College Street’s Little Italy strip is a favourite dining destination for Torontonians and Hapa Izakaya has found its niche in this west end neighbourhood at the corner of College and Clinton Streets.
The popular Japanese restaurant chain, with three locations in Vancouver and one in Calgary, opened their first eastern outpost in 2012. Owners Justin and Lea Ault founded Hapa Izakaya in Vancouver in 2003, after experiencing the informal and fun izakaya style of dining while living abroad, and quickly gained many fans, including being named one of the top five izakayas in North America by Bon Appetit Magazine in 2011. Working with the Isobe family, the Aults launched Hapa Izakaya on College Street two years ago this month, in a space that had been Italian resto Coco Lezzone.
The 120 seat restaurant is a mix of options: a genkan bar at the entrance, a communal dining table around a sake bar, a rear dining room and a small street-side patio. Resembling its western siblings in décor and lively guests, Hapa Izakaya also follows the lead set in Vancouver by serving OceanWise certified seafood, offering local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients on the menu and several gluten-free dishes.
Guests who want to capitalize on daily specials will appreciate the restaurant’s Fresh Sheet, a chef’s choice of the day of fresh and seasonal dishes while the Omakase is a prix-fixe option for two to 16 diners who want to hand over the decision making to the chefs for a combination of daily specials and menu favourites.
Make sure to peruse the daily drink specials, especially on Friday where a flight trio of sake is $10.00. Hapa Izakaya features a daily "Hapa hour" from 4pm to 6pm, attracting the foodies and hipsters of the ‘hood for snacks before a screening at The Royal or a concert at The Mod Club.
This restaurant follows the tradition of Japanese izakayas, starting with many options for libations such as the Pom Sake martini ($10) with fresh pomegranate juice or the Umeshu martini ($9.50), a heady mix of plum wine, vodka and lemon juice. There’s an extensive list of Japanese beer, sake and shochu, a Japanese distilled spirit made from grains or vegetables, not a common offering on many Toronto Japanese restaurant menus.
Dining here is all about sharing and makes sense to get to try several menu items such as the citrusy Ebi Avocado Salad ($12) with shrimp, the Okonomiyaki ($8) a pancake with pork, cabbage, tempura bits and pickled ginger, Roasted veggie salad ($10), chilled roasted vegetables with mixed greens or the addictive Japanese arancini ($7) halibut risotto balls with BC trout carpaccio.
Foodies who have heard from western pals about faves from the west coast should order the Teriyaki Bao sliders ($9) beef and pork burgers with pickled onions, karashi mayo on a deep-fried bao bun or an order of the Ebi Mayo, tempura prawn on crostini with spicy mayo.Or if you're still hungry and undecided - just look along the bar or ask a fellow diner - the convivial atmosphere makes quick friends of those united in wanting to experience izakaya style.
The pressed sushi aka modern Oshisushi are house combinations such as the Fire Cracker ($13) with albacore tuna, cucumber, tempura bits and tobiko with spicy mayo, Lobster ($17) with poached & torched lobster sashimi with miso mayo or the Wagyu ($15) with American kobe wagyu beef and soy garlic butter. And the daily Sashi Mori is also a west coast import: a daily offering of fresh sashimi. (price set daily).
Save room for the matcha crème brulee – a taste of east meets west, and there’s house-made matcha ice cream for a traditional sweet finish. Or order another cocktail and cheers to experiencing izakaya in Little Italy.