Location: Toronto, Canada
Address: 602 College Street
Type of Meal: Dinner
Following on the success of Guu, Japanese izakayas (sort of like the North American pub) have been popping up all over Toronto. Hapa Izakaya is another Vancouver chain that’s set foot in Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood.
Fair or not, everyone will compare Hapa to Guu, so here’s my take. Firstly, the ambiance is nothing like Guu - it’s not small, uncomfortably intimate and brightly lit. Hapa is much larger, offers non-communal sitting and swathed in black walls and candle light. They have a better bar scene and feels like a place where you can actually sit and enjoy drinks - what an izakaya should be. Known for their attractive staff members, Hapa could be considered the Japanese equivalent to Moxies.
What I like most about Hapa is the ability to make reservations and not have to share a table. Maybe I’m strange, but unlike all the Guu diehards, something about waiting 1-2 hours for a table only to sit cheek-to-cheek with strangers repulses me. What happened to the good old days when I could eat when I want to, get my own space and actually hang up my jacket and bag on the back of a chair? When did going to restaurants feel like eating in a food court? Alas, I will stop my rant here and get to the food.
Hapa could definitely work at improving its menu descriptions as dishes arrived with surprise ingredients. Luckily, none of us were vegetarians or lactose intolerant or these surprise ingredients may not be welcomed. The vaguest dish was the goma-ae ($4.99) where the menu describes it as “seasonal vegetables with goma-ae dressing”. In reality, the only vegetables in the dish are some green beans and the majority consists of diced fish (salmon?) and feta cheese.
However, since we had no objections to protein or dairy we happily dug in; well, after requesting a spoon which strangely did not come with a bowl based dish. The feta was some of the creamiest I’ve ever had and goma-ea (sesame dressing) adding a hint of nuttiness. The dish was tasty and flavourful and would have been great if there was something to eat it with like some lettuce wraps.
The bintoro ($9.99) consisted of thinly sliced seared Albacore tuna, sitting on top of slices of red onion, radishes and sprinkled with fried garlic and ponzu. Another appetizing dish but could be improved by soaking the onions to get rid of the over powering onion sting.
Our tour of tuna continued with the tuna avocado salsa dip ($9.49) containing chopped Ahi tuna, avocado and tomatoes marinated with ponzu and copious amounts of sesame oil. I would have preferred the tuna to be in more pronounced pieces and the sesame oil toned down, but I guess this is a salsa vs. tartare. Regardless, the dish was a hit with my friend. Hapa serves their tuna dip with plantain chips which is a nice alternative to taro.
The halibut taco ($7.49), more of a burrito than taco, was an interesting mix of ingredients including battered halibut, bacon bits, shoestring potatoes, lettuce and roasted jalapeño tartar sauce. Given halibut is such a delicate tasting fish it did become lost in the taco. Although not one of my favourites, it’s a decent value dish given its heartiness and somewhat lower price point.
One of my favourite dishes of the night was the gindara ($11.49). Something about a simple piece of fresh miso-marinade cod just tantalizes my tastebuds. On the menu gindara is described as “baked sablefish, sake-miso marinade”, I just recently learned that sable fish is also the black cod we may be more familiar with. Although nowhere as good as Blowfish’s black cod (you can go here to read my love affair with theirs - http://gastroworldblog.blogspot.ca/2012/11/blowfish-toronto.html), Hapa’s was still decent.
Moving away from fish, we tried the beef short ribs ($12.99). Hapa cut up the ribs into many smaller pieces so this dish is optimal for large groups. The ribs were covered with a nice sweet apple-soy marinade but over cooked so ended up being tough.
When a chipotle beef curry ishi-yaki ($9.99) is being cooked and served you will know it. The aroma is intoxicating as it arrives sizzling in the hot stone bowl. Like bibimbop the waitress mixes it up at the table but then smears it against the sides of the bowl and suggests leaving it to allow a crust to develop. We left it for about 3-5 minutes, seemed pretty long as I just wanted to dig in, and after that time there was a slight crust. Although the chipotle curry sauce was not very colourful, it was surprisingly flavourful. I liked the flavour it added to the rice, but found the beef non-existent. The ishi-yaki is another example of a “surprise” dish as digging through the rice we found pieces and eventually a huge glob of melted cheese. Cheese with curry isn’t a natural combination but I liked the addition as the rice became creamy.
Hapa also offers a “Fresh Sheet”, which is a seasonally changing menu. During our visit, we decided to try four things off of this menu.
Izakayas are normally not known for sushi, this is left to sushi restaurants. Indeed, we should have followed tradition as I found the two rolls we tried subpar. The rice was over cooked so that it has a gluey texture to it. Hapa’s volcano roll ($9.99), described as spicy on the menu tasted sweet despite the abundance of red sauce. In reality, it’s just a tuna roll stacked into a volcano shape and topped with red “lava”. The crab tempura roll ($10.99) was slightly better as the rice was wrapped in nori and deep fried so added some texture. I also liked that the crab was actual snow crab and not imitation fish paste, but it wasn’t spread evenly along the roll as the end piece barely had anything while the middle chocked full.
Another dish I thoroughly enjoyed was the mentaiko kimchi udon ($9.99). Mentaiko is marinated fish roe (pollock or cod) and when mixed with cream results in a seafood alfredo tasting sauce. Mixed into chewy udon noodles and topped with spicy kimchi the dish was a highlight for the night.
Although being stuffed, we ordered one Annin panna cotta ($4.99) to share. A great fushion of coconut milk based custard, sweet maple syrup and ripe berries. The custard was pudding smooth and with the thin maple syrup also had a crème caramel resemblance.
In the end, if you choose to view Hapa as another Guu you will be disappointed since they’re different and have their own distinctive qualities. In my opinion, the food was comparable but the other benefits (reservations and an actual table) add a lot to my enjoyment. So, I encourage you to not have set expectations and just go and experience Hapa Izakaya on its own distinct merits and offerings.
Overall mark - 7 out of 10
Special thank you to V for taking the photos for the night. They are much more artistic than the ones I normally snap!
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Gastro World's Grading System
- Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
- 6 - 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!