Owner Chris Nguyen and head chef Rob Yu graduate from bento box drops to a beautifully presented izakaya of their own

the food at yokai izakaya
Megala Dharmapalan

Yokai Izakaya (3175 Rutherford, Woodbridge, yokaiizakaya.com) is a high-energy, contemporary restaurant and bar inspired by owner Chris Nguyen and head chef Rob Yu’s experiences across Japan. Before opening, they had been collaborating with iconic Toronto spots like Ration | Beverly and DaiLo while also launching their elusive bento box drops, a collection of unique, flavourful and intricately presented izakaya bites. Their idea was coming to life in small bursts, and now Nguyen and Yu have channelled that momentum into a space of their own.

I attended a soft launch at Yokai with a friend and was immediately transported to a welcoming, up-scale izakaya with walls adorned by custom made kitsune masks. We decided to sit up at the bar to witness the chefs in the kitchen working their magic – we’re also just very nosy people. The menu is diverse. We elected to maximize the experience with the set menu, which includes three appetizers, a choice of main and two desserts.

Our flight of appetizers started off with a crowd pleaser: west and east coast oysters with a delightfully delicate ponzu mignotte. We then transitioned to eggplant agedashi, a personal favourite of mine from a previous box drop. I was not surprised to discover that Chef Yu had further elevated the dish by adding a dash of unexpected smokiness. It remains one of my go-to dishes from Yokai.

For our main dish, our server, Thai, recommended the saikyo miso black cod. It’s something you don’t traditionally see at an izakaya, and honestly, our socks flew off. The pairing of delicate flavours with shio koji, citrus and the greens made for a balanced dish. It didn’t weigh you down, providing us with the perfect platform for the rest of our meal.

As we rounded off our dinner, the showstopper was easily the Calpico panna cotta – a playful take on the traditional dish. The balance of sweetness and sour from the citrus, along with the pleasant fizz from Calpico and crumble was incredible – and I can happily say I was ready to consume my weight in panna cottas.

The meal was a full-circle moment and beautiful reflection on where they started. As with any soft launch, there are a few areas for improvement. We were anticipating more crunch with the Godzilla shrimp, and while the Wagyu sliders were cooked perfectly, the truffle flavour really only shone with one out of the three sliders.

What makes Yokai special is the heart and purpose felt in every aspect of the restaurant: the wonderful service, the beautifully designed coasters that we were tempted to “borrow,” and the uniquely designed washrooms, each with its own theme. They’re not only taking food to a whole other level but also the washroom selfie.