This, over the phone with Hino restaurant.
Me: Would you have a table for four people at seven o’clock this evening?
Male voice: Yeah, I guess so. (Dial tone.)
Me: Hello? Hello?
We arrive at seven. Five tables are filled, one of them with a group of eight. The besieged-looking waitress glances up at us and immediately buries her head in her order book. We wait. We wait some more. And still we wait. Chef/owner Terry Hino eventually leaves his open kitchen and approaches us.
“One hour wait. Minimum. No service for one hour.”
He then turns on his heels and walks back to his stove: the bodily equivalent of a dial tone.
Twenty pairs of eyes fix on ours. They’ve been through this, and they’ve clearly decided to wait it out. We don’t. We head to a place half a kilometre east, also on my list of restaurants to be reviewed. It’s packed. “Hello, hello, how are you? Yes, yes, certainly, there is a table upstairs for you. Please follow me.”
And we have a fine evening.
The problem with Hino, as far as I’m concerned, is Terry Hino. For close to 25 years, he’s been chef, owner, bartender, usually sole server, sometimes chatty, sometimes in a funk, usually cooking for a largely empty room, most often a one-man show.
“I work for me. Nobody wants to work, so I work for myself,” he tells us, as he hands out menus at our second visit a few weeks later. (I would suggest the help has fled.)
To be sure, the man has fans. I’ve seen them. I know some of them. This restaurant is their Cheers. They sit at the bar in front of the open kitchen and chat with the man, laugh, have a beer, a plate of food.
To be kind, Terry Hino is what you’d call a character and if you like your restaurants to be run by characters, you’ll like this place. But in the eighteen years I have known Hino Restaurant, I remain baffled by its mercurial nature. Yet I return, sometimes to confirm my bafflement, sometimes because I’m hungry and I know I can get a good meal here for a good price, and if I take a good book, I won’t notice the cheerlessness.
I certainly don’t return for the dÃ©cor. It’s not unattractive from the outside – with its smart black and grey exterior and stylized Hino sign – but inside it remains a dive. Worn black benches, tired carpet, stained ceiling, bare Formica tables with chipped edges and sticky spots, poster art. The same black Hino shirt hanging on the same grey wall. “Shabby chic” is how chef Hino describes his place. “Neglected” would be my word.
The menu – which hasn’t changed in years – is unremarkable. It’s the specials that elevate it. We always order the gyoza, pork-filled dumplings, steamed, then fried to crisp, the filling moist and well seasoned, the dipping sauce spiked with chili sauce. The hot and sour soup, whenever offered, is a winner, and there is usually a daily sushi choice, when it isn’t California rolls, worth ordering. Scallops are luscious beneath a ginger sauce, the shrimp have some flavour, the chicken kara-age are tender, crisp morsels, just greasy enough to be fun.
For lunch, a warm teriyaki beef salad served over bouncy greens hits the spot. At dinner, the steak with brandy peppercorn sauce is perfectly cooked, the meat crusted, rare and yielding, the sauce balanced. Salmon is fresh and nicely underdone, bathed in a wine sauce studded with capers, and the miso curries with their French-flourishes and Japanese-finishings are reliably tasty.
There is usually a decent cheesecake on offer, or a slice of chocolate cake, and always banana fritters with ice cream, sometimes in a cinnamon dusted orange sauce, sometimes less interestingly on their own.
The wine list remains pitiable – French plonk, white or red, full stop. Better to order a Japanese beer.
So the food at Hino is pretty good and the prices are in line. But whatever you may think about eating his food, it’s nothing compared to what’s eating Hino.
When and if Terry Hino decides to bury himself in his kitchen and stay there, hire some staff (God help them) to take phone calls and welcome folk (all folk) with some grace and civility, I will be back.