Address: 51B Winchester St. (at Parliament St.), 647-748-2121, kingyotoronto.ca
Chef: Tsuyoshi Yoshinaga
Hours: Dinner seven days, 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.
Wheelchair access: No
Price: Dinner for two with cocktails, tax and tip: $60
Remember when Japanese management principles took the corporate world by storm? North American executives donned the same uniforms as their assembly-line workers and banned private offices. That was 20 years ago.
Today, a new Japanese wave is cresting, and it’s reinvigorating Toronto’s restaurant scene.
The recent influx of cheap-and-cheerful Japanese restaurants brings more than just boisterous fun. The young Japanese staff at these restaurants interact with customers at a deeper level, solicitously and with obvious sincerity. Their thoughtfulness is both a shot in the arm and a rebuke to our often complacent service standards.
I notice it at Zakkushi (a full review is planned for later this month) and again at Kingyo, a transplanted Vancouver pub in Cabbagetown that opened last December.
At Kingyo, customer care is evident in the women’s washroom, where a selection of amenities rivals a five-star hotel: nail files, Q-tips, bobby pins, eau de toilette, cleansing towelettes, mouthwash, dental floss and feminine hygiene products. (Spies report mouthwash and dental floss in the men’s.)
It’s there in the bill presentation, which comes with a bud vase of cheery daisies interspersed with skewered frozen grapes. We eat the grapes and admire the flowers, a novel blend of ikebana and mignardaises.
Such civility is Kingyo’s most obvious charm. The drinks — many based on homemade ginger ale ($3.80) — are ho-hum and the food, overseen by Koji Zenimaru, is uneven.
Architect Takashi Tsuji transformed the historic Winchester Hotel into a brick-lined cave of samurai swords and flashing pachinko games. Goldfish (“kingyo” in Japanese) swim in bowls on the tables or decorate the custom plates.
The large menu covers sashimi, sushi, salad, udon, ramen and hot-stone cooking, a bit of fun left over from previous occupant Stonegrill, in which we drape thin slices of beef tongue ($10.20) over smoking hot rocks until the meat curls and turns colour.
Yet for every high — springy ramen ($10.80), delicate chawanmushi ($7.80), crisp homemade pickles ($6.80) and buttered udon amped up with spicy cod roe ($8.20) — there is a low.
Inedibly stiff beef tataki ($10.80) erases all the joy from a cheeky appetizer ($7.80) the menu calls “natural ocean Viagra”: a cocktail glass of wasabi, cooked rice, grated mountain potato and sea urchin served with a raw quail’s egg. Mix it up and knock it back.
I recommend skipping the aburi mackerel ($14), especially if you’ve had this style of blowtorched, pressed sushi at Ja Bistro; if so, you’ll be disappointed by Kingyo’s version, in which the lightly cured fish competes with too many elements, including whole-grain mustard sauce and fermented black beans.
I’d also stay away from the deep-fried chicken ($8.60) and it’s so-called “magic powder,” a dipping dish of what appears to be MSG.
For a pub, Kingyo’s bold but limited flavours of soy, sesame and the aromatic Japanese citrus yuzu make sense. Finding restrained Buddhist monk cuisine here does not. Yet the kitchen turns out nine tiny vegan dishes ($15) that are the gastronomic equivalent of a Zen garden. Japanese sponge cake ($8.80) and wobbly green-tea crème brûlée ($6.50) also surprise.
Not that Kingyo’s service is perfect. The first time I’m there, every dish arrives at once. The second time, I ask the server to slow it down. It works.
They certainly don’t ignore you when you leave.
As you rise from the table, you set off a complex choreography. Staff shout “thank you” in Japanese, while someone runs ahead to hold open the door and bow you out.
Compare this to the countless times I have walked out of a Toronto restaurant unnoticed because servers are deep in conversation with each other, and it’s obvious: Toronto is ripe for an infusion of Japanese hospitality.