There are restaurants that are difficult to describe in one sentence. They balance (sometimes successfully) between doing different things for different people. This is clearly not the case with Don Don Izakaya which is about uncomplicated fun at a louder-than-normal volume.
It took a couple of false starts but it seems restauranteurs have figured out the right sort of izakaya for Toronto. At both Guu and now Don Don loud greetings combine with modestly-priced, small plates of delicious salty food to fuel appetites for more drink.
On my first visit to Don Don I happened to sit at the bar beside two gentlemen who had a friendly conversation with head chef Daisuke Izutsu (the former chef-owner of Kaiseki Sakura). With eavesdropped menu recommendations at my disposal and the experience of two visits I think I’ve been able to hit the menu’s highlights.
First, we shouldn’t miss the eat-with-your-eyes-first specialties that one would expect from a chef whose last stop was Kaiseki Sakura. The black croquettes ($7) have the eponymous unusual colour and accomplish that necessary croquette-ish feat of crunch-crispy on the outside and warm and gooey on the inside. The hay-smoked salmon sashimi that is passed through foot-four flames as a crowd-pleasing spectacle at the kitchen bar also delivers on the plate. Especially when combined with a bit of its paired coarse salt this fish manages to be both more subtle and robust than other smoked salmon.
Whatever the main culinary tradition behind a drink-lots-and-eat-good-food spot it seems that Korean food has to get into the mix somehow. Fwhat Fwhat pork ($8) ticks the obligatory pork belly steamed buns box in a way that demonstrates an attention to food detail that goes far beyond being trendy. The Tokyo Style Hot Dog ($5.20) is a trashy indulgence but delicious as well.
The housemade kimchi from the hot dog is fantastic–more pungent and spicy than most store-bought–and they’ll bring a side bowl of it for two dollars.
What would a beer-soaked izakaya meal be without fried chicken? Don Don Izakaya’s Ginger Fried Chicken ($6.80) is light, crisp, and properly seasoned. My only complaint is that the mayo dipping sauce suffers from that over-acidic thinness of flavour that kewpie mayo always seems to have.
True to form Don Don Izakaya serves their Sapporo and other draft in the giant mugs we’ve come to expect. I wish they’d devote as much attention to the beer selection in this respect as they have to the massive sake (by the bottle and glass) list.
Obviously, I can’t finish this post without a comparison to Guu, Toronto’s reigning izakaya champ. Don Don adds a taiko drum to the loud, every-guest greeting in Japanese but also higher ceilings and more irregular floor plan and that makes conversation possible. I’m sure that because Don Don doesn’t have the line-ups or the oppressive crowding that make Guu feel like a can’t-miss frat party some will avoid it as not cool enough. I’m happy that will leave tables available for me to enjoy the equally-good and slightly-cheaper food at Don Don Izakaya.
Don Don Izakaya: 130 Dundas Street West, Toronto; 416-492-5292; Mon to Thurs 11 AM – midnight, Fri 11 AM – 1 AM, Sat noon – 1 AM, Sun noon – midnight; @dondon_izakaya. Reservations for parties of eight or more only. (Be warned that their otherwise alright website–hours are other details are right up front–automatically downloads a 22 MB Quicktime movie.)