My top 3 Montreal’s Isakayas (Japanese bistrots)

When I read critics complaining that Montreal Isakayas have nothing to do with what is found in Japan, the only thing that comes to mind is that such statement can only come from clowns, Lol.

Comparing Mtl’s Isakayas to Japan’s. Euh…Seriously? Cool down buddy: you need Japan, fly to Japan! Rfaol!

Ok Ok , I know: Vancouver is making it happening and a good friend told me recently that NYC Isakayas are impressive. That same friend told me that when her aunt came here from NYC, she was turned off  by Montreal’s high $$$ for lackluster Isakaya food.  

I feel bad reviewing / rating Isakayas outside of Japan: for simple straightforward / simple fares like those, it’s naturally the fares  found where it all started (therefore perfected for so long)  that will always have the edge. I do not have the means to go all the way to Japan whenever I have a crave for some Isakaya food, thus I am sampling them in Yul (Mind you, NYC is not that far away  ) , and I am trying my best to write this little review of some of them here, but keep in mind that it would be unfair to expect Isakaya’s motherland fabulous fares to be replicated in Montreal:

Before I go ahead, a tip: Chose wisely (ask the staff for their daily and best offerings /  tell them you want things as close as possible  to authentic Japanese Isakaya fares /  do not just blindly trust the menu) when you try an Isakaya in Yul. Or else, you’ll experience  the dumb mistakes that I had to run into the 1st times I went visiting them (generic picks, food for tourists, Lol)

Also: the ratings you see next to the name of each Isakaya may change / evolve with future visits to those places. This is purely subjective and temporary rating that reflects an overall personal assessment of –NOT the restaurant — but the meals.

Food rating: Exceptional (10), Excellent (9), Very good (8), Good (7)

LATEST UPDATE: Meal at Kazu on November 26th 2012 (meals listed from the oldest to the most recent)

