Big In Japan doesn't describe itself as an izakaya but realistically would be best described as such in our humble opinion. Located on St. Laurent just south of Pine avenue it's a fun spot with a bar feel where food prices are reasonable and the mood is casual. Recently, on a night when we weren't in the mood for anything too complicated, we visited for an early dinner and a couple of beers. We entered to find the place full to capacity but luckily didn't have to wait any more than 5 or 10 minutes for a couple of seats to become available. There are a few tables set up protruding from the counter-space that surrounds the open kitchen, additional bar stools and counters that line the walls, and tables in the front and back. We were seated in the front of the restaurant at tables that looked as though they were salvaged from a 90's fast food restaurant or food court. You know the type, immovable seating for 4 bolted to the ground with the space in the center of the table made for an ashtray eluding to a time when people still smoked in restaurants, complete with the low back metal chairs that swivel 180 degrees but always spring back into place.
Until Big in Japan was recently featured in the Montreal episode of Anthony Bourdain's The Layover, we had never really given it too much thought. To us it just always appeared to be another spot on the trendy portion of the main amongst the nightclubs, shish taouk places and overpriced restaurants where people park their Ferraris and groupies flock hoping to get a picture of themselves with a Habs player. Sorry for digressing... In a particularly funny scene of The Layover episode in question Tony, Martin Picard (Au Pied de Cochon) and Normand Laprise (Toqué!/Brasserie T!) pay a late night visit to Big In Japan wherein a severely inebriated Picard fervently defends Celine Dion against Tony's less than enthusiastic opinion of her entertainment appeal. We asked ourselves, why did these world-class chefs, an international fowl-mouthed food fiend and the producers of the show choose to visit this spot above the numerous other late-night-eats options in the city? We became intrigued by what we've been missing out on in this apparently popular restaurant while simultaneously accepting the mild embarrassment of being influenced to visit an eatery in our own city by a television show on an American travel network. Bruised egos aside, we were determined to go and see what was up for ourselves.
Once seated we began having a look over the greasy, sauce stained, laminated menu booklet on our table, and were greeted by a friendly waiter who was happy to help with our questions. We asked for a few beers and he let us know that because of the restaurant's limited liquor license, ordering a main dish or option from the sandwich portion of the menu is mandatory with all alcohol purchases. This was no problem because it was our intention to do so, but it is important to be aware of in case you're just planning on stopping by for a drink and a snack.
We began our meal with an order of fried garlic and the tuna hand rolls. We had no reason to assume anything but when we ordered the fried garlic we expected that it would be individual garlic cloves, maybe battered or breaded and deep fried. As it turned out, we were quite wrong. What arrived was two whole heads of unpeeled garlic that had been deep fried as is. It was messy and greasy work separating the cloves within from the paper skin but once done, it was a really enjoyable eating experience, especially with a few beers which we should mention were outrageously well priced at $3.75 a pint. The garlic wasn't over-the-top garlicky or pungent which leads us to believe that it may have been blanched a couple of times before frying to take a little bit of the edge off. Please don't misunderstand though, it still tasted very much of garlic. This is not a dish that we would recommend for first dates, fussy complainers or finicky eaters. Classify it as the sort of thing you could expect to enjoy if you're the type of person that likes shrimp or sardines with the heads on, or if you like eating ribs and fried chicken with your fingers. Needless to say, it was right up our alley. It was served with a few completely necessary wet naps and a little bit of a spicy dipping sauce that heightened the experience enabling you to get a little sweat on in between sips of your cold beer.
Fried Garlic (Ninniku Age) - 4.50$
The tuna hand rolls were served 2 per order. A few thick slices of tuna tataki came in each roll, which our waiter explained is cooked with a blow torch. They just barely sear the surface leaving the inside completely raw and roll it up in a sheet of nori, similar in form to an ice cream cone with a bit of julienned cucumber, crisp bean sprouts and some sticky rice. On the side, a sensational and completely unexpected sauce of miso mixed with mascarpone cheese was served. We absolutely loved the sauce. We were slathering it on the hand rolls, dipping our fried garlic in it, even literally eating it straight up, scooping it with our chopsticks. Perhaps it's most handy use was once the delicious tuna in the roll was gone, adding it to make the less compelling last bite or two of just nori and rice interesting, which would have otherwise been a little boring.
