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At Kingyo, Koji Zenimaru (left) preps ramen salad. GM Manabu Sasaki shows off the garlic tuna tataki with ponzu jelly (right). Photo by David Laurence.
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Koji Zenimaru fires up the fare (right).
KINGYO (51B Winchester, at Parliament, 647-748-2121, kingyotoronto.ca) Complete dinners for $40 per person, including tax, tip and a cocktail. Average main $11. Open nightly 5:30 to 11:30 pm. No reservations. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN
Maybe it's the Ruffian From Outer Space episode of Ultraman (think Godzilla made for 60s TV, only way cheesier) unspooling over the bar, the operatic soundtrack of Roy Orbison's greatest hits on the iPod or the goldfish tank built into our table, but Kingyo has us from the get-go.
The two-month-old Vancouver-based izakaya's carte is just as eclectic, a multiculti mashup that's anything but traditional. Some may remember the spacious 120-seat room as the short-lived Stonegrill, an Aussie import where customers seared their pricey Kobe beef on slabs of volcanic rock. Thankfully, ex-Guu chef Koji Zenimaru and ex-Sushi Kaji sous Tsuyoshi Yoshinaga now handle all the cooking themselves.
As a 60-foot rubber chicken stomps over a cardboard replica of downtown Tokyo - "It's over, it's over, it's over!" sings Mr. Orbison apocalyptically - we knock back a round of the sea urchin shooters the menu refers to as "natural ocean Viagra." "Please do it or don't do it," the website waffles. Having done it, we wonder why most so-called aphrodisiacs taste like they were scraped off the bottom of an aquarium.
We're back on less contentious turf with rice-paper wraps stuffed with barbecued cha shu pork, crunchy cucumber and a salad's worth of leaf lettuce splashed with house-made teriyaki sauce and sweet Kewpie mayo (both $7.80). Another extravagantly plated starter, thick slices of albacore tuna ($8.20) come barely seared tataki-style and dressed with sour ponzu jelly, deep-fried garlic chips and a vial of ponzu shoyu sauce.
A lemony carpaccio of hamachi yellowtail rides an eye-catching bed of organic mesclun tossed with lotus root chips, slivered red radish and delicate daikon sprouts in sesame ' n' wasabi mayo ($11.80). Kingyo deliciously sidesteps the age-old question of which came first - the chicken or the egg - by pairing sheets of raw West Coast salmon with explosive salmon roe in their pressed battera sushi ($12).
Anyone who's become a tad blasé of late about Japanese noodle soup should ignore the house's somewhat fishy pork tantan ramen ($10.80) in favour of the spicy ramen salad ($7.80), a great whack of cold al dente noodles laced with salty cod roe, barbecued pork, bitter radicchio and strips of both seaweed and scrambled egg. We could eat this every day by the bucket.
We're not exactly sure what makes the kitchen's Kinchan-style chicken wings ($8.20) so "legendary" - curry powder and sugar, our guess - but the three white "pills" that come with them are bound to be remembered. With a "watch this," our smiling server pours a stream of boiling water onto each until they "grow" into a trio of moist rayon hand towels.
Contrary-wise, the Wet Castella Sponge Cake ($8.80), a Portuguese-derived angel food cake served alongside a crumble of Oreo cookies and a scoop of house-made vanilla ice cream, isn't much more than air. No matter how delish, we're sure it wouldn't take the superpowers of an Ultraman to compress the 5-inch round into something the size of one of those magic towel pills.