Several times a year I hold dinner parties and potlucks for the sole purpose of bringing everyone together to share good food and enjoy each other’s company. My first experience at a “Korean and Japanese tapas” establishment was at Guu in Toronto (Church Street & Gerrard) and it was here where I had my first communal eating experience outside of my home. If you saw the sitting plan at Guu you would notice how difficult it would be to not engage with your neighbors when the sitting allows for little to no movement, specially in the main dining area. Packed like sardines can be one way to describe it.
I am a huge fan of sharing food. When eating at a restaurant I like to try as many items on the menu as possible, and for this reason when I go out to eat with friends, I always encourage them to order a different dish each so that we can all have a taste of as many different menu items as possible, and selfishly of course, so that I can take a picture of it.
How it all started…
Every morning when I am getting ready I turn on the radio in my bathroom to 104.5 CHUM FM and proceed to get ready while the music is blaring (I am not a fan of silence). One morning while getting ready I was listening to a conversation between Roger, Darren and Marilyn, and Roger could not stop singing the praises of a restaurant called Guu. I did not think much of it until he mentioned the location of the restaurant. “Seriously!? Is that where there is always a line?” I thought. You see, every day when I walked to work and back I would pass this gloomy, dark and somewhat concealed building that always seemed to have a line that snaked towards the sidewalk. On many occasions I wondered what was so great about this place that people were willing to wait outside in the cold. “Is it a dance club, a strip club, an establishment that houses illegal activities…what?” I wondered.
So on this morning when Roger shared the experience he had at this restaurant with such enthusiasm (haha it never occurred to me that it would be a restaurant. Wow, can you say slow?) I had to give it a try. Later that evening I texted Justin and asked him to join me on my quest to test out this restaurant. From the minute I walked into Guu I felt like I was at a secret party, specifically, a loud secret party with a lot of great food. Yes, it is almost impossible to have a proper conversation at Guu, but that was perfectly fine for Justin and I since we rather stuff ourselves silly with delicious food than talk to each other. Having been seated at the bar, we had a perfect view of everything that was coming out of the open kitchen. I think that evening the only words that came out of our mouths were, “let’s try that! That looks good! Let’s order that! I want that! Yum what is that?”
Ever since becoming a Guu regular I have noticed these “izakaya” and “yakitori” bars popping up all over the city. I was curious to try several of them, but I was cautiously optimistic. For me, not only does the food have to be good, but the vibe has to fun and relaxed. Needless to say, I tried several of them and they were rather disappointing. Do I give another one a shot? I was not going to until I learned that Sang Kim, a restaurateur and one of the loveliest people I have ever met opened Yakitori Bar and Seoul Food in downtown Toronto. Shortly after learning of this new venture of his, I gathered 5 good friends and we paid him a visit at Yakitori Bar (Seoul Food is located behind Yakitori Bar and on this evening we did not eat from there).
“Oh Sang, I am sorry to tell you, but just because you taught me how to make sushi, it does not mean that I am going to be lenient on you.”
So what is the history of izakaya and yakitory bars? According to the trusted online source Wikipedia (insert awkward smile and question mark), this is what these terms mean:
Izakaya is a type of Japanese drinking establishment which also serves food to accompany the drinks. The name “izakaya” is a compound word consisting of “i” (to stay) and “sakaya” (sake shop), indicating that izakaya originated from sake shops that allowed customers to sit on the premises to drink.
Yakitori means grilled chicken. Grilled chicken is a Japanese type of skewered chicken. The term “yakitori” can also refer to skewered food in general.
So what was our experience at Yakitori Bar like? Well, let me show you.
Interestingly enough I bumped into Sang outside of the restaurant where he was taking a break, the same way I bumped into him months earlier while he was taking a break outside the building where he was holding the sushi making class. I seem to always know when he is taking a break and successfully crash it.
Emma and I were the first to arrive and were seated with another party. Several minutes after seating down Sang came out with 2 plates of baby bibimbap made with brown rice, 4 daily vegetables and a quail egg. The regular price for this dish is $5.25, but Sang gave this to us on the house. Yes!
This was my favorite dish of the night, and not only because I got it for free. The ingredients were fresh, the vegetables provided sufficient contrast to the soft rice, with the mushrooms, spinach and bean sprouts being cooked and the shaved carrot being raw and crispy. Delicious and healthy, you can’t go wrong with that! Too bad my other friends did not get a chance to try it.
Hot sauce that came on the side of the baby bibimbap. I love food spicy, so this was a huge plus.
Once everyone had arrived, we all reviewed the menu and ordered 2 dishes each (different dishes of course). The 1st dish Justin ordered were the P.E.I. mussels in a kochujang butter sauce for $5.95. Both Justin and I love mussels so I had some of his dish as well. The sauce was nice and creamy and the mussels were nice and plump, just how I like them. I hate ordering mussels and getting a lot of empty shells. But that was not the case here. The only thing I did try to avoid from getting on my spoon were onions, and this dish had prominent onion pieces. Obviously I was the only one to find the onions to be problematic since I am the only in the universe (it seems) who does not like onions.
The 2nd dish Justin ordered were the gochu rellenos. These were deep-fried korean peppers stuffed with pork for $4.25. This was my 2nd favorite dish of the night for 3 reasons: fried, spicy and pork. 3 things I love.