Tuna Tataki Hand Rolls (Temaki) - 8$
Following our appetizers, our mains were reasonable but that's about it. They didn't really live up to the same level of success as the starters did. We ordered the curry poutine with crispy scallops, beans and bamboo shoots and the spicy beef and eggplant ramen. Regrettably, the curry poutine was a pretty big letdown but admittedly maybe not the best menu selection on our part. The fries were crisp and the curry sauce was very good, but that's where the praise ends. Our initial disappointment came in the form of the shredded mozzarella cheese which in our opinion, is never an acceptable substitution for curd cheese when making poutine. Next, the scallops could not have been any farther from their description on the menu. They were breaded and fried but ultimately arrived at the table drenched in sauce and excessively soggy. When you think about it, using scallops wasn't even really necessary in this application. Using chicken, or pork, or anything else for that matter would have been equally effective; once breaded, fried and swamped in curry sauce what does it matter? Finally, once halfway through eating the poutine it became difficult to distinguish the soggy french fries from the bamboo shoots and the starch on top of starch in the form of beans on french fries was overkill and just felt like filler. Overall, not a very impressive dish.
Curry Poutine with Crispy Scallops - 14$
The ramen was more successful than the poutine but depending on which one of us you ask will depend on exactly to what extent. One of us felt it was admirable while the other, not too impressed. We both agreed that the broth was flavorful and that the tender eggplant was the best part of the dish. We also both felt that contrary to it's description, the beef was not very spicy. This is where the unanimity of our opinions end. The beef came in the form of minced meat which one of us thought was good but the other thought was bland and equated the experience of eating it combined with the ramen noodles to feeling like eating an unappetizing quasi-Japanese version of a bolognese or worse yet, hamburger-helper. As far as the noodles themselves go, we won't say that they were bad, but we've certainly had better. In summation one of us liked it fine but the other felt it was passable at best. It was a dish that we finished because we were hungry but won't necessarily remember or recommend.
Ramen with Eggplant and Spicy Beef (Mabo Nasu) - 13$
Finally, we noticed they had mochi ice cream on the desert menu. We've tried this once before at another Japanese restaurant and thought it was great so we stuck around and got an order. This would result in the worst choice of the evening. Three pieces of mochi ice cream arrived sitting in a puddle of whipped cream from an aerosol can with a side of sweetened red beans. Of the entire dessert the only edible item was the green tea mochi covered vanilla ice cream in the center, which was actually quite good. On either side of it were strawberry flavored ones that were tooth-achingly sweet with that awful artificial strawberry flavored ice cream inside that tastes like that Nesquik Strawberry flavored syrup. Who even eats that stuff? We can't even remember kids liking it when we were 6 years old. The aerosol whipped cream was equally distasteful and although some might like the stuff, we've never been huge fans of red bean desserts. To be fair maybe we've yet to try a really good example but this certainly wasn't it.
Mochi Ice Cream - 6.50$
Our meal at Big In Japan was very inconsistent. The appetizers were terrific and the beer prices are amazing but after that the meal got a little choppy. We rarely scratch a place off our list after only one visit so we can't rule out making a return trip to try some other menu options, like a fried tofu dish we saw that looked fantastic, but certain choices we made like the poutine and mochi ice cream were diplomatically speaking, rather anticlimactic. Big In Japan is open 7 days a week until 3:00AM so it is a contender for a bite to eat in the early morning hours when choices become limited but during regular business hours, unless we were already in the neighborhood it would be difficult to say we would go out of our way and fight for parking in the plateau to eat here over some other izakaya style restaurants in the city.
Big In Japan
3723 Boul St-Laurent