Thursday, February 14, 2013

Japanese Foodie Tuesday

Nope, it may not be the Priestly but I'm more than
happy with my Maple Donut and Double-Double.
Thursday February 14, 3:00 p.m.

Yes, it is indeed Valentine's Day. As usual, I'm on the outside looking in as those couples woo or re-woo each other with chocolates, roses and other paraphernalia (batteries not included).

In any case, I'm not talking about today. I'm more talking about Tuesday the 12th, otherwise known as the day I went for a nearly all-day session of noshing on Japanese outside of my home. The parentals were off in Niagara Falls for an overnighter, so I could go off guilt-free into the big city with a couple of old friends. The Egg, The Banker and I met in front of Santouka, the ramen place east of Yonge and Dundas. It was my 2nd trip to the place in as many weeks. The Banker is a big ramen fan, so he and I got together last year to try out Kenzo, but since then we hadn't met up for a bowl of Japanese noodles until a couple of days ago. We hope to shorten the time between ramen outings considerably. In any case, I partook in a bowl of their lovely toroniku ramen with the slices of tender-as-butter pork jowl cha-siu. Man, those slices really did melt in my mouth! Over in Japan, pig farmers pride themselves on making their future bacon taste so good that even the fat is delicious. I'm pretty much guaranteed that I will inherit those jowls into my own face if I keep on ordering that into the near future.

Afterwards, we walked west on Dundas past a couple of ramen joints: Sansotei and Kenzo. Ramen restaurants are continuing to spread like viruses all over the GTA, and I figure that there will be the eventual war of attrition among them. Kenzo was good and certainly above the average lunch of Sapporo Ichiban instant noodles but I think places like Santouka and Kinton have gone far ahead and have the lineups to show for it. And now, The Egg has told me that there is yet another similar joint in the neighbourhood there called Raijin. I'm OK with Ajisen although I don't consider the stuff there to be authentic Japanese ramen; it has its own brand of noodles which I'm fine with, and I did like their karaage teishoku back in December.

The three of us stopped off at a Timmies on University and Dundas for a couple of hours of chat. It'd been a very long time since all three of us got together, so a lot of stuff to catch up on. Knowing that I would later be having stuff at an izakaya, I figured I needed something purely Canadian in my gut.

The Banker had to take off for home, but The Egg and I decided to walk around a bit more. We dropped off at the World's Biggest Bookstore so that I could search for a new textbook for my Skype student but couldn't find it (I would later purchase it at The ESL Shop online). Had a brief look-see into the new and condensed Silver Snail before heading uptown to crash at The Egg's place for a few hours. Ended up watching a couple of repeat episodes from "Yamato 2199"; I think I'm gonna have to get my friend and The Anime King together once more since they've been on their own tracks of watching the genre.

Kingyo in Cabbagetown
At about 5:30, the two of us took off on the Yonge Line once more to head over to Kingyo in Cabbagetown. The Egg's wife was to have joined us but unfortunately she was under the weather so she had to pull out at the last minute. Aside from riding through the neighbourhood on my way to the Christmas Market in The Distillery back in December, I hadn't walked through Cabbagetown in many, many years. I lived right beside it in my childhood and used to regularly go to a clinic there but since we moved away back in the mid-70s, that was it for me. There have been quite a few changes in terms of a Starbucks and a number of modern commercial additions to the area, but my old area still seemed to have that old-fashioned, slightly seedy quality.

A pachinko machine on the wall.
The ramen boom may have been and still be the big culinary thing in Toronto, but izakayas have also been enjoying popularity in The Big Smoke as of late. I'd only been to DonDon with Sam last year but that was just for lunch. Kingyo was the big time. Unlike most izakayas in Japan, reservations and lineups are common in the Toronto variety. Fortunately, The Egg got that reservation although when we arrived, the place was still pretty empty at that time. Kingyo, which means "goldfish", had that mix of Japanese cuisine and service with Western size and urban upscale ambiance. Still, there were some tips of the hat to Japanese pop culture in terms of a pachinko machine on one side, a number of katana on another (probably created by the wondrous and fictional Hanzo Hattori), and reruns of an old Ultra Seven series on the big-screen TV. However, the cheesiness factor didn't quite register. Although most izakayas I had gone to in Japan were very much of the cheaper neighbourhood pub mode which stressed imbibing of mass quantities over noshing of decent fare, there was one place in Tokyo which resembled Kingyo (and the other Toronto izakaya, I assume) in terms of price, fare and atmosphere, and that was En, a classy upper-scale restaurant on the 11th floor of the Bic Camera building in Shibuya.

Ebi-Mayo (basically shrimp tempura in a spicy
mayonnaise sauce)
Neither the Egg and I are big drinkers by any means, so we were more than happy with the homemade Ginger Ale. And yep, it was good sipping. The ginger tasted very fresh without overpowering my taste buds. We rather went nuts on the menu, although things were tempered by the fact that we were missing our third member. One of our first orders was Ebi-Mayo, a standard dish at any izakaya or ramen restaurant. The original variety is served very plainly....just shrimp tempura with dollops of the sinful Kewpie mayonnaise on the plate. Over at Kingyo, it's a bit more dolled up....there's a bit of a fiery spicy component installed into the mayo. And the combination of textures was great. The crispiness of the batter with the succulence of the shrimp dunked into the creamy mayo. Lovely, lovely.

Karaage with Special Salt and Lemon
Another must-order at any decent izakaya is the plate of karaage....Japanese-style fried chicken. It's absolutely ubiquitous everywhere in Japanese supermarkets, convenience stores, ramen joints, izakaya, etc. There's something about marinated chicken deep-fried in batter that just gets everyone there slavering away, including me. And yep, the plate we ordered of Kingyo-upgraded karaage was another plus. Six huge chunks of flavoured thigh meat in crispy and crunchy batter with some dipping salt and a lemon wedge. Flavour bombs, indeed.

Maguro Carpaccio
Of course, it wasn't all upgrades of old izakaya favourites. There were some fancy dishes that usually wouldn't appear on a regular izakaya menu. We also had a couple of plates of maguro and salmon carpaccio. We didn't order salad so it was good to have some vegetation as fiber. And the sashimi underneath soaked a bit of that vinaigrette but still retained that firm but yielding texture.

One thing about the was ultra-friendly. I knew that The Eggs had been to Kingyo a couple of times previously so I had assumed that our main waitress for the evening and The Egg were quite familiar with each other, until he told me that it was the first time he had met her. He also told me that the owner was quite strict on how good the service had to be. But service in Japanese restaurants focuses far more on polite and very competent professional distance (think of a butler handling guests at a mansion); the service at Kingyo was more on the level of being a girl's new beau entering the house of the girl's eager-beaver welcoming family. It almost...but thankfully didn't...hit the overbearing level, but that's just me. Other people are far more people-loving than I am.

Matcha Brulee
And what better way to finish off a large meal than some potentially artery-hardening dessert? Mind you, I don't think my Matcha Brulee would compare to a huge slab of Black Forest Cake in the calories department, but it was a nice treat. And there was that characteristic crackling of the caramelized surface with the spoon.

It was a nice 2 hours there. A good meal at Kingyo will not be cheap but I had fully expected that I would be paying a bit more than usual. And it was a worthy repast at $65 with tax and tip. The frequency of visits there will depend on one's income tax bracket. For me, I think semi-annual trips there are quite good for me. But yep, I had a fine time there. Will need to try their Kobe steak next time, provided that my translation work becomes more lucrative.