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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2001
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Sticking to sophisticated yakitori
Yakitori. The term covers a multitude of chicken possibilities, ranging from smoky yatai and stand-up nomiya under the proverbial tracks all the way to plush establishments for Ginza madames where every bird on the menu is reared in free-range bliss, cooked over premium charcoal and washed down with Burgundy sploshed into oversized globes.
Bincho occupies a comfortable niche in the upper middle ground of this spectrum. It does not pretend to offer an exclusive gourmet experience, and yet it invests heavily in the old-fashioned virtues: a serene setting, victuals of fine quality and gracious attention to the minutiae of service. Indeed, it is well on its way to becoming a Tokyo institution.
You could dismiss it as a relic of another era, those earlier, less raucous times when the Roppongi back streets were still the venue for upscale (if risque) evening entertainments. Now, of course, it's turning into Patpongi (as those who know Bangkok's seediest tourist zone have named it) -- but Bincho sails on regardless, literally as well as figuratively above the fray.
The moment you slide open the unwieldy rustic door and make your way up the dimly lit stairs, you feel cocooned from the trashy nighttime circus outside. The interior is urban rustic, decorated with plenty of dark wood beams and washi paper lampshades, well worn in places and with long years of patina. The waiters wear indigo samui tunics; their female cohorts dress in rust-red kimono.
There are a number of side rooms, some with regular tables, others with tatami and leg wells set into the floor. But, as in so many Japanese establishments, the place to sit (specify when you phone in your reservation) is at the counter, which runs around three sides of the grill area.
This is the focal point of the whole restaurant. Your eyes are drawn by the arrangement of backlit isshobin sake magnums on the shelf that runs across the wall at the back, and your appetite is stimulated by the sight of the sticks of chicken cooking in front of you. Aromas, though, are noticeable by their absence. There's no smoke in the air either, as it's all sucked out of the hood in the ceiling.
Turning out perfectly cooked yakitori every time is a demanding skill, and you expect the man in charge to be some grizzled veteran with a close-cropped bozu haircut, perhaps, and hachimaki twisted round his brow. Surprisingly, though, the master of the coals here is a youngish man with a wispy beard and kinpatsu hair kept in place by a blue bandanna. But he is in total control of his craft.
Everything is grilled over Bincho charcoal (hence the name) shipped from the Kii Peninsula, which is highly rated for the even, constant heat it generates. The chickens, reared in the foothills of Mount Haruna, in Gunma Prefecture, are a crossbreed of local birds with U.S. broilers, which are thought to have better flavor than thoroughbred jidori bantams.
In short, all the elements are in place. You know you are in a place where quality counts. The only surprise is that an evening here is absolutely affordable.
The menu, bound between two bamboo sushi mats, is written in near-illegible cursive Japanese (there's also a printed English version). But it's superfluous anyway. All you need to do is order one of the set courses. The 1,500 yen course comprises six sticks of yakitori and/or grilled vegetables plus a side dish. For 2,000 yen you get a total of 10 sticks. But the best option of all is the top-of-the-line Bincho Course for 3,600 yen.
This course begins with a couple of starters -- maybe a green salad dressed with a Japanese wafu vinaigrette and a sprinkle of fine-cut shio-kombu seaweed, plus a bowl of grated daikon topped with prepared namako mushrooms. These represent your "charm" -- against the obligatory table charge of 500 yen.
Then come some side dishes, which for us consisted of slices of smoked chicken leg with cherry tomatoes, a great sakana snack to go with that first tokkuri of sake; and a bowl of delectably simmered chicken meat (tender thigh on the bone), cooked down in a rich stock with root vegetables and tofu, to be eaten with a citrus ponzu dip.
After a while the first yakitori starts to arrive, one stick at a leisurely time. In order, these will be tebasaki (wing) served with a wedge of lemon; tsukune, a long kebab of tasty minced meat cooked just so, right to the core, and daubed with just the right amount of rich tare sauce; and morsels of salted kubi-no-niku (the folds from the front of the bird's neck), firm in texture but still very edible.
For a change of pace you then have a choice of vegetable: skewers of plump shiitake; asparagus spears; small green shishito peppers; or bright, jewel-like ginkgo "nuts." Then the last two servings of chicken, which are most people's favorites. Tender chunks of momo-niku (upper leg), anointed with tare; and delicate sasami (breast meat), beautifully medium-rare, white on the outside, slightly pink inside, accented with a few dabs of either bainiku (pickled plum paste) or wasabi horseradish.
These are all served slowly, giving you plenty of time to relax, chat and sip on your sake. Although the excellent list of jizake is scarcely readable, you can ask for suggestions. But you can do a lot worse than order the atsukan Yoshinosugi taruzake. Warm and aromatic with the underflavor of the cedar wood vat, it makes a fine counterpoint to the charcoal accents of the chicken.
Further yakitori and side dishes can be ordered a la carte, should you still be less than satisfied. At this time of year, an intriguing seasonal specialty is yurine no hoiru-yaki. White segments of lily root are cooked over the grill, wrapped in foil and given a topping of melted butter. They look like little ears of pasta, but their flavor lies somewhere between sweet chestnuts and the starchiness of jacket-roasted spuds.
When you are finished with your chicken (and sake), the rice course arrives. In our case, this comprised tori soboro gohan -- white rice topped with a seasoned mince of chicken flavored with shoyu, sake and sugar, plus a raw quail egg -- along with a bowl of steaming chicken soup so thick and savory it could almost be kosher penicillin.
Finally, to round things off, they give you a cup of nut-brown hojicha tea and a scoop of frozen strawberry yogurt. It is a little touch, but it sums up the spirit of gentility that pervades an evening at Bincho.