Once upon a mukashi mukashi, as Japanese legend has it, a divine couple created the archipelago that became Japan. Their first child became Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun—after all, the country is known as the Land of the Rising Sun—but it was their second child, Tsukuyomi, who became the god of the moon.
And although it is true that the nation adopted the Western solar calendar in 1873, the moon still holds cultural sway over many elements that date back to days of previous lunar-based calendars. For instance, it’s the Year of the Boar, according to the Japanese zodiac.
Another example is Tsukimi, or Jugoya, a celebration honouring the autumn moon in September and October. It’s this festive occasion that serves as inspiration for the latest addition to the local izakaya chainlet Guu, which opened in the West End at 1239 Davie Street.
As Guu spokeperson Yasumi Yajima explained to the Georgia Straight, the venue offers many opportunities for moon-viewing, including a skylight above the open-plan kitchen area and a patio that can seat up to 30 diners on the approximately 525 square-foot deck.
The split-level premises (which is also recessed from and raised above the bustle of Davie Street) span 3,460 square feet, making it the largest location for the chain.
It’s the first Guu location to open since Guu Kobachi opened at 735 Denman Street seven years ago before closing in September 2018 due to redevelopment.
As Yajima explained, each of their other four Guu locations in Vancouver (plus one in Toronto) has been designed around a different concept unique to each neighbourhood.
Appropriately for this new location, snow drifted down on the restaurant’s opening night on February 11, a week after the Lunar New Year. Appropriate—and perhaps even auspicious—because the menu at this Guu will revolve around wintertime dishes.
Although the main menu shares commonalities with what’s available at other Guu locations, the unique focus of this spot is nabemono (or nabe), or Japanese hot-pot dishes with a lengthy history of popularity as snacks or comfort food.
To paraphrase an explanation from Yasumi, with Vancouver’s yearlong propensity for wet weather, why not offer respite from the constant cold and dampness?
The timing of this new emphasis is quite spot on too, as nabemono has been increasingly showing up on local menus. With Vancouver interest in broth-based Japanese cuisine at an all-time high thanks to the popularity of ramen, could the similarly broth-based nabe segue into the next Japanese culinary crossover?
If so, this lively new izakaya may boost its profile.
Guu Davie offers two types of hot pot: shabu-shabu and oden.
The onomatopoeic shabu-shabu is more in line with other Asian-style hot pots, in which ingredients are boiled in a broth-filled pot (served atop a heating plate) at the table, and is less sweet than the more well-known sukiyaki.
Served with two dipping sauces—ponzu and sesame—diners have the opportunity to select two broths from a choice of kelp, tomato, spicy miso, white cream, Japanese curry, or pork, which are served in a stylish pot with two separate sections.
Possible ingredients to add to the bubbling froth include meat (ranging from wagyu beef to lamb loin); seafood (Atlantic salmon, yellowtail, and more); vegetables noodles with tofu, daikon, zucchini, carrots, and beets; or assorted wrapped meat rolls, made with pork, mozzarella, grape tomatoes, king oyster mushrooms, or quail eggs (which all range from $12 to $15 per plate).
A different type of nabemono, which is lesser known outside Asia, is oden.
It’s a one-pot dish with items simmered in a light dashi (soup stock), which is often served at food carts or even convenience stores in Japan. Here, they’re served cooked and on individual plates, often partly immersed in broth. Broths change according to regions throughout Japan and Guu draws upon a Kyoto-style recipe with konbu and salt.
Vegetable oden options at Guu include daikon, corn, taro, deep-fried tofu, or stuffed rice cake while other classic options include chicken wings, fish cake, beef shank skewers, half-boiled egg, and more. Oden mori, priced at $11, offers a choice of five items (or leaving it up to the chef to decide).
With Guu’s progressive bent, a list of unique oden creations (from $5 to $9 per item) fills a page of the menu with a range of options, some of which incorporate Western influences.
There’s everything from a barley-fed pork cabbage roll to shiso herb–flavoured deep-fried shrimp, fish, and vegetable cake. Those who enjoy potato with cheese may be intrigued by the battered nugget potato with cheese in dashi.
Stewed avocado stuffed with crab meat and salmon roe with béchamel mayonnaise may sound like the elements of a California roll but this dish has a flavor all its own, thanks in part to the dashi subtly permeating the ingredients.
Eating a whole onion may seem unpalatable to some, but the strong flavor of the bulbous vegetable is muted after its immersion in dashi and the accompanying influences of shiitake mushrooms, kelp, and dried anchovies.
For those seeking something other than hot-pot, the menu offers many of the chainlet's izakaya dishes, including yasai (steamed vegetables with tofu and anchovy dipping sauce), Buddha-style bang-bang salad (chicken breast with quinoa, seasonal vegetables, with sesame dressing and nuts), ebi taco (a battered prawn and ground pork taco), and even Guu’s take on poutine (Japanese beef curry poutine in a hot stone bowl), not to mention a short but sweet selection of desserts.
While several local izakayas rose to popularity in the early 2000s, many have since faded or fallen away. One exception has been Guu, which has managed to not only remain standing but has continued to develop and adapt to the local market, as this latest iteration once again proves.
Will shabu-shabu and oden take off like other facets of Japanese cuisine in the past? That remains to be seen. Regardless of whether or not locals deem it as food of the gods, it’s unarguably fitting for the wintry weather as of late.