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Friday, Jan. 19, 2007


Skewered or simmered, rare birds

The evenings are long and dark. Icy winds whip through the streets. Comfort food is called for, and it pays to know where to find it. If we're in Ebisu, as often as not we head straight to Imaiya So-Honten.

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The yakitori (top) and nabe (above) at Imaiya So-Honten is prepared with premium Hinai jidori free-range chicken from Akita Prefecture. If you have to wait for a table, there are benches (below) and hot sake outside to keep you warm. ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS
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Chicken is the be-all and end-all at Imaiya -- not any old poultry, of course, but top quality Hinai jidori. Small fowl with handsome orange plumage, these birds are raised in happy, healthy, free-range conditions in Akita Prefecture, and you can certainly taste the difference.

Only specific crossbreeds of chicken, reared in designated areas of the country, are allowed to be called jidori. These days there are many restaurants and izakaya serving (or claiming to serve) the meat of these noted fowl. Imaiya itself has grown into a chain with at least 10 branches. But we still like to go back to the original shop (so-hon- ten), where it all began.

Tucked away on a narrow side street of down-market izakaya and dining bars, just north of Ebisu Station, Imaiya is immediately recognizable by the white lantern, the banner prominently displaying its name and the two benches set up for the benefit of customers who huddle hopefully outside waiting for a table to free up (it always pays to get there early or book ahead of time).

The interior is clean and bright, with plenty of wood decorating the walls. But in layout it's little different from any traditional yakitori shop: a few simple tables, one of which boasts tatami-mat seating plus a horigotatsu leg well; a counter looking in on the narrow open kitchen; and, protected behind a sheet of glass, a grill stoked with glowing Bincho charcoal, the finest in Japan.

The chefs wear white, the grill-master's status and skill with the skewers signified by a tightly wound green hachimaki headband over his brow. The waiters wear traditional indigo smocks and zori sandals. Shouts of greeting echo around the shop as customers enter, and again as your order is placed. It's almost as efficient and energized as a sushi shop.

Before launching into the yakitori, we usually order a couple of side dishes to go with that first glass of beer. A good place to start is with the toriwasa, a small bowl of raw chicken meat -- think of it as carpaccio rather than sashimi -- marinated in mildly piquant wasabi-accented soy sauce. The torikimchi is similar, but mixed with the fierier Korean pickle.

You can inspect the cuts of yakitori, already speared on their skewers, arrayed in a glass-fronted refrigerated display on top of the counter, again much like in a sushi shop. They're all listed, of course -- and here Imaiya deserves special plaudits for its English-language menu. Not only is it well-written and informative, it's far easier to read than the Japanese version. If only other restaurants could do half as well.

All the usual cuts of the chicken are represented here, from sho-niku (morsels of regular meat) and sasami (white breast meat, barely grilled and served with wasabi) to organ meats such as hatsu (heart), kawa (skin), sunagimo (gizzards) and nekku (neck meat). Be prepared: the prices given (per single stick) are considerably higher than you'd expect at a regular yakitoriya.

Three of our favorites are negima, the classic combination of succulent, lightly grilled meat and leek, seared but still crisp; tebasaki, two small wings, chewy and so tasty you need to pick them up and gnaw; and shiro-reba (liver). This latter has a smooth and creamy texture -- "It's like foie gras" says the sign on the wall, although it's not -- with scarcely a hint of bitterness, thanks in large part to the generous slathering of sweet-savory tare sauce.

There are more exotic cuts too, featuring lesser organs and innards, such as tsunagi (a tube running from the heart to the liver) or heso (an appendage of the gizzard).

The more adventurous might like to try kinkan -- here this refers not to the fruit of that name (kumquat) but egg yolk cooked till leathery on the outside yet still soft inside. And then there's always "burein" (brains -- we always thought chickens didn't have them) served raw. You wouldn't want to try this with regular broilers, but Hinai jidori are so genki (healthy) that they're considered quite safe to eat.

Everyone loves the tsukune though. It comes not as small balls, but a long, fat patty of minced meat, flecked with parsley. This is lightly grilled, then served with a whole raw yolk (from the same jidori fowl), which you mix in with that rich tare sauce to make a creamy, eggy dip. This is so good you are likely to order another on the spot.

What to drink with this? The sake list (only in Japanese) spans the whole country, but you can't go wrong matching this chicken with a local brew. The obvious contender is Akita Hinaidori, of which two grades are available (the pricier ginjo version is worth the extra). Or try the yeasty Kariho Yamahai Junmai Genshu -- though, be warned: with an alcohol content of almost 20 percent, this is not to be quaffed lightly.

There's only one way to round off the evening. Imaiya's other forte is the Akita specialty hotpot known as kiritanpo nabe. The cast-iron casserole is cooked in front of you, on top of a small earthenware shichirin burner filled with glowing charcoal. It doesn't take long to reach a simmer, and very soon you're ready to delve in.

The steaming chicken broth is lightly flavored with soy sauce. It contains chunks of chicken meat, both white and dark; tsumire, soft balls of minced meat; shimeji mushrooms; lengths of negi leek; shavings of burdock, brown and fibrous in texture; fragrant seri greens; harusame cellophane noodles; plus the eponymous kiritanpo dumplings. Made of cooked rice formed into soft tubes that have been lightly browned (traditionally this would have been around the irori grill of a farmhouse), they are starchy and satisfying. This is comfort food, Akita-style.

Designed to keep the farming folk warm through the Snow Country winter, it is every bit as effective here in the metropolis.

Ebisu Imaiya So-Honten

Location: 1-7-11 Ebisu-Nishi, Shibuya-ku
tel: (03) 5456-0255

Open: 5 p.m.-1 a.m. (Friday and the day before a national holiday 5 p.m.-3 a.m.)

Nearest station: Ebisu (JR and Hibiya lines)

How to get there: From the rotary outside Ebisu Station's north exit, cross Komazawa-dori and take the side street next to the UFJ Tokyo-Mitsubishi Bank. You will see Imaiya on the right after about 50 meters.

What works: Excellent yakitori, from top quality fowl.

What doesn't: Inevitably, you pay premium prices.

Number of seats: 58 (plus rooms for 30 on the second floor)

BGM: Relentlessly upbeat jazz.

Smoking: No restrictions

Price per head: Nabe from 2,800 yen; full meals 5,000 yen and 6,000 yen; also a la carte (figure around 3,000 yen). Otoshi table charge 400 yen; service charge 5 percent.

Drinks: Beer from 680 yen; sake from 1,000 yen; shochu from 600 yen; sours from 500 yen; wine from 600 yen/glass, 3,800 yen/ bottle.

Credit cards: Most accepted.

Language: Japanese & English menus; little English spoken.

Reservations: Highly recommended. Online reservations taken at www.imaiya.co.jp/english/reservation/reservation.html

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