JAPANESE SOUL FOOD:
IZNA DONBURI HOUSE
BY GUEST CONTRIBUTOR JONATHON BARRABALL
If I were trapped in one city and had to eat one nation’s cuisine for the rest of my life, I would not mind eating Japanese. I adore Japanese food. I love it. -Anthony Bourdain
Has it ever occurred to you that there is more to Japanese food than the refined and delicate flavours of sushi or sashimi? Does simple, soul-satisfying comfort food cometo mind (ever?) when you decide to go outto eat at a Japanese restaurant? Who knew there was such a thing as hearty, home-style Japanese cooking? Donburi, a dish consisting of meat, fish, or vegetables simmered in sauces and served atop a heaping bowl of rice is what you would most often find on the table of a Japanese home, and recently opened Izna Donburi House is putting Donburi (or ‘Don’) in the spotlight, alongside a number of other traditional comfort foods such as gyoza (Japanese dumplings or potstickers) or ramen and udon (hearty Japanese wheat noodle soups).
Long wooden tables under a canopy of dimly lit red lanterns invite you in to the warm space of Izna, where the wood panel walls are smattered with colourful art, a sort of East meets West. Here Japanese calligraphy and Banksy prints hang side by each. The open style kitchen, a reflection of chef and owner Chris Lee’s years of experience in teppanyaki restaurants, provides its own form of entertainment. At the same time it’s easy to get lost in conversation at the central communal table, dotted with steaming mugs of green tea and colourful bottles of sake. Sapporo, available on draught by the pint or schooner, is served frigid and eminently glug- able alongside the hot, savoury Japanese fare.
We started with a couple classics – gyoza and karaage. The gyoza were monstrous, lightly fried and stuffed to the point of bursting. While karaage most often involves chicken, we went for the shrimp, which was so gratifyingly crunchy it made me re- evaluate years of opting for its gastronomic cousin, tempura. The entrees soon followed, served on giant, lavish cafeteria style trays, each lined with horoscope paper – a sort of tongue-in-cheek homage to the classic place setting one might come across at one of those old school Chinese buffets. Each dish was accompanied by house made kimchi and pickled radish. The kimchi – funky fermented cabbage, both spicy and fresh-tasting – was sublime.
Choosing our mains from the voluminous menu was a bit of a challenge, but we decided to split the katsu don, tonkotsu ramen, and the okonomiyaki. The katsudon was hearty, fried pork cutlet heapedon top of rice, with egg, a tangy aioli, and a generous garnishing of scallions. The flavours all melded harmoniously into one, while the contrasting textures of the crispy pork, soft rice and creamy aioli made me almost forget there was anything else on the table. The tonkotsu ramen warmed the soul, with its rich fatty broth made from pork bones, and firm, chewy hand-stretched noodles.The real star, though, was the okonomiyaki,a self-described ‘Hiroshima style Japanese pancake’ – a layered affair with equal parts deliciousness and ludicrosity. The base was composed of crispy matchstick potatoes, onto which bacon, cabbage, and eggs were layered respectively. Describing it as something along the lines of a pancake-omelette hybrid does not do it justice, but gives something of a reference point. The layers formed a mountainous wonder atop which was a drizzle of both a rich savoury “okonomiyaki sauce” and a sharp aioli – all capped by a heaping pile of bonito flakes. It was enormous, about ten inches in diameter and six inches thick, served pre-cut into quarters. I mean, they gave us a pie lifter just to try and get at this thing. My shock quickly turned to elation as I tucked in to this delicious stack of scrumptiousness.
Izna Donburi House is a welcome reminder that there is more to Japanese food than simply stuffing yourself at just another all-you- can-eat sushi joint. This is real, handmade, heartwarming soul food. The portions are generous and the food is executed with aplomb. Come with an open mind, and you will certainly leave with a full and happy belly.
Izna Japanese Donburi House
137 King St E, Kitchener