Kazu (8/10): Big line up. No reservations taken.  Addr: 1862 Sainte-Catherine Street West, Montreal, Qc   (514) 937-2333.  They have no web site – While Imadake has a more classy, elegant feel for an Isakaya, Kazu opts for the opposite  very laidback / tiny bustling ‘hole in a wall’ theme. I love Kazu because it sends me back to my very humble backgrounds, a life where a place like Kazu would actually be luxury. They take no reservations here, and it is easy to see why: hordes of people are all the time lining up at their doors days and evenings. All Isakayas  I am writing about are those with Japanese Chefs at their helm and Kazu is no exception: it’s as Japanese as you can get in YUL. Their Chef was working at Toque!, therefore do expect some  ‘western style’ touches here and there on his take of Isakaya fares (for ie, salad on some of his dishes + also hints of ‘western style’ plating  here and there). They are known for their ramen (had them twice. Only served at lunch time.  Rated both ramen with a 7/10. Montreal is not a city for remarkable ramen, but this was as good as I could get in town  — 7/10 is the highest rating that I have assigned to a ramen in QC), salmon tuna bowl (also a 7/10 – good. It’s hard for me to get excited with Isakaya fares in YUL, but again, this is as good as you’ll get in this city’s Isakayas from such a simple creation), okonomiyaki (the famous Isakaya pancake) was sampled once and it had good depth of delicious taste (7.5/10), 48hrs pork with rice was –given the incredible raves it gets all over the web — not the stunning dish I was expected (a remote cousin of the ‘Yashinoya‘ beef bowl for those who are familiar with the Yashinoya chain, but here at Kazu, you have the fine pork morsels on a bed of rice with  appealing gingery tones to it — not as bad as its detractors make it sound / not as stunning as its fans are selling it neither…just tasty / pleasant enough for me to rate it with a 8/10, especially to Montreal Isakaya standards. Abroad, especially in Asia I’d rate it with a 7/10.), and yet this was again and again one of those another delicious  items reaffirming the great sense of taste of Kazu’s cooking team (an 8/10 item, in my view, but still…d-e-li-cious!), Yakitori  grilled chicken  (7.5/10) was tasty (it has to, I know, Lol..but they did it well and it was worth paying for), and up to now (3 visits there), my favourite item has been their fabulous pork neck served in a big pristine white bowl of remarkable porky pleasure (10/10). We’ll get to that later on.  As I wrote earlier on,  If you are stucked with visions of an Isakaya in Japan,  you better fly to Japan. Montreal will certainly not match with your fantasies, but the thing about an Isakaya like Kazu is that they managed, throughout my 3 visits there, not to necessarily make me think of ..Japan (I’ll think about it when I’ll be there, anyways)…Lol..but more importantly to deliver where it needs to:  stunning flavors. On Aug 3rd 2012 at 17:30, my most recent visit there, I took for the first time their $15 grilled pork neck. Three big chunks of fabulous meaty and dazzingly tasty pork  that makes all equivalent in town (including the haute dining ones) pass as amateurish. A 10/10 food item which, once you forget about unecessary comparisons to what an Isakaya sounds and looks like in Japan, is simply one of those reasons why Kazu is (all type of cuisines included) in my top 5 best eateries in town! Their sense of taste, the palate of their cooking staff is simply of superior level to Montreal’s standards. And I have to say: even the service at Kazu is right up my alley: frendly,  super cool, fun! Kazu, my love…
UPDATE: 4th meal at Kazu on this Friday Aug 10th 2012, 18:30  Kazu is really not $$$ at all, so you can manage many meals here without any hard impact on the pocket. This time, I took again the okonomiyaki shrimp pancake and asked the staff to pick a daily course for me. While the Chef was preparing my daily pick untitled ”  Grilled octopus leg”, another member of the kitchen brigade had prepared the okonomiyaki. The Okonomiyaki, when the Chef does it, is an interesting item, usually well done. Not my favourite, but still delicious. But tonight, the other member of the brigade seemed to have taken this popular dish for granted: from its mushy un-interesting texture to a poor green salad sitting atop, it was an item that simply distracted from appreciating the huge talent of this kitchen (3/10 at best). But then appeared the “Grilled octopus leg”, an item that I did not see on my previous visits here and for good reason: it’s one of the daily offerings, not a classic (classics here seem to be the Okonomiyaki pancake, the BBQ’d grilled Pork Neck, the Salmon/Tuna bowl, etc). The ‘Kazu on top of the world’ show was about to be broadcasted: Grilled octopus, not chewy, well done and enhanced by charcoal grilled flavor, we all know it is an instant success that actually not that many skilled kitchen brigades do deliver as succesfully as they pretend. But Kazu’s went beyond all of that, ages ahead I’d say and would still confidently admit  zero hint of exxageration in my statement. Its surreal tender texture and divine mouthfeel, coupled with  a world class salad (yes, a salad of greens & carrots! I wish I would not rave about a salad, but there is simply no other salad like this one that was paired with the octopus) was of a level you would dream of finding at a fraction of the best 3 star Michelin restaurants around the globe. Even the presentation was world class (the Chef used to work at Toque!, so presentation is one of his many strenghts). It might sound like an over the top statement, but it was not. Epic..epic..epic…such was the magnitude of  this world class dish 10/10. Interestingly, had my recent 3 star Michelin meals at Ledoyen (Paris) or Le Calandre (Rubano) delivered one single savoury dish close –so not even of similar level — to the amazement of this one exceptional ‘Grilled octopus’ dish, they would have most likely ranked among my favourite 3 star Michelin restaurant around the world.   In Montreal, even my two top best bitrots (Bistrot Cocagne and Au Cinquième Péché, although capable of many 10/10 items as shown on my reviews of them, have yet blown me away with a dish of the ‘magnitude’ of this evening’s Kazu’s Grilled octopus).   Kazu did it again…..       
UPDATE: 16/10/2012 – My first time here with Jannice. She found her meal pretty impressive by Montreal top bistrot standards.
Grilled octopus $22 – This is the same item that I found remarkable in both execution and palatable excitement during my last meal here. Tenderized  to perfection, as delicious as I remember it from the last time, this remains a benchmark bistrot dish. Only, it was more ‘refined’ this time, whereas its previous version was more ‘rustic’ for its richer, deeper char flavor. Although I prefer last time version,  there is no doubt in my mind that this is a solid 10/10 item (many top bistrots here or in France would have caught my uttermost attention with a sense of taste like the one found in this kitchen) .

