If you don't mind the repeated drumming and the high-pitched samurai screams of servers welcoming every new diner that arrives, then you won't mind chowing down at Don Don Izakaya. Then again, if you're familiar with this relatively new foodie phenom, you know that the cacophony is all just part of the charm, if not exactly the most suitable spot for a romantic interlude or a catch-up conversation with an old friend.
A raucous Japanese version of a pub, Izakayas are where people to go unwind a
nd drink after work. (Again, props to Table 17 guys Erik and John for predicting this trend, even if a bit ahead of its time.) Their bustling open kitchens practically puts every seat at the chef's table to watch young cooks do everything from deep fry to cooking fish, at Don Don, over an open flame of burning hay.
Don Don's extensive menu includes everything from a veggie burger, potato wedges and lasagna to soft fish cakes and deep-fried lotus root. Hmmm, I can appreciate the fact that management has made an effort to make the experience more accessible to those that might not be into grilled beef tongue and pan-fried pork intestine. But really, jalapeno bombs? There's always Hooter's for that.
And be warned: though Double D's menu has helpful photos for the gaijin, they are entirely misleading. Case in point -- the mackerel sashimi ($8.30). While as tasty as herring tidbits out of a jar of Strubs with the added novelty of torching it tableside, the picture makes it look like you're getting the whole fish. In fact, it's more properly a portion for someone who's just had their stomach stapled.
Croquettes ($7) are visually stunning, log shaped and dyed with squid ink, but its all potato filler. Where's the beef??? Or in this case, the promised shrimp and cod roe? Disappointment continues with a "caesar" salad ($7.50). Kudos for clever presentation that includes a crouton hoop and a perfectly runny egg, but the dressing is too thin and unremarkable. And for the price, don't expect more than a bite's worth of first deep-fried then pickled salmon in a salad ($5). Though Japanese chefs are known for their deft hand at deep-frying, the promised pungent ginger flavour in a fried chicken ($6.80) taster is absent, not to mention tough and barely dressed. You'd be happier with sweet and sour chicken balls at your local mall's food court.
A Japanese take on fajitas? Don Don, in its effort to be everything for everyone, tries to fuse with too many comfort food favourites. But with an order of chicken pitas ($9.20) with onions and veggies in a tortilla, the biggest complaint is the price. Too bad the pair of "tacos" is so bland. Another unexciting item is a hoppeta-yaki ($8.50). But why don't we just label it what it really is: a lame attempt at Shepherd's Pie. This excessive reliance on potatoes in an Asian eatery approaches sacrilege.
But there are a few stellar standouts. Ironically a Tokyo style pork hot dog with kimchi on an egg bun ($5.20) gets a top grade as does a nicely thick and chewy seaweed tempura ($3) drizzled with wasabi cream. This is junk food taken to a whole new level: the connoisseur's tortilla chip if you will. The reinvention of the devilled egg stuffed with Atlantic salmon ($6) is also noteworthy even if it's served as cold and icy as Doug Ford's heart. Another nice touch is a sprinkling of dried red shiso salt on an order of lightly warmed edamame ($3).
And desserts also deliver. Especially a chocolate and strawberry risotto ($4.20) that would even be shocking to see on a menu in an Italian restaurant. More like a rice pudding, this delicious meal ender can also do double duty as a flavour booster for a nicely textured caramel pudding ($4.20) that has none. Combining the two might make it a contender for best dessert of the year.
But even if head chef Daisuke Izutsu (of the once brilliant, but closed Kaiseki Sakura) contributes to the dining-out landscape with a theatrical food experience that is fast catching, it is with mostly mediocre fare, not to mention a too skewed focus on North American favourites that calls into question its authenticity. For now, Guu does it so much better.