When an old friend sends you a DM saying he’ll be in town and want to be on one of your culinary adventures, of course you say yes. That’s before you realize that your dinner for two will be the first time you’ve been in a restaurant dining room since February 2020.
Am I uncomfortable? Yes. And sure enough, there is some concern about the transmission, but just as importantly, I’ve been for 17 months writing about the many thrills and some thrills of restaurant roller coasters. I want them to be at their best: staffed, informed, and in that comfortable groove. I want guests excited to be in fantastic social spaces made possible by equally fantastic people, and without unsociable quirks acquired and amplified through internet-enabled echo chambers.
My friend is here for a month in the local emergency rooms. And since he’s happy to slip into a cubicle, who am I to go against a doctor’s suggestion?
As Kinkaku Izakaya only reserves tables for four or more, I expect a wait. In The Beforetimes, there was often a crowd in front of Kitchener City Hall, lining up to enter. It’s no different now. It’s Thursday night and a dozen people are on benches or watching flamenco dancers nearby, waiting to be called. After 30 minutes, we are in the stylish and rustic contemporary room, at a table with a full view of the busy cooks at the counter.
Our waiter arrives with a burst of energy and explains the ground rules. We have 90 minutes; there will be a 15 minute last call notice. Instead of a tip, there will be a 15% COVID-19 surcharge. My allergy is easily managed through separate order forms.
Kinkaku’s (AYCE) all-you-can-eat menu at $ 37.99 per person is the draw. It is a large format of about 100 small Japanese plates: starters, makis and rolls, sushi and sashimi, a few main dishes and desserts.
Food and drinks – mugs of peach soda ($ 4) and mango and coconut mojito ($ 9) – arrive quickly. Here you will enjoy a better than average AYCE rate. Hot food does not cool off at the counter before it lands on your table. The textures are varied: some crisp, others supple, others fleshy, others tender. The flavors are balanced.
I’m not going to describe everything, but our jumble of dishes comes in rolling, from simple bites to signature eight-piece rolls. Their chef’s suggestions and appetizers shine. Ebimayo’s plump prawns are topped with crisp, light tempura and served with a drizzle of sweet spiked mayo. Savory, with a browned shell and rich center, bonito and nori flakes and a few sauces garnish the easily nibbled octopus-sprinkled Takoyaki. The richness of the simmering grilled pork cheek slices is nicely trawled through its citrus sauce.
Here you will find good, firm slices of fish in their sushi, sashimi, rolls and maki. Sparkling slices of red snapper and albacore tuna are draped over mounds of barely warm rice; my friend’s meaty salmon sashimi is perfect. If raw fish isn’t for you, chewy tempura crumbs and just the right amount of heat dress up the sweet surimi of the Spicy Crab Hand Roll. The same sales are in their Spicy Tuna Roll.
Their signature rolls don’t disappoint. The Izakaya roll is filled with crunchy yet warm tempura shrimp, savory eel, fresh cucumber, and draped in white tuna slices and tobiko pops. The Queen of Fish Roll is a popular sweet-and-savory option with surimi and creamy avocado, topped with mango coulis and tobiko.
Fortunately full, we split the black sesame pudding – a tart-sized candy reminiscent of tofu cheesecake. But our waiter insisted that we get KitKat ice cream pallets as well. They were small. We have made room.
Another friend said that for many, venturing into once-familiar places is now done with great consideration. We are all in different places and at different stages. For those looking to dine out, places like Kinkaku Izakaya – with great food, happy, helpful staff, and a relaxed vibe – might make the decision a lot easier.
217 King Street West, Kitchener
Facebook: @ Kinkaku-Izakaya-1585103195118533
Hours: Tuesday to Thursday: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 9:50 p.m. Saturday: noon to 9:50 p.m .; Sunday: from noon to 9 p.m .; Monday: closed.
Menu: Japanese Izakaya focusing on sushi, sashimi, various rolls and entrees as well as main courses. Unlimited and à la carte menus. Some vegetarian options. Menu on the site.
Payment: Cash, debit, Mastercard, Visa
How to get your food: Drop-in and pre-ordered pickup
Dinner in: Reservations taken for groups of four or more. Hours: 75 minutes for lunch, 90 minutes for dinner; 15 minute warning given for last call. Patio: Under construction during the visit.
Delivery: Skip the dishes, Uber Eats
Accessibility: Limit. The entrance to the restaurant is at the sidewalk, but the door does not have an automatic door opener. Grapples in the toilet. Indoor tables appear to be wheelchair accessible. Most of the menus are readable. At night, some may find the lighting low and the volume high. Wide street and paid parking available a few blocks away.
The law project: $ 115.64 for two unlimited dinners, one alcoholic drink and one soft drink. Includes a 15 percent COVID supplement.
Ordering food in the time of the coronavirus: As restaurants make day-to-day decisions, please check their social networks or call them for updates. Lists of restaurants open while dining halls are closed can be found at bit.ly/3d2JV74 and wilmotstrongertogether.ca; a crowdsourced list is on Facebook’s Food In The Waterloo Region at bit.ly/3d1cKAX.