Guu Izakaya (Toronto)

Location: Toronto, Canada
Address: 398 Church Street
Type of Meal: Dinner

Guu Izakaya still hasn’t lost its appeal. Having visited two years earlier and waiting over an hour for a table (we grabbed a drink at a nearby watering hole) the wait seemed gruelling to make it worthwhile.  But, after two years and arriving earlier at 6pm, the hype is still strong – we waited 20 minutes to get a table.

Perhaps I’m older (after all, I’ve aged two years), but Guu seems to have gotten even louder! Previously, the shouting happened when someone enters or leaves.  Now, some drink orders are screamed out as well so there’s rarely a moment you can hear the person in front of you.  Of course, this strange tradition (which having visited Japan doesn’t actually happen that often) is their trademark so it’s expected. But, even good things are overwhelming when there’s too much of it so I seriously urge managers to consider toning it down; after a while it really starts grating on your nerves. Some suggestions, how about polling visitors as they enter to see if they prefer shouts or not or offering customers a choice to wait a little longer for a table in the section off to the side where it seems slightly more blissful?

Let’s get to the thing that helped me survive the night – alcohol.  To start a beer mojito ($5.80) concocted with Sapporo, lime and mint leaves. After muddling the lime and mint leaves a bit ourselves, the light beer becomes quite refreshing with the citrus and mint.

Needing something harder (by this time my ears are ringing), for the next drink I upped it to the otokomae ($7) a much stronger cocktail combining sake, tequila and Cointreau. Perhaps it’s due to my love for vodka waters, but this drink appeals to me; not sweet at all with just some lime to mellow things out.  

Having learned from our last visit, we decided to order the food in two batches to avoid getting too many dishes all at once.  The salmon tataki ($6.80) was quickly seared so there’s a hint of smokiness to the salmon as the oils heat up.  A vinaigrette lightly coats the fish adding a nice freshness with pungent kicks from the green onion & garlic chips and heat from the wasabi mayo. The garlic is a bit overpowering; maybe if it were crushed into smaller pieces and less was added the delicious fish wouldn’t be covered over as much. I did like the thinly grated radish on the bottom soaking up the ponzu, wrapping some of this in the salmon and then eating it is rather refreshing.

Seeing gindara ($11.80) or roasted black cod on the menu we couldn’t not order this favourite. Guu’s was decent with the fish nicely cooked and relatively flakey. Its sauce is lighter having diluted the miso with some water and white wine (though to be honest couldn’t really taste the alcohol). Even though it wasn’t as melt-in-your-mouth as Yuzu No Hana and Blowfish (my top picks), for the price it was a good offering.

The karubi ($6.80) or grilled short ribs was the most disappointing dish of the evening.  It was so tough that we actually had to hold onto it while we tore a piece off.  Likely it’s due to the leaner cut being used, which is good, but this means the meat needs to be marinated to become edible. The simple sprinkling of salt and pepper is not sufficient to tenderize the meat and leaves it bland – you really had to dip it in the oil and scoop up the green onions to get a hint of anything.

Having only eaten okonomiyaki ($6.80) at Guu, I’ll admit there’s nothing for me to compare it to. But, the pancake is thicker than I would have imagined. Yet it’s still light on account of the bits of chopped cabbage mixed into the batter making it moist and breaks apart.  Overall, the dish has a lot of flavours from the sauces slathered on it – sweetness from the tonkatsu sauce (tastes like a mix between teriyaki and HP sauce) and the heat from the karashi (mustard). Topping everything are katsuobushi (bonito flakes) which move around with the heat and always an entertaining sight as long as you’re not squeamish; it adds a rich seafood essence to the dish.  I only wish there were a few pieces of seafood in it (there may have bit a piece of squid) to give the okonomiyaki a bit of texture.

Surprisingly, my highlight dish of the night isn’t even Japanese – the kinoko cheese bibimbap ($8.80). Although it may not look the best, this dark rice concoction is filled with fragrant seaweed pieces and a sweet glaze. Cheese is mixed throughout to give it a gooey texture and if left long enough against the hot stone bowl a delicious toasty crust develops on the bottom. Button mushrooms are mixed throughout that don’t really add or detract from the dish, but the star (in my opinion) is the seaweed.

To end we craved something sweet so ordered the almond tofu ($3.50), especially since the menu describes it as “the world’s smoothest”. Not being an almond tofu connoisseur, I can’t determine the truth to that statement but feel it’s smoothness is due to blending the tofu with almond jello … the dessert couldn`t have been fully made with tofu as it was too structured.  Either way, it was pleasant and light, with a hint of richness from the whipped cream on top.

Service is always helpful and cheerful but Guu does have some small things that could be improved on. During our visit, three instances occurred that if avoided would have made the experience that much better:

  • It’s already bad enough when customers have to sit at communal tables - although with the case of informal restaurants like izakayas, I can understand the need for them so am more accepting. However, the situation is annoying when the host sits you, then the waitress asks you to move over, only to have the host ask you to move back again. If we had been given our own table the constant shifting would have never occurred. Guu therefore needs to task someone with the responsibility for seating people (this should be the host) to avoid shuffling patrons around.

  • Before plates and especially eating utensils are taken away, staff should at least ask customers if everything has arrived.  In our instance, a gentleman proceeded to clear everything from our table without asking. I mentioned we were still waiting for a dish and therefore he had to reset everything. A simple question such as, “How was everything. Are you still waiting on any dishes or would like to order more?” could have easily stopped unnecessary work effort.

  • Lastly, right after we ordered desserts, our waitress immediately brought the bill along with the almond tofu. No one bother to ask us if we wanted anything else and assumed we were done. Quite frankly, my friend and I could have gone for one last cocktail before leaving.  Had this been a ramen shop, bringing the bill straight away may have made sense. But, Guu is an izakaya which is an establishment where people gather for drinks and small plates. Not to mention, now the restaurant lost the opportunity to sell one of its higher margin products.

All in all, Guu’s worth a visit if you’ve never been.  However, I’d suggest going with a maximum of four people (otherwise it becomes difficult to get a seat or hear each other) and either go early or much later. Be prepared for shouting from the moment you enter the restaurant and no it really won’t let up. Quickly order a drink and get it in your system as it will really help to mellow you out and make the noise bearable - after my second drink I almost didn’t mind it anymore as it became more like loud background noise.  Who knows, maybe after my third I would have even started chiming in! Alas, we’ll never know … if only the bill didn’t come prematurely.

Overall mark - 7 out of 10

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Gastro World's Grading System

  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!