While cities including Toronto and Montreal are in the throws of full-blown izakaya infatuation, Ottawa is still waiting for a true Japanese tapas tavern of its own. Many of us had hoped that the Elgin Street restaurant/bar that calls itself Izakaya would be it, but a menu filled with such peculiarities as fried brie and udon carbonara suggest that it offers another, less obvious, concept altogether.
Recognizing the unfulfilled appetite for the trendy Japanese cultural tradition, the folks behind the downtown institution that now goes by C’est Japon a Suisha offered a one-night-only Izakaya menu last spring. In spite of drawing in an unprecedented number of customers — apparently more than their busiest day of the year, Valentine’s Day — the izakaya menu has yet to reappear. And so we waited.
Now, Sushi Umi, a casual neighbourhood sushi shop on Wellington Street has added a small izakaya menu to its daily specials.
Traditionally, these tasty nibbles pair perfectly with after-work beers, but at lunchtime, Umi offers its nine small items, priced individually — from broiled black cod to dancing scallops (each $8.95) — as a “lunch special.” An additional $2 will get you a choice of soup or salad and a bowl of rice. Only those with a very small appetite would be satisfied with just one item, however.
Dining with a friend, we selected four of the izakaya items to share (I later wished we had ordered a couple more). We each started with the salad, which was more substantial than the typical iceberg variety and came with a bottle of really good ginger dressing for dousing at will.
Next to arrive was the BBQ short ribs ($6.95), tender little slabs of sweet-soy saturated fatty beef that looked adorable piled up on a doily and topped with a cocktail umbrella. The flavour was great but I felt they needed to stay on the grill for another minute or two.
Next came agedashi tofu ($5.95), deep fried hunks of silken tofu in warm dashi with slivers of pickled ginger; pure comfort. Then, the wild card: sushi nachos ($6.95), which was a generous dice of sweet-mayo slicked salmon tartare served on wedges of tempura sweet potato. Move over sushi pizza, this combo of crispy cooked and silky raw works wonderfully!
The best dish, we both agreed, was the takoyaki ($5.95), traditional golden octopus balls — a popular Japanese street food. These habit-forming snacks are rarely found in Ottawa so here’s your chance to try these creamy fried spheres filled with a tiny dice of octopus and topped with dancing smoky bonito flakes and several squirts of umami yumminess. As addictive as they should be.
Sushi Umi, 1311 Wellington St. W., 613-724-2488.