Early Wednesday dinner at Harajuku Izakaya and the warm buzz of potential flows like sake. In the newly renovated space next to Fuji Market and the Royal Bank, mixed booth, bar, and table seating is cozily spaced under the Japanese street scene worked into the interior design. Our waitress drops off two menus, the covers of which feature saucy, gadget-laden, fur boot-wearing Harajuku girls - gothic Lolitas in caricature. They guard the menu delicacies with fierce national pride and they should - the stuff's fantastic and absolutely affordable.
If Whistler's new Izakaya restaurant is unassuming, it's because the space it is in has been sitting empty for years. Owned by Whistler's Norbert Roche and chefed by the capable hands of Hidemi Ono, Harajuku is a saucy tribute to the affordable izakaya joints found all over Japan. The literal translation of izakaya is liquor store - the food served was traditionally doled out to waiting customers by store owners as a thank-you for their patronization.
"In Japan, it's the cheapest place to eat, the cheapest place to drink so it's very popular there," said front of house manager Pieter Laubscher, whose research into the subject has turned from occupational diligence to cultural fascination. "That's the idea, and the idea is to change the menu every couple of months to keep it fresh."
Izakaya restaurants serve smallish portions for sharing, many of which are available here but this being Canada, Ono has also acquiesced to North American appetites. Larger portions such as the Stone Bowls Yaki Udon ($10.50) - a beef, vegetable and udon noodle mixture seasoned with garlic and lemon - offer a little more for the non-sharing kind (or you can share and slurp, too). As one who typically gets curious about the other meals ordered at my table, I like to share so I know what I'm missing and to better prioritize for following visits. For folks like me, who prefer removing borders from their nosh, dishes like the Ebi Mayo ($8) - tempura prawns with spicy mayo served on fries or the sausage, fried aji (mackerel) ($6), whole barbequed squid ($9.50), or the potato garlic sauté ($8) are great for splitting.
"We tried to combine traditional Japanese food and a lot of customers are Canadians and local people so we're trying not to go super over the top, some Japanese foods might not be accepted," said chef Ono of his menu. "It's fusion, a little bit modified but not something that an ordinary sushi restaurant would make, we're trying to do something different."
While some of the dishes won't be found anywhere else in Whistler, Harajuku does a few mainstream Japanese chews to perfection. Ono included four sushi rolls on the menu along with the best nori-sprinkled agedashi tofu ($6) I've ever had the chance of meeting. Currently the only place in Whistler to serve Sapporo on tap, Harajuku has a drink list that can placate the thirstiest palate, which is only appropriate given the historical progress of this style of restaurant. For frozen sweets, the sake margarita ($5.75) with mint flecks is smooth and gentle for those who prefer to avoid the hard-hitting dose of tequila so often associated with that drink (though it's in there!). This is where Laubscher shines, mixing and concocting at the bar while entertaining patrons with tales spun from his South African upbringing and many years wandering the European continent. His signature cocktails include the eponymous Harajuku Girl, the Tokyo Sidecar and the Yuzu Julep (all $10). If shooters are top order of the evening one can easily sidestep the traditional (yo, bro) Jager-bomb in favour of house specialties -sake bomb, shcochu bomb and the more grown up Dr. Shochu bomb. But if you can't live without the jager bomb, it's there too.
Whistler has been waiting for this. A frank, direct approach to food and booze with a price point that makes going out for dinner easy.