Zakkushi Izakaya

image via Zakkushi
image via Zakkushi

An etymological breakdown of the word, izakaya, shows us that it is a compound word that quite literally translates to a ‘stay in sake shop’ (i– to stay, sakaya– sake shop). Izakayas are Japanese gastropubs with a casual atmosphere that Toronto is flooded with, and Zakkushi is a prominent member of many “Top Izakayas In The City” lists on various platforms.

This Vancouver based Izakaya chain touched down in Toronto with an extensive (and very authentic) menu boasting over 40 different kinds of yakitori and a wide array of sake and sochu options. I was drawn to this establishment in my search for oden and lured in by the yakitori menu, as I haven’t had either of these dishes.

image via Zakkushi
image via Zakkushi

For those of you that don’t know, oden is a Japanese one-pot dish made up of several ingredients, which vary according to region, stewed in a light, soy-flavored dashi broth. Yakitori on the other hand, is a Japanese style of cooking what is normally, meat. It is prepared by skewering your choice of meat with kushi, a type of skewer that is customarily made of bamboo, and then grilling said skewer of meat over a charcoal fire that uses a specific Japanese charcoal.

image via Zakkushi
image via Zakkushi

 “Japanese charcoal, particularly Binchotan, is prized for its superior quality of burning in addition to the excellent heat retention at high temperatures. Most fine quality charcoal contains 80% of carbon component, which produces minimal odour associated with the impurities and volatile components. However, in binchotan charcoal, the carbon component is 93% to 95%, meaning food grilled with it retains its own natural flavours at the purest state. Since Binchotan charcoal is nearly pure carbon, it momentarily reaches temperatures of 1000°C yet produces no flame or odour. This flameless and therefore gentle technique of grilling is cherished by barbeque connoisseurs worldwide.” – Zakkushi

I was able to try quite a few of the items on the menu and can say that though the flavours were great for the most part, the skewers were a bit pricey for the amount of food served. That said, as is the case with almost all restaurants, I was probably paying for the experience as well.

I didn’t find the wagyu beef skewers served with oropon sauce to be worth the purchase. Perhaps this is because I’ve had amazing wagyu steaks, but I also do think that the flavours didn’t necessarily do an ingredient of this caliber justice. I absolutely stepped out of my comfort zone by ordering the thick cut premium beef tongue with salt & pepper. It wasn’t bad at all, though I probably wouldn’t order it again based on texture alone- it was extremely hard to chew. If you were looking to go for a beef yakitori option, the classic oropon beef with grated daikon and ponzu sauce was a lovely play on light citrus notes dancing with the dense red meat.

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Between the crunchy and juicy pork and the garlic stubs wrapped with pork, I was at a loss for words at how tender, succulent and packed with character the pork options were, alongside the crispy and buttery shoyu grilled rice ball.

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The duck breast with yuzu citrus chili, much like the rest of the poultry yakitori options I tried out, was an absolute winner in my eyes. The meat was tender and packed with umami and the sauce was light and cut through the richness of the duck breast in a very sensuous manner. Both tsukunes (chicken meatballs) I tried were juicy and mouth-watering to experience. But if I had to choose, the norimayo tsukune with teriyaki sauce, seaweed, and mayo topped the cheese tsukune. Though the teriyaki chicken thigh was lovely, the sea salt chicken thigh really allowed for the quality of the meat to shine. Alongside the duck breast, the chicken karaagé was mindblowing in the play of textures and flavour. Zakkushi’s karaagé (deep-fried chicken thighs) were served with a sweet vinegar and soy sauce– this whimsical dance between sweet and savoury flavours tied together with a splash of lemon juice made the Sapporo I ordered go down extra smooth.

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Having fallen in love with the poultry yakitori options, I ended up ordering a yakitori don, featuring teriyaki chicken thighs, poached egg, mayo, green onion, and seaweed served over rice. It was definitely a decadent palate tease that I would recommend trying.

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Though the takoyaki (deep-fried octopus balls) at Zakkushi was pretty standard and definitely weren’t the best set of takoyaki I’ve tried, I must say that their bonito flakes weren’t fishy in the least bit without compromising the depth of flavour that bonito often carries.

And now, the reason I even sought out this establishment…the oden. I was unfortunately disappointed by all of the options I tried except for the daikon oden. The shirataki (knotted yam noodles), tofu, (gyusuji) beef tendon, konnyaku (yam cake), and takenoko (bamboo shoot) odens did not impress me. I’m well aware that I don’t have other experiences with oden to hold up as a comparison to my experience with Zakkushi’s oden. However, I would like to hope that with such a beautiful preparation process that oden is traditionally made with, I will inevitably find a dish that will impress me.

image via Zakkushi
image via Zakkushi

Although oden is often seen as a dessert item, I ended up ordering an Annin Tofu (homemade almond tofu served with strawberry sauce) and though it wasn’t my all-time favourite Annin Tofu, it came pretty close. The dessert that got the most shine was the kinako mochi ice cream (soy powder sprinkled vanilla ice cream, mochi, and maple syrup). The juxtaposition of the temperature difference of the warm mochi and the ice cream, as well as their textures being on completely different ends of the spectrum (creamy to chewy) all wrapped together with the surprisingly effective sprinkle of soy powder really did me in after a few sake cocktails.

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What with my memories of the many izakayas I’ve visited, with the exception of a few, being that they catered to their surrounding populations so much, it was refreshing to visit an establishment that stayed as true as possible to the traditional preparation of the dishes offered.

Perhaps it’s time for me to visit and revisit the izakayas in the city to be able to really tell you how I feel.

Until next time,

J.