There are certain things you should know before coming to IGI. First, arrive early -- 5 p.m. is safest; after 6 you'll probably be in a lineup, at least on weekends (although I've heard it's like this all week). Second, reservations are possible on weekdays only. Third, tables are allotted for a maximum of two hours -- not a problem, since the service is brisk; no matter how much you order (and you will order a lot) two hours will be plenty. And fourth, don't plan on a t�te--t�te -- the noise level is so high I couldn't even tell if the sound of the several TV sets had been muted, and conversations have to be carried on at a scream. This is not the tranquil Japanese or Korean milieu you may have been used to.
That said (and televisions apart), the strikingly modern interior is attractive, with walls of natural wood and muted salmon pink, divided lengthwise with a sushi bar on one side and a dining room with handsome, solid chairs and tables on the other. Also, despite all the table-top grilling, the place is blessedly free of smoke.
The menu is a combination of Japanese specialties and Korean-style barbecue. If you choose wisely, the $28.95 Friday-to-Sunday, all-you-can eat dinner can be fun, if not exactly a cheap night out -- come hungry if you want to get your money's worth. During the week it's $25.95, with a smaller lunch selection for $16.95.
Until you get the hang of it, ordering can be confusing, even with assistance from the infinitely patient, helpful staff, mainly because of the length and variety of the menu. Trying to make choices from more than 100 items left me dithering on how to make a dent. Still, I did sample a fair cross-section, and much of what I had was good.
Among the starters and small plates, the two I loved best were the refreshing sunomono salad with octopus, and chawan mushi (which I was delighted to find, since it has disappeared from most local menus) -- a seductively soothing custard dotted with one big shrimp, a mushroom and slices of fish ball. The breading they were coated in was rigid, but the deep-fried scallops within were plump and moist, and although the shrimp in the tempura batter were pretty thin, they were also pretty good, as were crunchy strips of fried squid.
Not the gyoza though, which tasted only, and too powerfully, of onions, and the sushi I sampled were just OK. The rice was consistently dry and flavourless, and there was too much of it in relation to the other ingredients. The best one sampled was the spider roll of soft-shell crab with flying fish roe, avocado and daikon (the crabmeat in all the other rolls is imitation). The one I liked least was the Hawaii roll, in which the taste of salmon disappeared under the dessert-like sweetness of mango, pineapple and cantaloupe.
And oh yes, there is a fifth need-to-know. It isn't really all you can eat of everything, least of all the sashimi, which are limited to three pieces of each kind, for a maximum of 12 per person, and can be ordered one time only. But since sashimi are what IGI does best, they offer the biggest bang for your buck, and the pieces are so generous you may not -- if you've ordered the maximum -- be able to finish all of them (in which case be prepared to pay an extra $1 for each leftover piece). A tip; if you do end up with more than you want to eat raw, save them to cook on the grill.
I'd opt for the more expensive weekend dinner, since that's when the best sashimi I had are available: thick, dewy slabs of albacore, yellow tail and big eye tuna. Others were less satisfying: scallops that were just OK, and raw shrimp (also only on weekends) with an unappetizing, vinegary flavour. Other week-long options are salmon, red snapper, surf clam and octopus.
Each table is fitted with a grill -- use tongs to cook each item and transfer it to your plate, and then use your chopsticks for eating. Since it's all do-it-yourself cooking, your enjoyment will depend on how attentive you are -- the near paper-thin meats are done more in seconds per side. We concentrated on beef, short ribs, lamb and tongue, which were all tender and tasty, although the light marinade lacked the depth of flavour of the Korean marinades I've had elsewhere.
Other barbecue possibilities are pork, chicken, shrimp, fish fillets and squid. Among the veggies were nice fresh asparagus, slices of eggplant (less successful on the grill) and lovely enoki mushrooms. There are bottled dipping sauces on each table if you want extra flavour.
Tea is an extra $1.50 per person, but on two tries the rice tea had barely enough flavour to be identified. Oysters are often available but ours were flat, limp and, in one case, shrivelled -- also not worth the extra $1.50 each. But ice cream is included, and although it may be difficult, be sure to save room for one -- the black sesame, mango and ginger (with bits of crystallized ginger) are all wonderful.
Like most addresses on Pembina, this one is hard to find, so watch for the big A &W sign at the entrance to the strip mall. And a final need-to-know: a 10 per cent tip is included in the bill -- worth every penny, or more, for the superb service.
IGI BBQ and Sushi
1875 Pembina Hwy., 477-9909
Three and a half stars out of five