Grilled Pork neck – They did not have, on this evening,  the crowd-pleaser bbq’d version, which seemed to me superior to tonight’s version. And yet, this was by no means a disappointing item. To the contrary, the theme of delicious char flavor, cooking that’s on point  and deep enjoyable meaty mouthfeel were brought to center stage in a way that many, with the same tools in hands, seem not to pull off as easily as Kazu. It is easy for a grilled piece of meat to be tasty, we all do this at home, but rare to push it to a stage worth paying for at a restaurant, which is the case of most grilled meats I have enjoyed at Kazu, this one being no exception (BUT I insist: the bbq’s version is even more worthy of my hard earned bucks) . 8/10 and, despite the fact that I missed its stunning bbq’d ancestor (lol), a very enjoyable bistrot item.

Grilled toro (belly) tuna for two ($35) pursued  with the usual great bistrot cooking (not one single technical fault  to be noticed, a flesh cooked to  perfect moist consistency) and fabulous work of the taste that made Kazu a personal favourite. Grilling tuna is no rocket science, but getting all the nuances of a perfect grilled tuna  shining through (controlled timing of the direct and indirect cooking phases being obviously crucial for grilling tuna)  is another story, one that they have delivered. This was cooked by some members of the brigade, a great way to re-assure me after my disappointment over the okonomiyaki that this same brigade has prepared on the last meal. Simply excellent. 9/10

We wrapped up this meal with a flawless wasabi ice cream which had a depth of successful exciting  milky freshness typical of the better ice creams.

