Nejibee Izakaya may be the newest addition to Toronto's ever expanding izakaya scene, but this import direct from Japan is well known across thirty already established Tokyo locations for its regionally specific brand of Hida-Takayama styled pub food.
Owner and chef, Atsushi Iwabuchi, lays the ground work for expansion with this first international outpost that aims to replicate the same lively, vibrant and authentic Japanese tavern experience. The biggest difference? Perhaps that here, the 45-seat dining room is already spacious by Japan standards, not to mention ambitious plans to add 1600 square feet next door and a patio sometime this summer.
The Wellesley address is a little misleading, the entrance being accessible only from the back side on Phipps Street. Once inside, the window wrapped room feels a lot like a modern beer hall with seating options currently limited to benches at communal tables or stools at the teppanyaki bar.
The handwritten menu is only temporary but has an informal appeal that I hope they retain. As is, it reads like a checklist of things to try -- an appealing challenge considering prices range from $2.50 to $12.50 max.
Perched on a stool, I watch as Iwabuchi prepares the Keichan-Yakima ($12.50), a hearty plate of teppanyaki cooked chicken, cabbage and onion glazed with a signature house bbq sauce and garnished with chopped scallions. This must be why Nejibee dubs itself a Japanese soul food restaurant. It's comfort food all the way.
Next, the deceptively filling Nikumiso Rice Ball ($3.50), a single serving meant to be eaten by hand. For best results, just wrap in the supplied sheet of nori and pick-up to savour sweet sticky rice and highly seasoned ground pork, chili and miso paste together in each bite.
Another hearty but fun choice from the teppan is the Okonomi-Yaki ($12.50), a cabbage pancake layered with noodles, drizzled with mayo and topped with an egg, ginger and bonito flakes that dance on the smoldering plate.
The golden, twice fried, dark meat Chicken Karaage ($7.50) served with tangy Japanese mayo is a foolproof pair to pitchers of Asahi ($23.99). Or, opt for the locally made Nejibee labelled sake ($5-7) from the Ontario Spring Water Sake Company. It's atypically unpasteurized making it especially sweet, refreshing and wine-like.
For now, a quick and easy lunch menu offers filling $12 lunches between 11:30am and 2pm. Hearty dinners and a la carte snacks are available starting at 5pm. Though it seems Nejibee has yet to catch on, I can easily foresee Tokyo ex-pats and nearby condo-dwellers claiming this spot as their own.
Photos by Morris Lum