Thursday, March 29, 2007

Izakaya for lunch; Dark Horse for dinner - meh

I was way too sleep-deprived last night to blog, so I'm going to catch up on yesterday's adventures before diving into today's.

Yesterday for lunch I met my dearest Darryl, who just got back from a fabulous month-long vacation to Australia and New Zealand, at Izakaya on Front at Church. In Japan, an 'izakaya' is basically a pub (i.e. casual drinking establishment serving cheap appetizer-like food such as edamame, yakitori, etc.). Similarly, Izakaya restaurant serves only non-sushi Japanese items such as dumplings, salads, noodles, and curry.

Darryl told me that he went to a place in Australia that had the same theme, menu items, and service characteristics right down to their practice of bringing out food as it is prepared. So your appetizer might arrive after your main and your companion could be halfway through his meal before you even get yours. Could there be an izakaya kit for restaurateurs?

We ordered the fried eggplant appetizer to share and I had the 'seasonal soba' while Darryl had the vegetable curry. Darryl's curry arrived first and looked carefully plated and skilfully cooked. The vegetables were breaded and deep-fried, but they didn't look limp or greasy. Japanese curry is very different from Indian curry, but it really is delicious in a comfort food sort of way. My mom used to make it when I was little. You can buy the sauce in a package from an Asian food store, but it is pretty easy to make from scratch as well. The packaged sauce is made by S&B and comes in a sort of ice cube tray. You can break off one cube for a small servings or several for a larger one. If you want to make it from scratch, I found a great recipe for it in this year's Saveur 100 issue of Saveur magazine. Unfortunately, the recipe isn't published on their web site. If you'd like to have it, let me know and I'll copy it here along with the appropriate citation so I don't get sued.

Next came my soba, which was also beautifully presented. The broth was light and not too salty, the piece of tempura in it was delicious and crispy, and the noodles were cooked perfectly. It's a very healthy yet satisfying thing to have for lunch.

The eggplant, however, I could have done without. I think the entire vegetable was deep-fried as is, sliced in half, allowed to cool off a bit, and then slathered with tonkatsu sauce. There was too much sauce on the eggplant and since it was slightly cold, it didn't melt into the eggplant flesh. It was like ketchup on a hotdog. The eggplant itself wasn't overcooked though, which was nice.

After work Darcy and I both were completely exhausted, so instead of cooking we went to a pub in Bloor West Village that we used to go to all the time called A Dark Horse. When we first moved to the neighbourhood in 2000, we went there every Friday. The interior was cozy and clean, the service was excellent, and the food was amazing. Then at some point, the management changed and it all went downhill. Darcy was served flat beer from the keg tube twice in a row, so we stopped going. We figured after 6 years we should see what's it's like now.

Now it's pretty grim. The room was packed even though it was a Tuesday evening. It may have had something to do with the great, summer-like weather. So, both the inside and patio were at capacity, but they had only one server working. There was a manager helping out and a barmaid behind the bar, but basically one girl had to serve about 40 or so tables. She did the best she could.

Aside from the service, the food was underwhelming. It's definitely not the worst I've had, but it is nothing like it used to be. We ordered the Thai spring rolls for an appetizer, which they said could be served hot or cold. We assumed that cold meant that they would be like Vietnamese fresh rolls, which is fresh or pickled vegetables wrapped in rice paper. They came deep-fried, dripping with oil, and soggy. Darcy had fish and chips, which he said was good. I had a club sandwich on grilled ciabatta bread with a side salad. I had asked for the mayo on the side, but I guess they forgot. No big deal. The bread was stale, but it was masked by the grilling. The chicken portion was very skimpy and the salad greens looked like they were a week old. Some of it was actually decaying. This is really a pet peeve of mine. I don't know how you can put wilted/rotting greens on a plate and serve them.

So, lesson learned. We'll give them another 6 years and maybe we'll try again. In the meantime, if you're in Bloor West Village and you want some good pub food, you have a better chance at Bryden's or The Yellow Griffin. The best food in Bloor West Village is not pub food though. You won't be disappointed if you go for Japanese at Yama or Eastern European at Amber European Restaurant.

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