apa Izakaya’s menu is tapas style, meaning you get to try many different dishes instead of a few bigger style plates. But don’t mistake that to mean the portions are small or flavours timid.
And while the family who runs it is Japanese, as is kitchen staff, you won’t find Japanese food like this anywhere else. Dishes are based in Japanese cuisine, but introduce a mixture of different cultures through ingredients and execution. Call it Japanese with a twist, but don’t call it fusion.
Take the Japanese Arancini ($7), for instance. This dish, a nod to their 'hood of Little Italy, takes the traditional Italian deep-friend rice balls and gives it a decidedly Asian variation by using BC trout carpaccio and dashi, and adding deep-fried capers, micro greens and fresh dill aioli, topped with cured salmon. The combination is stunning.
The Korean-inspired Ishiyaki ($11) is a seasonal feature, but thanks to its popularity, now a signature dish. A recent hot stone rice bowl boasted miso minced pork with raw egg, garlic, lettuce and tomato with rice, that’s tossed at table. They might as well call it "comfort food in a bowl."
"They" are the Isobes. The family owns and runs this location as well as the original Hapa Izakaya in Vancouver. Mackenzie is front of house manager, sister Jiena Isobe is a manager and the accountant, and brother-in-law Sy Baek (Jiena’s husband) is director of operations, and executive chef Tomoki Yamasaki. Mackenzie’s parents Mari and George also helped open restaurants such as Guu Izakaya in Vancouver.
The 120-seat restaurant opened just three years ago, but since the beginning, the menu always changes frequently. Tomokicreates the menu. The "Fresh Sheet" section changes every month, while others change every three months. There’s a ramen feature every Wednesday. Recent incarnations have included oxtail, goat, and chicken feet.
Everything is made in house from sauces to desserts. Seafood is Ocean Wise certified, wild not farmed, from the west coast. It comes in whole from Daily Seafood and then is butchered in house. Vegetables are purchased fresh every day.
The menu includes a lot of seafood, but it’s very meat heavy menu, due to demand. Pressed sushi is also very popular, as are vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free items.
Mackenzie says, "We make everything to order. It takes a a bit longer, but otherwise the flavour profile and consistency is not the same."
Dishes are carefully plated and beautifully presented, and ingredients skillfully combined. This is fine dining fare at casual dining prices.
Drinks are taken seriously too. Try the Hapa Brand Sake, which is full bodied with an almond finish. Sake, wine and beer are available on tap.
A fun way to drink shots? Poured in frozen bamboo shoot imported from Japan. And come for Hapa hour from 4pm to 6pm to enjoy selected items and beers for $4-$7, or head out on a weeknight for specially priced drinks – Tuesdays, for instance, wine and sake bottles are half price.
Speaking of drinks, there is a lively bar scene here. There’s a live DJ Thursday – Saturday nights with food and drinks available until 2am. The 25 to 35-year-old crowd can visit the "one-stop-shop," where Mackenzie says, "You can have food with no time limit, and enjoy the DJ in front in the fun, high-energy atmosphere in their bar lounge with dance floor, or enjoy the quieter dining area in back."
And while the vibe is fun and casual and prices moderate, the service is professional. "You're not my customer- you're my guest," says Mackenzie. There’s no refilling your own wine or water glass. "That's just the Japanese way," he continues. "We don't want you to be kept waiting. We’re committed to making you happy and show you our guest service skills. We pride ourselves on it."
There is a lot more to come at Hapa Toronto.
Hapa Izakaya is open six days a week from 4pm (closed Mondays) including Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and New Year's Day.
Check out our Facebook page for more photos.