take off your shoes like you do at the Guu on Bloor, stocking feet and raw fish rarely a good mix.
Yes, they bang the drum (the sound made by the taiko gives DonDon its name) and shout out the Japanese equivalent of "Hey, buddy, how's it goin', eh?" every time someone climbs the stairs to the second-storey space. But, other than that and a lot of after-work laughter, the scene is relatively laid-back.
Chef Izutsu saves the fireworks for his plates, deliciously addictive starters like deep-fried seaweed in wasabi-spiked tempura, ($3) and heavily salted crispy shrimp complete with heads, tails and eyeballs. His cheesy potato croquettes ($7) come cleverly blackened with cod roe, sesame seeds and squid ink, that exotic red sauce on the side a blob of Heinz ketchup.
Ignoring our embargo on a certain root vegetable, we order Izutsu's beet salad ($8.90) just to see what the classically trained French chef will do. We're not disappointed with his a tangle of organic mesclun in tart raspberry vinaigrette tossed with crumbled walnuts and Gorgonzola, the thin round slices of candy-cane beets on top suggesting flower blossoms.
Real flowers show up in his idiosyncratic take on a classic Caesar ($7.50), a deconstructed heap of ripped iceberg lettuce dressed with carnation petals, buttery shaved parmigiano and a very runny poached egg. An upright ring of puff pastry the size of a bracelet to make the plate look even more like a basket of flowers you crush to make croutons. Turns out Cherry Tomato and Friends ($6.80) isn't the name of a 70s porno flick but a bowl of peeled baby plum tomatoes, fresh bocconcini and raisins in gingery syrup like some fractured fruit cocktail.
And who can resist meaty slices of barely seared BC tuna smoked over hay when the lengthy illustrated menu describes them as "fish + garlic + hay + LOVE FIRE ($11.90)," especially when they arrive at table sided with a line of salt. Make sure you have your camera ready if you order Hoppeta-Yaki ($8.50), an otherwise unassuming mound of garlicky mashed potatoes thick with diced chicken and asparagus, topped with shaved bonito flakes that, due to the heat of the spuds, wriggle around like worms on a rainy-day lawn.
Izutsu stays on trend with Tokyo-inspired hot dogs ($5.20) finished with spicy Korean pulled pork and kimchee, while the oddly dubbed Fwhat-Fwhat Pork ($8) - WTF? - finds a pair of doughy Chinese steamed buns piled with seared pork belly, cucumber, scallion and hoisin sauce à la Banh Mi Boys.
We finish this most unusual meal with bowls of crunchy almond 'n' strawberry risotto in chocolate sauce ($4.20) and nutty black-sesame ice cream ($1.90), proof that down-market doesn't have to mean dumbed-down.