The energetic new Don Don Izakaya is putting Toronto’s Japanese restaurants on notice.
There’s a certain corporate-video vibe to the Don Don Izakaya staff meetings, part of the restaurant’s daily pre-opening ritual. Everyone’s quiet and attentive. The servers line up side by side, parallel to the cooks. After the manager reads out the specials, everyone shouts in unison the Japanese equivalent of “Let’s go, team!” before welcoming diners, who are already waiting outside, by banging drums and yelling the familiar “Irasshaimase!” greeting.
The spectacle doesn’t stop there. During dinner, I told my server how much I enjoyed the raw octopus, so he shouted to his colleagues in Japanese, “He says it’s delicious!” and was met with more hoots. Birthdays, a yakitori skewer coming off the grill, a dropped dish: There isn’t any occasion that doesn’t warrant team-building cheers.
“Izakayas are supposed to be a step down from a traditional restaurant. It’s where friends and coworkers go for beer and sake and a few snacks. It’s supposed to be loud,” says owner Tony Wong, who opened Queen West’s Sushi Time 17 years ago (he claims to have invented sushi pizza). Wong switches between Cantonese, English and Japanese when conversing with the young staff, most of whom are here on a work-study exchange. “The goal is to overload the diners’ senses and, for a moment, make them forget what’s troubling them.”
Don Don shares its aesthetic with Guu, the city’s most popular izakaya (a Japanese gastro pub): long wood communal tables, dark-grey walls and an open kitchen. But unlike Vancouver export Guu, the wait for a table is usually five minutes rather than an hour. Don Don also takes reservations.
The 48-year-old Wong says he got the idea to open an izakaya in Toronto a decade ago as he tired of all-you-can-eat sushi and California rolls. But his business partners (Anthony Phang, who co-owns Sushi Time, and Kazu Maruyama, who runs the Toronto-Japanese lifestyle website bitslounge.com) weren’t ready. He couldn’t find a space or a chef. “Guu beat me to it,” he says.
But in the past year, it all came together. In April, Wong got the keys to a large second-floor space at Dundas and Bay that seats more than 150 diners and has three party rooms. Last summer, chef Daisuke Izutu came on board after closing his critically lauded but under-the-radar Church-Wellesley restaurant Kaiseki Sakura. Wong had tried to recruit Izutu five years ago, when Izutu left Bistro Bakery Thuet.
Izutsu’s massive menu (there’s almost 90 dishes on it) runs the gamut from skewers of meat and vegetables ($3 for two) and crispy ginger-fried chicken ($6.80) to beloved North Americanized treats like tender pork-belly steamed buns ($8) and teriyaki hot dogs ($5.20). A seat at the bar in front of the open kitchen provides a view of the action. Slices of salmon are skewered and seared over a hay-fuelled flame, which gives the fish an intense smoked flavour ($11.90). Spears of miso-buttered asparagus are meticulously stacked like a teepee then finished with shaved Parmesan ($7.20).
From the deep fryer emerge lightly battered wasabi-flavoured seaweed chips ($3) and shrimp-and-cod-roe croquettes covered in a blackened breadcrumb crust ($7). Despite Wong’s insistence on never serving a dynamite roll here, box sushi will be on the menu when the restaurant opens for lunch in a few weeks. For this Osaka style of sushi, the ingredients are pressed into a square mould, creating little bricks of rice and fish.
At an izakaya, equal attention is given to the drinks. Here, there are 60 or so bottles of sake on the menu (ranging from $15 to $155, the latter is a 24-ounce bottle of Otokoyama Junmai from Hokkaido). More recent additions include Izumi sakes from the Ontario Spring Water Sake Company in the Distillery District.
Wong says Don Don is still in testing phase (in true Japanese style, he’s getting people to hand out flyers in the form of tissue packs to promote the restaurant), but it already looks like an after-work favourite. Early this Thursday evening, just a week-and-a-half in, the place is full, the sake is flowing, the smell of burning hay is in the air and the staff is cheering about being complimented on its green-tea mousse.
Don Don Izakaya, 130 Dundas St. W., 416-492-5292, dondonizakaya.com.