Kazu, like any favourite table around the globe, will of course have its ups and downs. And there are items that I do not see myself ordering, such as an eggplant paste dish, or very simple stuff like salad and rice, or even their beef cheeks which seem to me not in th eleague of Kazu’s best items . But the ups happen more oftently here and with almost 15  food items sampled at Kazu  over the months, only one went under the 7/10 bar (last meal’s okonomiyaki pancake), the rare ones with 7/10 could not be accused of lack of palatable excitement but were rather kept under the 8/10 bar simply because I had enjoyed equivalent dishes abroad with a slighter advantage, the big majority varying between 8, 9 and 10/10. Which can’t be said of most bistrots  here and abroad, that is why it is still my number one Isakaya in Montreal, as well as largely deserving its place in the top 5 best bistrot in town, for its delicious food. I see no drawbacks in the following, but it is is worth knowing that thre is a line up here, the décor   is laidback, rustic, proximity to other diners being a feature of its packed/busy nature. It is not of the grand comfortable elegant type, so you want to come here for the food aspect. Despite Kazu being constantly packed though, I did not find the noise level to hit on my nerves at all, and the service is  efficient here.  Overall food rating for this Oct 16th 2012 meal: 8/10 Delicious  bistrot food, that is all I am asking for, and that is what they do deliver. For food, easily a top 5 contender in Montreal and largely the best Isakaya in town as of lately. 
UPDATE 26/11/2012 18:00 – Kazu is one of my two Montreal coup de coeur of 2012 (alongside Lawrence), but on this evening,  it did not shine at the heights that, meal after meal, kept it as my 2012 best Isakaya in YUL. And trust me,  I gave it its chances, lol:  first, the $18 grilled beef with rice and salad. Tasty as expected from Kazu’s usual standards,  it unfortunately lacked heat. At least, its meaty appeal still shone through, but this was a 6/10 dish, no more,  which is weak for what Kazu do usually deliver. Kazu has that gifted charcoal grill in house, and I love meat,  so I pursued with a great kazu hit that I did rave a lot about on previous visits here: their classic pork neck bbq.  To my disappointment, it suffered from the exact same problem of the previous item: lack of char grill heat! 5/10 on this  instance, for a food item that I haved experienced in its very best version (a 10/10 the 1st time I had it here).  I was getting really  frustrated at this point since the problem here could have been easily avoided…just letting the meat a bit longer  on the grill! Kind of odd because Kazu was doing this so right on so many visits here. Take #3, I changed strategy and chose to forget the  …grill! Which was not what I had hoped for at a place where the main attraction is the magic that came from its char grill.  I was still hungry, so I ordered the signature 48 hrs pork bbq. At best a 6/10. It was certainly not bad, alas not great neither.  So, am I going to downgrade my overall rating of Kazu (the 8 over 10 you see at the top). Nope, it would be a nonsense to  wipe away all great meals I had here on the back of this lacklustre performance. Take any restaurant u think is top,
and it is a matter of time before we’ll find its weaknesses. It is more realistic and less naive to judge a restaurant by the heights it has  proven to reach out to. There is no miracle: Kazu would have never been one of my two coup de coeur of 2012 without the superb meals it has  delivered before. Since I insist on always being as accurate as I could as well as realisitic, the only suggestion that I would dare laying on the table is this one: could Kazu suffer from the syndrom of the damned Mondays? Many of our favourite tables do suffer from this problem: I remember one of my favourite all time African table, which I won’t name because it is closed anyways,  was a pale copy on its own self on Mon, Tues and Wed. But towards the end of the week, well …it was simply one of the finest
African gastro destinations. As a matter of fact, past meals at Kazu happened towards the end of the week and that was a totally  different story (just read my previous reviews). This is the weakest meal I had here, which triggers this suggestion from my part:  if you insit on going there, go on Thurs, fri, sat. Overall food rating for this 26-11-2012 meal: 5/10 But be very careful,  since this is not the usual Kazu standards that I am accustomed to! I doubt that Kazu will perform at the level of this evening’s meal on a regular basis. PS: AlthoughI was at the bar, I did not play attention at what was really going on (I was busy talking to someone), but I have  cooked enoughly long to suggest that on this evening, they were either suffering from a charcoal grill that was not at full heating power (this happens a lot with some charcoal grills, particularly in winter which is the case on this visit) or perhaps the meat was pre-cooked and finished up way too swiftly on the grill (which is a method that you see a lot nowadays and that I am not a fan of).

-Bistro Isakaya (7/10) No line up. Reservations taken.  Addr: 3469 Ave. du Parc Montreal, Qc 514-845-8226      – An amusing thing I like to do is this –> In YUL, whenever I meet people who are familiar with Japan’s local food scene, I ask them what they think of this or that isakaya? What’s to them, the ones that gets closer to what is found in Japan?, etc. It is a fun exercise, and better than your own opinion, it brings fresh new views of what’s done in YUL to that regard. Bistro Isakaya is one of those that most connoisseurs of the real Japan have referred me to when it comes to a recommendation for Isakaya. It is a bit pricier than, say, Kazu for ie. One thing I really like with the Isakayas in YUL, however humble they might stand before their cousins of NYC, Vancouver and of course, the motherland (Japan), it’s that they do ensure to add something that the competitor does not offer. Take the traditional Japanese Daifuku   (a sweet, usually made of strawberry that I rated with a 8.5/10 the last time I tried it here ) or Chawanmushi (sort of Japanese egg custard – the one I tried was easily an 8/10 ):  they thought of offering them  here. A nice touch since I haven’t seen them  yet at the other Isakayas in town. To the contrary of  all the top Isakayas in YUL, they also have a full sushi menu here (to me, they were good sushis. Not great – For sushis in YUL, I’d head to the likes of Jun I, Sushi Volant, etc  instead ). The only way a Montreal Isakaya can, in my view, worth a little detour is to hope that their better known items shine while you are there. There’s no guarantee for the latter to happen (take the cow tongue I had at Imadake. Most people who had it  raved about it, but that was not my case at all. For sure, this was certainly just a bad luck and I doubt that my next cow tongue at Imadake will not pass the test, but things are what they are: I’ll have to wait a bit before joining the bandwagon of Imadake’s cow tongue fans), but all of this to tell you that when you go to Bistro Isakaya, on top of asking them for their daily/seasonal picks, give a try to items that they seem to deliver  well  on a regular basis such as their Miso soup (a simple item, indeed, but I haven’t had better one in YUL 8.5/10) . Again, this is a bit pricier than Imadake and Kazu and although it has some interesting choices , and this is a promising team (most of them come from Montreal’s ex successful highly regarded authentic Japanese dining venture, Katsura  ) I am a bit surprised that this ranks that high among the Japan’s food experts I met. Mind you, the Miso soup I had there is the finest I had in YUL up to now, and if you look carefully at the ratings of the food items I had sampled, they are doing some quite good job (which again, should not be that much of a surprise for anyone who knew how good Katsura was). Still, it’s not cheap. At least, the quality is usually on center stage. Preferably dine there (as opposed to lunch).

