The stretch of Bloor Street from Christie to Bathurst is known as Koreatown. But there are plenty of other diverse cuisines to explore on this block — a Mexican joint, a traditional diner brunch and a Latin cafe, to name a few. Another addition the mix is Japanhako, and as its name suggests, this restaurant adds Japanese fare to Koreatown’s offerings. A casual, approachable atmosphere and plenty of late-night offerings (the restaurant is open until 2:30am every evening) fit right in with the vibe of Koreatown.
"Hako" means, "square" in Japanese and Japanhako does serve some unique square-shaped sushi here. But the motif also finds itself in the restaurant’s decor with square-shaped stools and rectangular benches for seating. Wood definitely dominates the interior, but instead of a grainy, high-end variety, Japanhako uses a rougher plywood that gives the restaurant a more laid-back feel. Even the washrooms are decked out in plenty of plywood to match the interior. Otherwise, beer-branded posters from Asahi and Sapporo and traditional textile hangings add authentic touches to the interior. I also liked the niche shelf displaying bottles of sake as a decor highlight. Since the restaurant is located on a mezzanine level there is a short flight of stairs going up to the entrance, and the washrooms are located in the basement, making Japanhako wheelchair inaccessible.
Japanhako’s vibe matches the young and trendy clientele that frequents the neighbourhood. Our Thursday evening visit saw a mix of couples grabbing a casual bite, friends catching up and even one solo diner watching films on his smartphone while dining. There was a regular cycle of current pop tunes playing, from Taylor Swift to Maroon 5. But an unexpected addition was a giant flat screen TV showing music videos that accompanied the music. I found it a little distracting and chose a seat closer to the front, away from the television.
Our dinner table
Instead of honing in on just one style of Japanese cuisine, Japanhako covers a pretty broad range of favourites on its menu. There are two main focuses: grilled yakitori skewers that make use of every part of the chicken, from wings to thigh, gizzards and cartilage, along with pork, beef and veggie skewers and sushi — special rolls, maki and sashimi. On top of all of that, there are street snack-style appetizers, donburi rice bowls, teriyaki platters, ramen and udon. Regardless of what Japanese fare you’re craving, you’ll be able to find pretty much all of it here at Japanhako.
We could have compiled a meal just off of the range of appetizers available at Japanhako, from sushi joint favourites like miso soup, edamame and seaweed salad to deep fried items like chicken karage ($8.90), agedashi tofu ($6.50) and gyoza dumplings ($5.50). We opted for the takoyaki ($7.90) to start — flavourful doughy balls with pieces of chopped octopus inside. Six balls come in one serving, making it great to share with a group. The balls are topped with a generous helping of mayo and a sweet-savoury teriyaki sauce then sprinkled with bonito flakes and green onion. The resulting dish looks like a heaping mess, albeit a delicious one. These takoyaki were mushier than I was expecting, making it difficult to pick up with a pair of chopsticks. But the challenge worthwhile as I enjoyed the soft and comforting texture and great flavour.
With only two stomachs to fill in our dining party, we were limited in the range of what to sample and decided to focus on what Japanhako seems to do best: skewers and sushi. While skewers are available a la carte, if you’re indecisive like us, skewer sets are the way to go. We opted for the Japanhako set ($12.50) with a skewer each of negimo (leg), sunagimo (gizzard), hatsu (heart), tebasaki (wings) and momo (thigh). Overall the meat set was a miss for us. We found the meat to be dry, chewy and overcooked. There was a dish of two soy-based sauces to accompany the skewers. A word of warning -- one of the sauces was quite spicy and we weren’t informed of that in advance. The meat was pretty decently flavoured and salted on its own so we didn’t really feel the need to sauce it in addition. Luckily the vegetable skewer set ($9) of tomato, asparagus, green onion (although I think it was actually leeks), mushroom and zucchini was delicious -- moist, perfectly-cooked and well-seasoned. There are bamboo tumblers on each table to store empty skewers after you’re done eating.
"Extreme Dynamite" roll
On the sushi side of things, we chose one of their torched rolls -- the Extreme Dynamite ($8.90) -- a roll of avocado, cucumber, crab meat and shrimp tempura with scallop, garlic butter and fish egg on top. The roll was "torched" to add a bit of char and smokiness to the roll. I’ve had torched sushi at other restaurants before and I found this roll to be "under-torched" and I wished for more of that charred flavour. We complemented it with a Spicy Crunch Tuna roll ($11.90). It was nicely presented on a long plank with plenty of tempura crunch on its exterior and spicy mayo as a garnish. The portion of spicy tuna in the roll was generous and filling, although there was a skinny wedge of cucumber inside that seemed out of place.
The dessert menu at Japanhako has just a few items including scoops of ice cream and fried mochi. We opted for the green tea cheesecake and felt fairly neutral about the item. The cheesecake was dense but we wished for a more potent green tea flavour. Closer to the edges of the cake, I could taste hints of freezer burn, which led me to believe that the cake was improperly stored or had been kept for a long while. We did appreciate the presentation, however, on a wooden plank dusted with icing sugar. The spoons we received were pretty large and didn’t match the delicateness of the dessert.
Sake is definitely the way to go if you’re looking for an authentic alcoholic accompaniment to your meal at Japanhako. The sake list is approachable with its menu detailing a few quick keywords for each (dry, robust, sweet, sharp, bright, to name a few) as a guide to help those unfamiliar with fermented rice wine select an appropriate tipple for their meal. We appreciated that most of the sake listed was available in small, medium and large portions so you don’t have to commit to purchasing an entire bottle, or can try a few different kinds throughout your meal. 150ml servings range from $7 to $22 while its most expensive 720ml bottle was the Onikoroshi White Label Demon Slayer junmai daiginjo, the highest quality of sake in Japan, priced at $96. You can also find a range of beers here from Asahi and Sapporo by the pint or pitcher, plum wine and cocktails that incorporate Japanese elements like the Oolong Hai (shochu and oolong tea, $7.50) and the Geisha (sake and iced tea, $7).
The servers were all smiles at Japanhako, although they did seem a little understaffed near the end of our meal with only two servers and a three-quarters-full house. We needed to flag a member of staff down a few times to refill our water glasses and had to ask twice for takeout containers for our leftovers. This didn’t affect our experience significantly, though.
While it’s sometimes nice to have a wide array of offerings at your fingertips, especially if you’re dining with a large group, I couldn’t help but wonder whether honing in the menu offerings would help Japanhako focus on executing its remaining dishes with more care and precision. It wouldn’t have taken much to elevate our dinner to the next level -- a more careful eye on the readiness of the meat and a more liberal torching of the torched rolls. I wouldn’t be opposed to returning to Japanhako for a meal on a friend or date’s request, but I’m not sure I’d add it to my regular roster of Japanese restaurants in the city.