Tiny snack bar brings Japanese izakaya to the Hydrostone

In between the crowded spaces of urban Japan, you can find casual izakayas, the compact gastropub restaurants in subway stations and alleyways that serve light fare traditional menus. 

Like Irish pubs, izakayas are meeting points for casual snackers, after-work drinkers and lovers of one of Japan’s most delicious chicken dishes, kara-aghe. For the first time, Halifax has its own izakaya-style sushi spot — Chef Ami Goto’s Kitsune Food Co, tucked just inside Mother’s Pizza at 5710 Young Street.

Opened last August by Goto and her partner Eric McIntyre, Kitsune is quickly becoming the city’s best Japanese takeout spot. With locally sourced fish, freshly made items, reasonable prices and Goto’s mastery and creative flair, Kitsune is a little taste of Japan right in the Hydrostone.

Eric McIntyre and Chef Ami Goto

But Kitsune’s takeout was a long time coming. Moving to Canada in 1998, Goto worked for years at Dharma Sushi, the 32-seat restaurant on Argyle Street. She apprenticed as a chef under then-owner Hideki Yamamoto until he offered her the chance to buy Dharma in 2014.

“I said no at first,” says Goto. “But then they put it on the market, and I thought, wait a minute, it’s like home for me. I think I’m going to try it.” With McIntyre, Goto kept Dharma’s seats full for almost two years, learning the skills of preparing a large menu to loyal regulars. But with a big restaurant came bigger demands, and soon Goto and McIntyre felt like scaling back. Goto knew “in her heart and head,” she wanted something smaller, so they sold Dharma in early 2016.

Earlier, in mid-2015, Goto and friend Tyson Wachter, the head chef and owner of Mother’s Pizza, began collaborating on Full Moon Izakaya nights, a bi-monthly after-hours pop-up at Mother’s, offering a set menu that paired traditional Japanese snacks with Japanese beer and sake.

“It was a much more creative environment for me,” Goto says of the freedom to design her own dishes. When they sold Dharma, Wachter offered them a small garage-like space with an Agricola Street entrance. “It was perfect,” says McIntyre. “It was exactly what we wanted.”

With four bar seats overlooking the intimate sushi station, Kitsune offers rustic warmth and traditional Japanese items selected by Goto and McIntyre after visiting Goto’s hometown, Nagoya, Japan, for inspiration just before opening. “Kara-aghe was everywhere,” says McIntyre.

And so far, along with Goto’s unique sushi pizza, the kara-aghe is Kitsune’s standout staple, perfect to go or to have at the counter. Marinated in a spice and sake blend, boneless chicken thighs are battered and fried as juicy and flavorful pieces, served over rice with fresh local greens and Goto’s hand-prepared ponzu sauce made from essential condiments tamarin and mirin. For $9, or $8 as an appetizer, Kitsune’s kara-aghe is light, filling and totally delicious.

The same can be said for Kitsune’s gyoza. Goto’s handmade, hand-rolled traditional pork or tofu dumplings are pockets of savoury flavour in bite-sized pieces, seared slightly for a golden crunch.

“A lot of places use pre-made dumplings, and that gets me really mad,” says Goto. “I don’t want to use pre-made, and yes I have to work on it so much but that means a lot to me.” Along with the gyoza and marinades, Goto makes almost all of the sauces herself. “Taking the extra time and mind towards it, it’s just huge happiness for us,” she says. At Kitsune, less is definitely more.

Likewise, Kitsune offers 10 styles of sushi maki rolls and eight nigiri rolls, with three changing sashimi chef’s specials, which are all popular styles of rolls, like the dynamite and the dragon.

“What is culturally Japanese is sourcing ingredients locally, and that’s one thing Ami has worked really hard to do here,” observes McIntyre. Afishionado and the Fisherman’s Market are Kitsune’s two main suppliers — a choice that is less about the cost and more about the taste and authenticity.

“We have to play a little bit with sourcing ingredients because sushi isn’t always profitable, so I may pay double for tuna from Afishionado, but it’s amazing. Amazing,” she explains. “And also with the salmon for specials. We see it works and little by little we can do more and more local.”

It’s all about balance, and Kitsune prioritizes local product and affordability with menu items that hover around the $10 mark, which is Goto’s own personal budget for dining out. This stays true to the idea of izakayas while encouraging customers to come back and try all the items.

“When you go to temples and shrines in Japan, there are fox statues there. The fox, kitsune, is a symbol of business success,” she says. “And they’re also so cute!” It’s the perfect namesake for the daring yet traditional Kitsune Food Co, open daily for lunch and evenings six nights a week.