Sunday, August 26, 2012


In the third and final installment of our Toronto posts we shift the focus to Guu Izakaya. Guu, named for the noise your stomach makes when you're hungry, is a super-popular and surprisingly large izakaya. If you're unfamiliar with the izakaya genre you could presumably and somewhat crudely equate it to a Japanese style pub, the beer flows like nobody's business as people order and eat small plates of food that are far more interesting and original than your average fish n' chips, chicken wings sort-of pub fare.

Guu doesn't accept reservations and lines are notoriously long, even in the winter months. On the night we visited we waited nearly an hour before our names were called for a couple of available spots at the bar. The personality and spirited, rowdy atmosphere of this popular izakaya are immediately evident from the moment you step through the massive front door of the restaurant. Communal wood tables occupy the majority of the floor space with dozens of naked, antique light bulbs hanging overhead. Conversations get loud as patrons indulge in gargantuan 1 liter pints of Saporro beer on tap and staff shout in chorus to greet all who enter and thank all who exit as they vacate their seats for the next eager clients waiting in line. In addition to the communal tables, bar stools surround the counter enclosing the open kitchen that was swarming with activity all night long.

The menu boasts an extensive list of nearly 50 available options split up into categories named for various things from the main component to the temperature and sometimes the cooking method. Categories include but are not limited to appetizers, salads, cold dishes, deep fried, grilled, rice & noodles. We began with the Kabocha Karokke, a hard boiled egg encased in a thick layer of sweet kabocha (a winter squash that is often referred to as Japanese pumpkin) then deep fried and served doused in a mildly-sweet pink sauce that although we can't be sure, tasted a lot like a mixture of mayonnaise and ketchup; the whole thing is topped with fried garlic chips. We ordered the dish expecting a sort-of vegetarian version of a Scotch egg, and that's exactly what we got. The sweetness of the sauce combined with the sweetness of the pumpkin was a little redundant, and the egg within was definitely overcooked. It didn't wow but it was an enjoyable dish nonetheless and at less than 5$ it was very reasonably priced.

Kabocha Karokke (Pumpkin Croquette, Hard Boiled Egg) - 4.80$

Our next dish was a pretty big let-down. Promoted on a little card at all the tables apart from the menu as a Guu classic, the Gyu carpaccio or lightly seared but predominantly raw beef sashimi was served in a pool of ponzu, garnished with mayo, wasabi, garlic chips, green onion and daikon. This dish fell very flat for us. None of the garnishes struck us as being confidently used to provide any impact but did however, manage to overwhelm the beef. The daikon was completely unnecessary. We both agreed it was the weakest dish of the night. 

Gyu Carpaccio (Seared Beef Sashimi) - 6.50$

Our hands-down favorite dish of the night was the kakimayo. Very large, B.C oysters were smothered in what we can best describe as a light-as-air spinach mousse, mushrooms, garlic mayo and then topped with grated cheese, baked and served piping hot. They were briny, rich, salty and hot, and struck us as an interesting take on oysters Rockefeller. They also paired astoundingly well with the titanic-sized beers we were drinking. If we lived in Toronto we could easily see ourselves returning to drink beer and eat these all night long on a more regular basis than we might care to admit; but there were a lot more tantalizing items on the menu that remained to be tried. We scraped every last bit out of the shells and bitter-sweetly pursued other menu items optimistically but with a simultaneously reluctant feeling that we might not have another dish that would dazzle us the way these oysters had.

Kakimayo (Baked Oyster) - 7.20$

Next up, pan fried pork cheeks seasoned with salt and yuzukosh┼Ź a.k.a yuzu pepper. Many foods, like the previous oyster dish pair very well with beer but others like this dish, up the ante. Unapologetically fatty and salty with an underlying citrusy heat from the yuzu pepper, these fantastic bite-sized morsels of pig face had all of the characteristics we look for when we think of the ultimate accompaniment to a pint of cold beer. This dish was another big hit for us.

