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Sunday, April 28, 2002

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Simplest of pleasures on a stick


What could be more straightforward than yakitori? All that's required is to chop up some chicken into bite-size chunks, skewer and hoist them over a grill, then season to taste and eat. Simple? Yes. Easy to do well? Obviously not, or there would be far more places of the caliber of Toriyoshi.

News photo
Yakitori is expertly grilled in the old-school tradition to mouth-watering perfection at Toriyoshi in Naka-Meguro.

You can tell straight away this is not an ordinary neighborhood yakitori joint. For a start there's no red lantern outside, no cheerful clutter of bottles and detritus, no clouds of oily smoke billowing out of the door. In fact, were it not for the sign by the door to tell you otherwise, you'd think it was a full-fledged ryoriya of some distinction because it seems so neat and tidy.

The interior is equally clean-cut, new but traditional in its simplicity. A score of basic, low-backed chairs are pulled up to the counter of smoothly scrubbed cedar wood that runs around three sides of the open kitchen work area. The dark-green walls sport minimal decoration. But this doesn't mean Toriyoshi is in any way austere or elitist, just that nothing extraneous is allowed to divert your attention and appetite from the enjoyment of your yakitori.

The kitchen staff wear white aprons slung low on their hips and indigo-spotted hachimaki cloths wound tightly round heads shaved as short as on any monk. They only serve prime Date chicken, one of the finest of the indigenous varieties, reared in free-range conditions in rural Fukushima. No need for anxieties here in the wake of recent revelations of labeling "mistakes" by food cooperatives and major trading houses. One taste assures you that this is meat of unquestionable quality, its innate flavor enhanced not by additive-laden sauces but a light sprinkling of salt and the aroma of the softly burning Wakayama bincho charcoal.

News photo

If you are fortunate, you will be seated in front of the small, glass-fronted case in which the raw ingredients are arrayed. Not only does this give you something to feast your eyes on as you wait for your meal to arrive, it also means you don't have to peer through the gloom to decipher the menu (such as it is) inscribed on wooden plaques hanging on the far wall.

But that is barely necessary if you know the vocabulary of yakitori, since Toriyoshi springs no surprises. You will not find anything exotic or cross-cultural -- no liver pa^te on baguette here -- just the standard cuts of chicken and a few simple vegetables. There are no set courses. You just order a few sticks at a time, taking into consideration that things move at the slow, steady pace of the charcoal grill.

Start with an order of tori-wasa. The delicate sasami breast meat is blanched before being cut, so the rare-pink flesh has a soft coating of white. Topped with a dab of pungent wasabi and a small mound of fine-cut kizami nori seaweed, it is as moist and subtle as the finest seafood sashimi.

The sabiyaki is much the same, but the tender white meat is lightly grilled before being anointed with wasabi. They also serve tebasaki (wings) of course, and quite outstanding tsukune (balls of smoothly minced chicken). The standard yakitori is excellent, especially paired with a separate order of negi (slim young leeks). And the liver and sunagimo gizzards have flavor so subtle that even the most skeptical will be converted.

Do not fail to try the preparation they call chochin (lantern), which consists of regular yakitori meat and pieces of liver carefully grilled, with the whole yolk of an egg dangling off the end like a strange yellow globe. Eaten in one mouthful, it is a remarkable, decadent combination -- the warm molten yolk alongside the rich, grainy liver and the juicy breast meat -- one of those flavor/texture contrasts that will linger in your memory.

There is plenty more to work your way through. At the more adventurous end of the spectrum you can sample rich hatsu (heart), chewy kawa (skin), crunchy nankotsu (cartilage) and bon, a cut taken from the tail that combines all three textures. Far more reassuring is the rich aigamo duck meat. And at this time of year they stock crisp young takenoko (bamboo shoots) as an alternative to the more usual shishito green peppers and shiitake mushrooms.

To cut any residual fattiness, you are given a bowl of grated daikon into which a quail's egg has been broken, plus a selection of lightly pickled cucumber, eggplant and daikon slices. The beer is either draft Yebisu or Sapporo lager in bottles. They stock just two sake, but they're both good -- crisp Tobikiri from Hida Takayama or the smooth, easy-drinking Ginban 50 from Toyama. And there's also shochu and (perhaps the only non-traditional item that Toriyoshi offers) a small but choice selection of wine.

To round out your meal, you have a choice of torimeshi (rice cooked with chicken); ochazuke (rice drenched in green tea); or -- by far our favorite option -- kiji-don. This latter is a rice bowl topped not actually with pheasant but tasty nuggets of chicken basted with savory shoyu-based sauce. All of the above are served with a piping-hot chicken broth soup. There are no desserts.

The best thing about Toriyoshi is that it's neither as expensive or exclusive as it sounds. At weekends, you are just as likely to find yourself sitting alongside dating couples, young lads out for a drink and a bite, or even family groups of three or four with children in tow. On weekdays, a more mainstream after-work male demographic predominates.

Since they don't take reservations, you must time your arrival right or be prepared to wait your turn outside. But this is as it should be. Because it deters the dilettantes from heading here from all across town, the result is that Toriyoshi does indeed function as a neighborhood yakitoriya -- albeit one where quality and refinement are valued over the more visceral pleasures of the many other cheaper local places.

Toriyoshi has a sister restaurant in Nishi-Azabu that serves equally fine yakitori in rather more stylish surroundings (Ryowa Bldg. B1, 4-2-6 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; [03] 3546-0466). Neither have any connection with the chain of cheap-and-cheerful izakaya of the same name specializing in tebasaki chicken.

Toriyoshi
Yajima Bldg. 1F, 2-8-6 Kami-Meguro, Meguro-ku; tel: (03) 3716-7644
Open:5-11 p.m.
Closed:Tuesdays (but best to phone and check)
Nearest stations: Naka-Meguro (Hibiya and Toyoko lines)
How to get there:Exit Naka-Meguro Station and turn right along Yamate-dori. After the new GT Town tower, turn right up the shopping street (Naka-Meguro Ginza), and then left at the first crossroads. Toriyoshi is on the left, just after the first side street (on the ground floor of an apartment building.
What works: Superb yakitori -- don't miss the chochin.
What doesn't:The lack of a full menu and no prices listed.
Number of seats: 20
Price per head:Figure around 4,000 yen (not including your drinks).
Drinks:Beer from 500 yen; sake; 500 yen; wine from 500 yen/glass, 3,000 yen/bottle.
Credit cards: None accepted -- cash only
Language:No menu; English not spoken.
Reservations: Not taken; get there early, or wait your turn.



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