Chris’s 1st dish was the kimchi 3 ways: 1) seared dumplings; 2) takoyaki balls & 3) tofu tower for $4.95. Out of the 3 his favorite were the takoyaki balls because they were the most flavorful. He was not a big fan of the tofu, but I do think that tofu is an acquired taste. I personally like it…when deep fried. Are you noticing a pattern?
The 2nd dish Chris ordered were the Shinji Yamaguchi’s “Godzilla Skewers.” According to Sang the The Godzilla Skewer’s teriyaki signature sauce is about Shinji Yamaguchi’s mother. Shinji Yamaguchi is owner-chef of Gushi, a shipping-container street-food resto on Dundas Street West. Godzilla turned out to be balls of ground chicken, flavored with onion, soy sauce and coriander and dressed with Yamaguchi’s trademark Gushi teriyaki sauce.
Across the board all the skewers ordered this evening were well-liked and deemed flavorful. In this case, the meat was tender and the signature teriyaki sauce provided just enough hint of sweetness.
The 1st dish Regina ordered was the seafood miso chowder made with creamy white miso for $4.95. This soup came highly recommended by Sang and so naturally Regina and I had to try it. Regina liked it, I however was on the fence because when I hear chowder, I immediately think of chunky pieces of potato and lots of seafood. This soup was creamy and thin, and I prefer my chowder thick and chunky.
The 2nd dish Regina ordered was the squash duk bok ki made from spicy rice cakes baked in a buttercup squash for $5.95. Just cutting the squash open was an event. I had a piece and found the squash to be delicious but I was not a fan of the chewy rice cakes/noodles. But I am also the person that orders bubble tea sans the bubbles. Saba however loved the chewiness of the rice cakes. So there you have it folks, when it comes to food what we like is always subjective.
Emma’s 1st dish was the mundoo, which were steamed kimchi & pork dumplings for $4.95. She was happy with the dumplings and found them to be quite filling. Maybe a little chewy, but still tasty.
Emma’s second dish were the spicy chicken wings made with chilli pepper & rice battered for $5.95. Emma liked the wings, and described them to be crispy and not oily, which she liked. The only negative being that she did not find them to be spicy. She stated that as she continued to eat them she kept expecting a kick from the chilli, and it never came.
Saba ordered the mussels as well, and enjoyed them almost as much as Justin. Her 2nd dish took a lot of back and forth and finally she decided to get Paula Costa’s “Dragon’s Piri Piri”. This dish consisted of chicken thigh, signature piri piri and drizzled with citron oil. The chicken was tender and grilled perfectly.
Now for me. I love kimchi, and I particularly like Sang’s kimchi, so even before looking at the menu, I knew what the first dish I wanted to try was (he had mentioned this dish on his Facebook page days prior). The dish I was dying to try was the kimchi poutine made with caramelized kimchi, cheese & gravy for $5.95. I loved the concept and I enjoyed the kimchi, but I could not get past the fries that became soggy quickly from the gravy and other wet ingredients. I told Sang this and he told me how they have tried 6 type of fries already and thus far there have been issues with all of them, but they are continuing to experiment and are on the search for the perfect fries.
From my conversations with Sang I could easily see how seriously they take their work and how they take the necessary time to assess every component of each dish and will not stop testing out ingredient combinations and cooking techniques until they get it just right. With that in mind, after reading several reviews, I have learned that most guests have loved the fries used in the poutine. So don’t take my word for it.
The 2nd dish I ordered was the pork kakune, which was slow-simmered in apple-soya for $5.95. Loved the pork and the boiled egg, but did not like the sauce. In the sauce all I could taste was the salty soya and I did not taste any apple. I would have added a herb in the sauce, or cut the saltiness of the soya with a citrus. But who am I to judge. I am not exactly a chef. Just a part-time pretend one. Come on! I can’t be expected to be good at EVERYTHING!
I am teasing of course. Really I am.
My buddies. Here I am with Justin. I demanded a picture while he was still chewing. Luckily he knows me so he has learned to put up with me.
Here I am with Saba. Doesn’t she look like Pocahontas here?
This is what it is all about. Great food, a relaxing and upbeat atmosphere, excellent service, and most importantly great company. Here are several of my great friends who accompany me to restaurants around the city. Eating would not be the same without them. After all, good company makes a meal taste that much better. On this particular evening every one of my friends looked content and excited about the food that kept coming out of the kitchen. It warms my heart to see that the people who I care about dearly, laughing and cracking jokes together while passing around food to each other. This is what it is all about. Moments like this you cherish forever and Yakitori Bar had all the necessary elements to make this moment an unforgettable one. Thank you.
Sang and I. I wanted his sweater. And his hat.
See you soon Sang! Thank you for the great service, delicious food and a memorable evening. Yes, I am giving you a big pass!
**FYI, in total with taxes and tip, we paid no more than $15 each. Talk about great value!
If you are on the go or if you want to choose your own ingredients to create the perfect sandwich or bibimbap, check out Seoul Food Co., the sister take-out spot behind Yakitori Bar. You can find their menu @ http://seoulfoodcompany.com/.