[attach]3643[/attach]Over years of restaurant going, I’ve been greeted at the door in many different ways, but at Fin Izakaya I hit a first.
Here, the entire staff — cooks in the open kitchen, busboys, passing waiters (with plates in hand) — all turn, bow slightly and literally shout: “Irasshaimase!”
It’s a little daunting, though they are smiling. (It means “welcome!”)
We sit in one corner of a large, square table, so there’s an immediate sense of congeniality. And as we’re in a Japanese pub — that’s basically what an “izakaya” is — we each order a flight of three sakes ($10). My guest chooses Kubota Junmai Dai-Ginjo, but then gets sidetracked by the names: Demon Slayer and Man’s Mountain. All three are dry and beautifully mellow. I choose Hokku Genshu and Hakkaisan, both of which are smooth, and for a sweet finish, Takara plum wine — yum!
The menu here is tapas style (odd to see the Spanish word on a Japanese menu), so we order a series of small dishes to taste.
Ika Sugata Yaki ($6.95), grilled whole squid sliced into rings, is a signature dish and one of my favourites — the tangy barbeque spices blend well with a creamy dip. A lovely citrusy dressing really picks up the baby greens in the Salmon Sashimi Salad ($7). This is topped with pieces of raw salmon, sliced very thin. I could make a meal of this dish.
You can’t go to a Japanese restaurant without having at least one tempura. We ask for vegetable ($6), which includes fat slices of sweet potato, eggplant, pumpkin, zucchini and enoki mushroom clusters, coated in paper-thin tempura batter and deep-fried. Beautiful!
Two other traditional dishes are a skewer of teriyaki chicken ($3), which is unexceptional, and Onigiri ($3). The latter is Japanese fast food — a tasty triangle of sticky rice filled with salmon and wrapped in nori (seaweed). Healthwise, it’s a big notch up on KFC, but we also order the Japanese version of KFC.
Tebasaki Kosho is chicken wings, deep-fried (no batter) and sprinkled with fat crystals of sea salt ($3.50 for five). My guest really likes this one and, I have to confess, those salt crystals really make the dish.
Duck Shichimi Yaki ($8.50) gets thumbs up from us both. Slices of perfectly seasoned, roasted duck breast on a bed of fried onions are served sizzling on a hot iron plate. The duck is succulent and the onions slightly caramelized.
[attach]3644[/attach]Finally, Blowtorched Saba is a whole, pickled mackerel, sliced and literally blowtorched at the table ($8). The process crisps the skin, making a wonderful contrast with the tender flesh. It comes with freshly grated ginger and ponzu sauce — a blend of citrus, salty and fishy flavours. Both complement the fish, but my guest says, “The ginger really adds zing.”
Because we had to wait briefly for our reservation, the hostess brings an apology of sea urchin tempura with three dipping salts. My guest says it tastes, “like a cross between oysters and mussels.”
We move comfortably to dessert: Green Tea Roll Cake ($5), Man Juu or red bean rice cake ($3.25) and Daifuku ($6.85).
The green tea cake and Man Juu both have a delicious core of sweet red bean paste, though the surrounding rice dough in the latter is bland. Daifuku is fun — a smiling snowman made with my requested black sesame ice cream, capped with a strawberry hat and a fanned strawberry cape.
The restaurant manages to retain a sense of Japanese minimalism, despite the crush of tables. And the staff is very helpful. There’s an ambience of fun and exploration. However, it is undoubtedly noisy, not least because of the endless cries of welcome and farewell.
As we leave, there are more shouts from the staff. I’m not sure if they’re saying, “Farewell!” or “About time you left! We thought you’d never stop eating!”
Fin Izakaya, 55 Eglinton Ave. East (ask about free parking at rear). 647-347-3864. [url=http://www.finizakaya.com.]www.finizakaya.com.[/url] Reservations are strongly recommended.