The quality of Baldwin Street’s restaurant strip continues to rise in a sinuous gyre – which is lovely for me since I live a three-minute waddle away (two minutes, if striding in a forthright manner). Hemant Bhagwani has taken over the old Jodhpur Palace property, turning it into a miniature recreation of his Global Tacos (the original version, on Mount Pleasant, closed some months ago). Now Sang Kim (co-creator of Ki and Blowfish) has set up shop on the corner of McCaul (right next door to the highly esteemed ND Sushi and Grill) with a flash, friendly, very cool Korean spot called Yakitori Bar as well as a second project in the rear of the building – a bi bim bap take-out spot cleverly called The Seoul Food Co. Yakitori has been packed since it opened – not so much with the Asian students who line up in all sorts of weather outside the ramen bar at the other end of the strip, but with 20- and even 30-something foodies who have followed the building’s 30-day renovation on Sang’s blog and are curious to see what all the fuss is about.
Sang himself is one answer to that question. Dapper in his trilby, he is the consummate host, hip but warm-hearted (part of the proceeds of the sale of certain dishes heads straight to Japan and charitable post-tsunami reconstruction) and always interested in something more than the bottom line. He also teaches first-class sushi lessons on the premises.
Another reason is executive chef Shin Aoyama (of EDO, Ki and Koko! in recent years). This time he’s prepping yakitori to be sure but also serving forth a broad and delectable array of contemporary Korean street foods, all fresh and beautifully balanced, plus some great fusion ideas.
Before we taste some of those dishes, however, consider another interesting aspect of Yakitori’s debutante menu – the inclusion of guests chefs’ signature skewers – an opportunity for talented chefs who aren’t necessarily cooking in conventional kitchens to showcase their work through the signature medium of sauced yakitori. For example, Peter Minakis of the Kalofagas food blog has offered a butan kalamaki – a juicy, rigani-scented pork souvlaki by any other name, that reminds me of my youthful sojourn in the Ionian. Nettie Cronish, nonpareil of natural and organic cuisine has created an almond nut butter tofu-tori. Former private chef and educator Vanessa Yeung has proposed flank steak satays marinated in soy, hoisin and sugar which impart awesome flavour to the slightly chewy meat. And more and more… Such a nice idea!
Meanwhile, Shin Aoyama’s own menu is a treat. $4.95 buys a flight of three differently aged kimchis – one day, two weeks and three months old – all crunchy, nicely chilied-up and increasingly acidic and funky the older they get. Kimchi poutine is another possibility – with melted cheese sandwiched between okay fries and awesome caramelized kimchi – or how about gochu rellenos, green korean chilies, panko-crusted and deep-fried, stuffed with dense ground pork. I loved the two soups we tried – one a sleak, creamy, subtle white miso chowder filled with little clams and shrimp, the other a busan bouillabaisse of hokkaido scallop, shrimp and flaky cod in a spicy house broth.
Main courses (nothing costs more than $9.95) are big enough to share. Oxtail braised in red wine and soy was brilliantly tender, falling from the bone, but the meat hadn’t lost its own sapid juices. It was sticky and rich but not heavy. Pork belly, too, was surprisingly delicate, seasoned with soy and topped with half a boiled egg.
The yakitori themselves are robust rather than dainty, and perfectly grilled. The chicken thigh option was my favourite, though the beef tongue came a close second, both served with three dipping sauces of sesame, soy and kimchi. Then I tried the Godzilla skewer, another guest chef’s creation, this time from the mind of Shinji Yamaguchi, who is owner-chef of Gushi, a shipping-container street-food resto on Dundas Street West. Godzilla turns out to be balls of ground chicken flavoured with onion, soy sauce and coriander and dressed with Yamaguchi’s trademark Gushi teriyaki sauce.
We finished with rice cakes (no dessert is offered) like long, very dense, very heavy cylinders of rice paste. In Korea, you see kids hanging outside the school eating these with a sweet red sauce. Here, they are served inside a hollowed-out squash with the self-same sauce and a generous smothering of melted cheese. Such is Baldwin Street’s charming cultural melange.
Yakitori has a list of sakes and fruity cocktails, four seasonal beers on tap, only eight wines and some first class water from Evian and Badoit. This place is definitely a filip for the neighbourhood and I am determined to become a regular customer.
Yakitori Bar is at 1 Baldwin St., 647 748 0083, www.yakitoribar.ca.