Neighbourhood: East Kildonan
Address: 2-1575 Regent Ave W
Chef Edward Lam has been persistently trying to win over Winnipeggers to Izakaya for years. To clarify, Izakaya is to Japan as tapas is to Spain. While tapas have been embraced here for at least a dozen years, not so for the Japanese small plates.
Some will remember, Ed Lam first tried to introduce Izakaya fare at Miyabi in Osborne Village in partnership with chef Masa Sugita, who had made a name for himself on the Japanese food scene in town. Yet despite seemingly good odds, the restaurant hit a hurdle: diners just couldn’t get past synonymizing sushi with Japanese cuisine.
Today, Ed Lam, as chef/owner of Yujiro, is arguably one of the most revered chefs in the city. If that isn’t enough to boost confidence for a new venutre, a regularly packed dining room did. This time, Ed found the most unexpected location, tucked into a strip mall to try, try again.
Step inside Gaijin Izakaya and find mod industrial-chic interior, groovier than anything for kilometres in the Kildonans. Large wood tables flanked with benches and bins below to throw unsightly necessities like mitts, hats and jackets lend a cool vibe. Pictures on the menu (good ones) bridge the gap for curious but inexperienced Izakaya seekers. The youthful, fresh package somehow makes it easy to try something new.
Tofu, for instance: Agashi tofu is presented in small fried cubes and sitting on top of honey sweetened soy sauce. On top is a mix of shiitake mushrooms, pickled onion, shaved nori, and a garnish of green onion slivers. You heard it here – tofu is now legitimately a craveable. Brussels sprouts are sauteed here (not deep fried) and greener and crunchier for it. Perfectly crispy-on-the-outside and fluffy-on-the-inside fingerling potatoes and bonito shavings make the dish a study in textures from tender to crackling.
Showcasing the level of artistry that has won his sushi spots enduring popularity, chef Lam’s tuna crudo is a work of art. Delicate rosy slices of the prized fish layer centre plate, with mango, pickled onions, hazelnuts and tiny slivers of nori and herby oil dressing each bite.
Over-ordering is a risk here, but leaving room for dessert has its rewards. Silky miso ice cream atop a smear of hazelnut cashew spread packs a punch of umami and a lasting impression.
Timing can be everything, but we’re glad Chef Ed has taken this moment to jump again into the fray. Gaijin Izakaya is presenting some of the most exciting food we’ve seen added to the food scene this year – which may prove that it pays to never, ever give up.