Imadake (5/10) No line up. Reservations taken.  4006, rue Ste-Catherine O   Montreal, Qc,  (514) 931-8833  – It’s the latest big Isakaya in town. For once, I’ll ask you to forgive the low ratings of some of the dishes I had there for reasons I’ll explain later on and go, try it for yourself with one condition: Ask them (as you need to do with all Isakayas in town) for their  daily / seasonal  best offerings and do not do like me: do not just rely on the menu. On my sole visit there, the food items I chose were a mixed affair: Grilled cow tongue  was chewy, lacked heat and had no grilling flavor at all (0/10), which was surprising especially since such simple grilled item  is hardly something I’d expect to fail. Then things were back on track with an item that’s simple, indeed, like most isakaya  fares actually, but that delivered appealing freshness, amazing produce and skillfully balanced dressing: a fresh salad of greens, carrots. A salad, I know, but a well done one.  Then another slip: An ordinary  beef tataki that would barely be a 4/10 (the beef ok, the overall taste only ok, but not worth the $$$, yep..even at $8). My heart was happy again  with a course of Takoyaki (a $6 little tasty lovely croquette of octopus 7.5/10  — This could have easily been a 8/10 or even 9/10 had the texture been remarkable, but it delivered that it needed to: delicious taste with nice moist consistency of fresh meaty octopus). All in all, I was obviously not impressed with the food performance but I tweeted my dissatisfaction to the restaurant and the way they reacted impressed: instead of hiding behind a wall of laughable big ego and annoying defensive arguments, they constructively proposed that I ask them for what’s best /seasonal, etc while dining there. An amazing reaction and given how they take their work at heart and showing how they want to improve, this is for sure  a place where I am   willing to spend my hard earned money.  Imadake deserves that I give it another chance, and you: just go (the ambience is so cool. So different from other Montreal eateries. You’ll love the loud cheers, the Japanese feel, enjoy the sake booooooooom boooomm ritual on the tables when people order the sake’ll know what I mean once ther) ! 

I’ll stick to my current top 3 Isakayas in YUL. Whenever I stumbled upon one that I believe I should add to this top list, I’ll oblige. Subjective stuff, as usual but I really really find it hard to rate Isakayas in a city like Yul simply because I have sampled equivalent Isakaya fares abroad that went above and beyond the simple observation that since this is straightforward food, it needs to find a way to somehow shine enoughly well to justify leaving the comfort of home for. For ie, I don’t want my yakitori to simply stand as a nice little piece of skewered chicken. That, I can do that at home,Lol. I want it to be a standout one and that…well, that is possible. Just do not expect this  oftently in YUL,  but Kazu made it happen. That’s obviously why it’s my ‘coup de coeur’ and top pick of Mtl’s current Isakayas.  In the end, it all goes down to what you do expect. Just remember: it is not Japan! It’s Montreal. Forget about Japan, go and appreciate what’s delivered, for what it is: Montreal’s take on Isakayas. Chose wisely! Arigato!