Rumours that an international Japanese BBQ franchise would be occupying part of the former Sobey’s downtown began two years ago, and finally came true as the popular Gyu-Kaku opened its doors earlier this year.
It’s one of several new restaurants that have moved into the long-empty space on Jasper Avenue and 104 Street, along with Tiffin India’s Fresh Kitchen, Dagu Rice Noodle, a Chinese noodle joint, and El Beso, a Mexican-inspired eatery and bar said to be opening this fall.
There’s an obvious reason why these types of Asian BBQ restaurants are such a hit — the social dining aspect, the endless options of shareable dishes, and the novelty of cooking your own food to your own liking and eating it hot off the grill without having to wait for anyone to bring it to you as your stomach impatiently grumbles.
It’s the interactive nature of Japanese BBQ that first pulled me in, but the delicious food and lively atmosphere are what keep pulling me back. And since Gyu-Kaku is open 365 days a year, I can satisfy that craving any day, or holiday (even Christmas!) of the week.
The menu is expansive, with dozens upon dozens of options ranging from appetizers and larger ready-to-eat plates to selections of meats, seafood, and a variety of veggies that can be steamed or thrown on the grill. There’s soups, there’s sushi, and there’s a heavy dose of Korean food influences, too, from kimchi and other banchan to bibimbap and jjigae.
Despite the plethora of options the menu isn’t overwhelming, thanks to a few meal sets for small or large groups that do the choosing for you (and save you several bucks in the process). During our first visit to Gyu-Kaku my husband and I opted for a set for two but on subsequent visits felt bold enough to curate our own meal.
After being seated at our table, our server explained the menu to us, then took our order and flipped a switch on the grill located in the centre of the table. And bonus: you’ll go home without taking that unmistakable BBQ restaurant smell with you because of the restaurant’s ventilation system that pulls smoke down into the grill rather than clouding up the table.
First, the appetizers and other small dishes, including the spicy cold tofu ($6), a beautifully silky texture topped with a spicy gochujang-style sauce, crunchy garlic and a pile of green onions to offer a fresh crunch. We also gave the tuna dynamite roll ($8.50) a try, a sushi-style dish with spicy tuna atop a mound of crispy fried rice, but were ultimately disappointed. The tuna lacked spice and while the rice stayed crunchy beneath the wet tuna, the portion was too large to enjoy texturally.
If you’re looking for a bit of spice and freshness between bites, I recommend the namuru set ($6.50), a trio of kimchi, spinach and bean sprouts. The fried chicken kara-age ($8 small, $14 large) was another hit, fried to crispy perfection and served with chili mayo for dipping.
Once your grill is hot, the BBQ dishes start arriving. The kalbi short rib ($12 for about seven or eight pieces), marinated in a sweet soy, was sliced thin, cooked in less than a minute and was impossibly tender. It was made all the more enjoyable with the selection of light sauces found on each table: ponzu, spicy gochujang and a sweet soy, something to suit most tastes. The harami skirt steak ($12), billed as the menu’s best seller, is similarly tender and arrived bathed in a miso marinade, needing no accompaniment.
While you’re there also try a few of the steamed veggie dishes: our favourites were the mushroom medley ($6) and garlic spinach ($4), which arrive in foil packets and cook within minutes.
There’s lots more to try, too, if grilling isn’t your thing: the beef sukiyaki bibimbap ($10.50) is served in a piping hot stone bowl and mixed at the table. If you let the rice sit for a few minutes it will crisp up and give the dish some added texture.
The shrimp and mushroom ahijo ($9.50) is cooked on the grill, but isn’t actually barbecued — instead it arrives in a small metal bowl, the garlic olive oil and pesto bubbling and poaching the mushrooms as the shrimp slowly curl and colour. We loved every bit of it, but didn’t know what to do with the sizzling hot bowl once we were done (my tong skills are not that good). Eventually we asked a server for help and she used towels to gingerly lift it away.
Our visits to Gyu-Kaku were enjoyable and left us satisfied. Our one gripe is the staffing: each time we had to wait about 10 minutes before being seated, despite having reservations, and the restaurant always seems understaffed (we spotted the host bussing tables on more than one occasion). For a franchise business this size, a few more staff on busy nights will go a long way to improving the customer experience.
Location: 10416 Jasper Avenue
Hours: Sunday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.
Dinner for two, without liquor: Varies widely; approximately $40 to $70
Accessible: Yes, there are stairs at the entrance but a lift is installed.
Noise level: Lively but not overwhelming
Info: gyu-kaku.com or 587-416-0957