Saturday, May 19, 2012

Don Don the Izakaya

Saturday May 19, 11:58 a.m.

Yesterday, I got to meet up with an old friend downtown for lunch. We decided to give Don Don a try. Over the last few years, I've been hearing about the current boom in izakaya hitting cities like Vancouver and Toronto. Of course, there is the most famous and most successful (allegedly), Guu with its infamous 1-hour lineups.

One hour?! To wait to get inside an izakaya?  Obviously, I know about the reputation of Japanese cuisine in Canada and about how new the concept of izakaya is in my homeland. Still, having been to the real thing countless times back in the Kanto, I'm rather impressed-proof about the whole thing. Izakaya are as plentiful as cockroaches and McDonalds in my adopted home. My old neighbourhood had at least 3 or 4 big ones that the salaried types hit on any given night after getting home from the office. Izakaya isn't anything's just the local tavern with the emphasis on the copious amounts of beer and shochu, and not so much on the food although the variety is good, especially at the chains. And we certainly didn't need to line up.

This is the small drum by the entrance on the 2nd floor. Sam reminded me that Don Don now occupies what used to be the legendary Sai Woo restaurant....ooh, man, brings back memories. Apparently, the gimmick here is that  whenever a customer comes in, one of the staff hits the drum a couple of times. Don Don is the onomatopoeia for that sound. I've read some of the widely varying reviews for the place online, but it seems like the critics are almost unanimous in saying that having the drum relentlessly beaten doesn't contribute to comfortable dining. As someone who has been to The Spaghetti Factory in the days when huge cymbals were used to announce something, I can certainly sympathize.

I ordered the Take (bamboo) bento for $10.95. Pretty good considering the quantities involved. It came in a two-tiered long lacquered box. The top tier contained three salmon sushi done in oshizushi style (square-shaped and pressed), a potato croquette, a fried shrimp, and lettuce salad with dressing. No complaints about any of it.

The bottom tier contained the teriyaki chicken option with a mix of beans & hijiki with the rice on the side. I know that teriyaki has been getting the pointed end of the stick as the lazy  Japanese eatery's go-to dish all over the food courts, but I still like it. And I didn't eat it all that much in Japan despite there being teriyaki bentos in supermarkets and convenience stores. Sorry, but karaage was my first and only love with hamburger steak being my close 2nd.

I was fine with my bento, but Sam wasn't too thrilled with his oyako don. But he and I agreed that it had more to do with the fact that he doesn't particularly like the style that the chicken is made for oyako don (thigh meat simmered in a mix of shoyu, sugar and mirin). I don't order oyako don for pretty much the same reason....and I'm not a huge fan of runny, drippy cooked eggs. He's generally not all that enamored with all the hype surrounding the izakaya invasion since he also lived in Japan for a few years and been to izakaya there without the hype or higher prices.

One interesting observation. One waiter came by while we were still eating and asked if we wanted our dishes cleared. Of course, we politely said "Not yet" and continued our noshing. But sometime during our conversation, we were frankly stunned to realize that someone had taken Sam's bowl without us even noticing; and although he didn't really like his lunch, he still griped that there were at least two spoonfuls left. Apparently, Don Don has hired a ninja as a busboy.

That leads to my main gripe....the service still needs a bit of fine tuning. I overheard some of the staff-customer interactions on either side of us (izakaya is very much communal dining....just to warn those who may not like sharing a table or bench with strangers) in terms of forgotten orders, and perhaps there is a communication barrier involved since it seemed like the wait staff were all non-native speakers of English. But having a customer's food taken away before he's done with it would carry the death penalty in Japan. Overall, I was OK though Sam will probably not come back. I'd like to check out the nighttime menu.