by Rae Dooley
A self-described “authentic Izakaya” Kinoya provides a modest menu of Japanese small-plate pub fare that will hit the spot for raw fish and cocktail-lovers. Izakaya blends the liveliness of a pub with the culinary exploration of a tapas restaurant.
This stylish, warmly-lit, wood-panelled eatery located at 4250 St-Denis, would be perfect for a first date. I opted to bring along two friends well-versed in Japanese cuisine to get the most out of my first Izakaya experience.
We began the evening with cocktails from Kinoya’s well-stocked bar. My distaste for saké felt criminal as I examined the list of inventive saké-based drinks. Instead, I sampled two ounces of 12-year Nikka Taketsuru Japanese whisky — smooth, sweet, with just a hint of smoke.
My companions ordered Kinoya’s signature litchi saké sangria ($10.40) and the siso saké mojito ($8). Sneaking sips of both, I was surprised at the refreshing use of soda and fruit flavors to compliment the saké. Perhaps Kinoya would turn me into a saké fan after all!
Kinoya’s menu can be daunting for those unfamiliar with small-plate dining. Our server Alex recommended starting our meal with two plates a person, advising that we would likely want a second round. We started with Japanese cuisine staples yaki gyoza ($7), traditional steamy Japanese dumplings, and yasai tempura ($8), assorted panko dipped vegetables fried to a golden crunch.
These were followed by two fresh raw tuna-based dishes; a tender and sweet red tuna tartare served on a crisp green siso chip ($12) and a cubed red tuna maguro nuda ($8) in a savory miso sauce with cucumber.
The flavour profile designed by the Kinoya kitchen does not sacrifice comfort for complexity. We found ourselves frequently checking dishes against the menu to identify all the flavors we were enjoying. The siso chips even prompted a google search at the table to learn about the origins of the fragrant member of the mint family. Our first round of food concluded with creamy Takoyaki ($6) octopus balls and yellow tail hamachi tataki prepared in a mouth-watering balsamic wasabi sauce ($14).
Kinoya kept our plates and drinks coming at a comfortable pace. Hours passed while we enjoyed dish after dish. Alex was right in the end — we wanted more. But first, more drinks! Kinoya is a pub after all. Our table was inspired by a server offering free samples to order their house brew, a chocolatey dark red kemuri beer.
Our second round of dishes included my favorite plate of the night — aburi unagi, barbecued eel with cheese, avocado, cucumber, sliced almond, tobiko, and yuzu sauce; sealed by torch ($12).
We also sampled their shake wasabi ($6), a melt in your mouth salmon tartare dish with crispy rice, and the kaizen bata ($13), a garlic butter and mushroom pan-seared scallop dish that was the least exciting of the evening. All told, our dinner was three small plates each. This was a satisfying quantity but left us room for dessert.
The typical Japanese restaurant does not offer much in the way of dessert, so I was not expecting Kinoya’s short dessert menu to match the artistry and complexity of their small plates. I was happily proven wrong when we were presented with creative desserts. Kinoya serves their nutty homemade black sesame ice cream ($5) in a sundae dish with Japanese cornflakes and a healthy dollop of whipped cream. The cornflakes added a satisfying crunch to the nutty, creamy black sesame flavor. I found myself craving this dessert for days after our meal.
My friends sampled Kinoya’s creamy green tea matcha cheese cake ($7) and anmitsu ($7), mochi pearls in red bean sauce. The freshness of the doughy mochi rice cakes was palpable, served with ice cream to cut the sweetness of the red bean sauce.
We learned that dining at an Izakaya is an evening on its own. My party stayed with uninterrupted service from our 7pm reservation till the closing of the restaurant. Izakaya’s may be the answer to the Montrealer’s demand for casual fine dining, but do not be fooled by the pricing of Kinoya’s small plates. Arrive prepared to spend $50-60 per person for drinks, dinner, and dessert.
Kinoya is at 4250 St. Denis. Visit their website for hours and to get a peek at the menu.