Tontoro (Pan Fried Pork Cheeks) - 6.50$

The bibimbap which is actually not native to Japan, but rather a popular Korean preparation was a case of a dish with a lot of curb-side appeal that didn't really deliver on the fundamentals. Rice, ground pork, kimchi, some green vegetables and a raw egg are served in a screaming-hot stone bowl, seriously - don't touch the bowl unless you have mommy-daddy issues and some misguided desperation for pity while your date waits with you in the emergency room texting her friends to tell them what type of moron you are that can't help but push the proverbial red button. Your server places the dish in front of you and then proceeds to mix and mash it all together with a couple of soup spoons. The egg cooks immediately and as you begin eating it the parts that are in direct contact with the hot bowl develop a crispy-crunchy texture. It's not the first time we eat bibimbap nor is it the first time we're underwhelmed by it. Many people seem to be fond of bibimbap but we find it to be a gimmicky dish that we've unfortunately yet to be impressed by, this time included.

Buta Kimchi Bibimbap - 8.80$

One of our favorite foods, tongue, was grilled and served in bite-sized pieces. It was a little bit chewy, which is to be expected with tongue prepared in this manner and pretty mundane, which was also to be expected given that the only seasoning listed in the dish's description was salt. We enjoyed it, but could understand if others might be less impressed by its simplicity. This would not be the tongue dish we would choose to convert an apprehensive eater but if you're anything like us, and tongue is your sort of thing this dish is worth a shot.

Gyu Tongue (Grilled Beef Tongue) - 6.50$

We rounded out the savory portion of our meal with the salmon tataki. Identically garnished as the raw beef sashimi we were less than impressed by at the beginning of our meal, ordering this dish was in a sense, a little bit of an experiment. We were curious whether our perceived weakness of the beef dish was due to the garnishes and seasoning or whether the beef itself was its undoing. As it turns out, the fatty, buttery attributes of the salmon lent themselves far better to the same cast of supporting elements than the beef did, making for a much more successful rendition on the same theme. We did, however, still find the daikon to be unnecessary. Following our little experiment, we would certainly recommend ordering the salmon and passing on the beef variation.

Salmon Tataki (Seared Salmon Sashimi) - 6.80$

Contrary to the considerably large main menu, the dessert menu offers a comparatively modest number of 4 options. We chose two of the four, the banana tempura and an order of the black sesame ice cream.  The first and only other time we had ever had black sesame ice cream was on one of our several visits to Imadake, our favorite Montreal Izakaya. The subtly toasty flavor of the black sesame and understated sweetness of the ice cream was a winner in our books, so when we saw it offered on the menu at Guu we immediately seized the opportunity to have it again; it was just as good as we remembered it being the first time. If you ever have the chance to try black sesame ice cream we suggest pulling the trigger and thanking us later.

The tempura banana was exactly what it sounds like, which also begs to ask the question: what's not to like? A ripe banana is dipped in tempura batter and deep fried to form a crisp coating on the exterior contrasting the soft sweet fruit within. Paired with a scoop of coconut ice cream and covered in mango and chocolate sauces the result is a tropical flavor pallet that must undoubtedly be a big seller and a crowd pleaser. Certainly not ground-breaking nor polished or delicate, but fried desserts covered in chocolate sauce and served with ice cream is seldom a blunder. The mass-appeal of a dish like this is a safe move that's easily executed, and likely delivers consistently positive feedback. 

Banana Tempura, Coconut Ice Cream, Chocolate, Mango - 6$

Black Sesame Ice Cream - 4$

Our entire meal at Guu consisting of 9 dishes and 2 liters of beer represented a tremendous value at a total of 100$ including tax and tip. Certain dishes evidently struck a chord with us more than others but our overall experience was very positive. We laughed, we drank, we ate and we did it all without breaking the bank. By a long shot, the minority of the dishes we sampled that evening weren't our cup of tea, but with 50 or so items on the menu plus nightly specials, if we lived in Toronto and had the luxury of returning as often as we'd like, it would surely afford us the opportunity to fine-tune an order that was as sensational as those baked oysters and pork cheeks from start to finish. Be sure to stop by Guu for a casual and unique dining experience next time you're in Toronto, bring your appetite and your drinking hat but at prices this affordable, you can leave the credit card at home.

Click the following link to view our previous Toronto post: Beast

Guu Izakaya
398 Church Street
Toronto, ON

Guu Izakaya on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. I think my feelings about Guu were about the same as yours - however, I must say the ambiance would keep me going and going and going!

    I also wrote about it on my blog ( and although it's in French, you'll see our orders were entirely different! My absolute favorite was the tuna tataki - it melts in your mouth (I know, not very eco-friendly, but still delicous).

    The staff was so energetic I even filmed a short sequence - I just had a blast and I did NOT expect that at all!