IZAKAYA (69 Front East, at Church, 416-703-8658) Complete meals for $25 per person, including all taxes, tip and an organic lager. Average main $10. Open daily 11:30 am to 11:30 pm. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then Wagamama - the wildly successful UK chain of ersatz Japanese restaurants that has expanded as far afield as Dubai and New Zealand - must be dead chuffed.
That's because recently launched Front East eatery Izakaya has lifted its concept right down to the wording of its menu. Mind you, it's one Izakaya's Erik Joyal recognizes as worth pinching: fashionable mid-priced Shibuya-style fast food geared to Westerners daunted by sushi and sashimi. Like the London-based restaurants, Izakaya is a noodle house first, with a short secondary card of Tokyo-centric tapas meant to mimic the after-work snacks served at authentic izakaya pubs. Why, this joint expects to be so busy, its all-in-black servers place orders with the kitchen by PDA.
Today, with maybe a dozen customers in the joint, the 150-seat resto is remarkably serene. A renovated 19th-century warehouse, the space has been divided in two, the front room and bar acting as a holding pen for the dramatic rear area designed by local firm II by IV (Flow, Luce, Rain).
There's a line of upholstered tables for two down its east and west walls, but the only seating for groups of three or more is six square bare wooden tables for 12 and a tall shared counter for 20 by the open kitchen.
Their hard benches and backless stools (not wanting to sound like a certain foodie fuddy-duddy, but where the hell are you supposed to put your coat and shoulder bag?) guarantee you won't want to hang around.
And that's Izakaya's point. Like a nervous newlywed, it wants you in and out as quickly as possible.
A recent solo lunch clocked in at 35 minutes, and that we like. That it was made with quality ingredients and Sapporo-style noodles by a confident kitchen helmed by ex-Splendido sous John Sinopoli is pure gravy.
Our group assault begins with a bowl of steaming edamame soybean pods ($4) strewn with flaky sea salt, and three skewers of grilled Negima Yakitori ($5.25), plump boneless chicken breast and sweetly glazed scallions dusted with shichimi-togarashi pepper.
Duck Gyoza ($6) finds five garlicky steamed 'n' fried potstickers filled with tasty shredded duck and Chinese veggies alongside a slightly sour soy-sauced dip. Not to be missed, Seaweed Salad ($5) sees rubbery threads of wakame, dulse, kombu and hijiki mixed with sesame seeds and pickled baby lotus root in a rice wine vinaigrette plated over buttery Boston lettuce.
But it's the super meal-in-one soups that will put Izakaya on the map. Moderately spicy Chili Chicken Ramen ($11.25) - perhaps Wagamama's most popular dish - brims with squiggly house-made noodles in a first-rate broth kicked with red Anaheim peppers, and comes topped with grilled Cumbrae free-range chicken and a tangle of raw sprouts and coriander.
Equally delish, Tokyo Beef Ramen ($11.50) swim in a meaty miso stock next to medium-rare slices of Cumbrae sirloin garnished with minty shiso leaf, spring onion and a scattering of toasted black and white sesame seeds.
Best yet, Kinoko Udon ($9.75) noodles luxuriate in a surprisingly meaty broth topped with sliced raw 'shrooms - shiitake, shimeji, oyster and a cluster of delicate enoki - that cook to a perfect consistency along with crunchy daikon shoot as one eats. All are sloppily slurped using a combination chopstick-ladle technique, although it's perfectly acceptable to lift the bowl to your mouth and drink whatever remains straight from the source.
Less adventurous palates will be sated by Chicken Katsu Curry ($10.50), a panko-crusted boneless cutlet sauced with the most inoffensive curry imaginable, served with steamed rice, organic mizuna salad and brightly hued pickled radish. Think of Yaki Soba ($10) - stir-fried buckwheat noodles tossed with three butterflied shrimp, chicken, scrambled egg and strips of red bell pepper - as Japanese pad thai with a floor show. Dressed with shaved katsuobushi bonito, the dish appears to be dancing due to the chemical reaction between the hot food and the cold flakes. Supermarket does this trick, too.
To drink, there's a juice lineup of freshly concocted cocktails like the Restore (gingery carrot and pear, $3.75), mugs of smoky gen mai cha (a blend of green tea and roasted rice (75 cents) and organic Izakaya Lager ($5) that turn out to be two tiny bottles of Mill Street ($5).
Izakaya may not be original, but it works.
Change of Tempo
tom thai of tempo (596 college, at Clinton, 416-531-2822) jumped on the izakaya bandwagon two years ago and has just introduced his latest version of Tokyo-centric tapas - the likes of crispy grilled shrimp with jalapeño and kaffir lime, or duck leg drenched in Iranian sun-dried fig and roasted tamarind - that push the culinary envelope. The cutting-edge chef's work gets described in a recent release this way: "The fact that izakaya is served communal style only lends volume to the tabled choruses of lime-leaf ambushed lips and collectively soused taste-buds." We'll drink to that.
Wag, Mama, Wag
izakaya isn't toronto's first waga- mama. An identically dubbed café on the west side (766 King West, at Bathurst, 416-603-0369) has been serving an eclectic mix of Nippon-inspired soups, salads and sandwiches for five years. It hasn't gone unnoticed by the Brits. "They came over from England two years ago to check us out because they were thinking of opening a branch in Boston," explains our Wagamama's Miwa Yamada , whose restaurant's name translates as self-indulgent person. "I haven't heard a thing back, so I guess they didn't consider us a threat." firstname.lastname@example.org