Toronto's wealth of Japanese restaurants can make picking a short list of the top five a more-than-challenging experience. That said, the goal of this list is to offer a sampling of some of the most well-rounded and most interesting options available, with a focus on variety and value as well as quality.
Most Versatile Sushi Bar
Hours: Mon-Thurs 11:30 am-12:00 am, Fri 11:30 am-2:00 am, Sat 1:00 pm-2:00 am, Sun 1:00 pm-12:00 am
Sushi Moto, with its elegant, uncluttered bar atmosphere and otoro at $20 for two pieces, is a good mix of class and price, especially if you dine at lunch. Many, however, come for the nightlife and the food (after all, it's a bar). Regardless of when you go, you'll find appealing plating and above-average dining at Sushi Moto. While the miso soup is fairly standard (other than the adorably tiny mushrooms floating in it), meals also come with complimentary noodle soup, an unexpected treat that comes with soft-but-not-mushy noodles and a mild fish flavoured broth. While some menu items come with pre-made sauce, making it difficult to alter meals to suit dietary restrictions, the bento boxes come with an impressive amount of food, and the salad is better than one finds at most places at the same price point. Finally—salad that isn't just iceberg lettuce! With mixed greens and a tangy dressing, the salad is a cut above. The bento boxes aren't just packed with tempura and California rolls, either (though the tempura is pleasantly crispy—we wouldn't have minded more of it!); depending on which box you order, you may receive gyoza or a seaweed salad as well.
Little touches like these help to make the restaurant more than average, as does the impressively long menu (their online menu is divided into 19 pages). You'll have 14 different salads to choose from, and their sushi ranges from yummy yam rolls with soft, creamy sweet potato ($4.95) and spicy veggie maki ($7.95 for eight pieces) for the vegetarians to the French Kiss ($11.95 for eight rolls)—spicy yellow tail with cucumber inside and torched escolar, with green onion on top. The range to suit all tastes extends to the meals, which include tofu teriyaki for vegetarians ($6.95-$12.95) and everything from salmon and sashimi to beef, chicken, and lobster tempura moriwase (dinner, $24.95) for everyone else. Everyone at your table should be able to find something to their tastes at Sushi Moto, and the spot is appropriate for everything from a lunch with your parents to a night on the town, depending on when you go.
Website: Google+ page
Hours: Mon-Fri lunch 11:30 am-2:30 pm, dinner 5:30 pm-9:30 pm
For something authentically Japanese, try Tokyo Kitchen. Many of the patrons are Japanese themselves, which is considered a good sign if you're looking for the real thing. The restaurant's location next to a parking garage is a little unusual, but don't let that deter you. The wait staff is friendly, the atmosphere is comfortable, with warm lighting and traditional art on the walls, and the food is comforting (and there's enough of it to stuff yourself with!). The tea ($1) oddly arrives as a bag in a mug with hot water, but everything after it is a cut above.
The miso soup ($2.45) is hot and plentiful, with abundant fresh-tasting seaweed, green onion, and small, soft tofu chunks. Under its thin, light, crispy coating, the agedashi tofu ($3.95) is soft and dissolves on your tongue, bathing in a thin-but-rich house sauce. A half order of veggie tempura ($4.00) is more than enough, with fresh veggies, including the welcome surprise of lotus root. The tempura batter accents the vegetables—including yam, eggplant, zucchini, pepper, squash, and the aforementioned lotus root—without overpowering their flavours and textures.
While Tokyo Kitchen isn't a fancy spot—the washroom is outside around the corner!—it's known for its good, solid comfort food.
Best Fried Everything for Almost Nothing
Hours: Mon-Thur 12:00 pm-12:00 am Fri-Sat 12:00 pm-1:00 am Sun 12:00 pm-10:00 pm
Sakura is average when it comes to its regularly cooked dishes (though still quite good for the price), but it's truly worth going to for its fried food. The gyoza are juicy, with the beef flavour subtle but brought out by the rice vinegar. The agedashi tofu ($3.50) melts in your mouth, and while fermented tofu isn't my favourite, this bold move was definitely appreciated by my dining companion last time I dropped by Sakura. Even with the fermentation, I could enjoy the silky, soft tofu held in by a perfectly fried exterior. The tempura is light on batter instead of being smothered, so while the prices remain crazily low (more tempura than you can eat is available for $3.95 for vegetable or yam), Sakura maintains impressive quality here as well. The only low point to our meal was the spicy salmon roll ($4.95), which was fresh but not spicy.
While not a posh place, Sakura has its own charm with a relaxed and quirky atmosphere. I've never been able to make sense of the combination of delicate flowery wallpaper and neon lights, but it's less jarring than amusing. And while you can get AYCE for $12.99 at lunch time, you don't really need to—not with Sakura's prices. Drop by here for a cheap bite of delectable tempura and muse over the odd decor.
Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30 am-2:00 pm Dinner Mon-Fri 5:00 pm-12:00 am, Sat-Sun 4:30 pm-12:00 am
Guu Izakaya is known as the place to go for izakaya Japanese food. Located in the Village, just down the road from College Station, the restaurant is a popular spot. Arriving at 5 pm on a Friday, you'll be one of a line of people waiting for the doors to open. Once inside, you'll find yourself greeted enthusiastically (and loudly). Guu is a lively, noisy place, with servers shouting to each other in Japanese throughout your meal. The atmosphere is rustic chic, with polished wooden picnic tables making up much of the seating and exposed lightbulbs dangling from the ceiling. It's a fun, welcoming place, with cartoon doodles on the special drinks menu. You'll find everyone from families with small children to 20- and 30-somethings out after work in the downtown core at Guu on a Friday night.
Then there's the food. Many menu items are somewhat atypical compared to what you find at most Japanese restaurants in Toronto. Guu Izakaya is known for its deep-fried Brie cheese ($7.50). Gooey and rich, the cheese balls sit in a mango and berry sauce, which provides a necessary counterbalance to its light, fruity, slightly tart flavour. Guu also offers kinusaya (snow pea) tempura ($5.50) that's light and airy, with fluffy, delicate batter around the peas. Instead of the usual dipping sauce, Guu offers green tea salt in a small serving bowl for that extra pop.
As something of a party spot, Guu Izakaya is best for groups who want to share a few dishes with a few drinks. That said, the friendly, attentive servers will put you at ease even if you're alone. Try something a little different and drop by Guu—just think about getting a reservation first if you go during peak evening/weekend hours.
Hours: Sun-Thu 5:30 pm-1:00 am Fri, Sat 5:30 pm-2:00 am
Another noteworthy Izakaya spot is Zakkushi on Carlton. While it hasn't risen to the prominence of Guu, this isn't a spot to be missed, both because of the quality of the food and the wide array of offerings. It's a quieter spot, but with a similarly welcoming vibe. Once seated at one of the wooden plank benches or stools, you'll be offered a hot towel for your hands. The barley tea ($2) is a rich roasted blend that works as a delicious palate cleanser between dishes. And you'll want to try as many dishes as you can.
Zakkushi: Eel and Egg Rice Bowl
Photo by Zakkushi
The star of the show is the agé mochi ($4.20). Each piece is a sticky mouthful of rice topped with shredded seaweed and crunchy toasted sesame seeds that add a welcome earthiness in contrast with the sweet soy sauce the deep fried rice sits in. This intriguing interplay of flavours leaves me wanting more days after my visit, and even then, it was necessary for both myself and my dining partner to soak up the leftover sauce with a side order of rice!
That's not to say that any other dish is less than delicious. The zucchini skewer ($1.70) is both more intense and tastier than expected, rich with butter and a hint of the charcoal from the grill. The tofu benefits from a green onion garnish that adds a good punch to the dish. The garlic prawn ($2.80) and the scallop with soy sauce and butter ($3.10) are cooked just right and taste even better, with no overly "fishy" taste, while the teriyaki unagi ($5.80) hits the perfect balance between tender eel and a teriyaki sauce that manages to have just the right amount of sweetness. The BBQ beef ($2.50) is similarly well-balanced and tender. The Horenso Ninniku foil yaki ($5.90) is a surprise hit. The spinach, king oyster mushroom, and whole cloves of garlic arrive on a hot plate, saturated in butter with a hint of soy sauce. The spinach has a good texture (not stringy), and you'll find yourself searching the foil for the last morsels of both spinach and mushroom.
A cozy and boisterous place for a meal, I'd recommend Zakkushi to almost anyone (though people with food sensitivities or other dietary restrictions may have to miss out on the grill and have their food pan-fried instead, which cuts some of the magic out of the experience). It's my personal favourite on this list both for its extensive menu and the deliciousness of everything I've eaten there.
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There should be something for everyone on this list (even if you just go to Sushi Moto or Zakkushi). Whether you're looking for a little piece of Japan in Toronto or a wild party spot where you can munch on Brie balls, Toronto will cater to your desires.