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Friday, March 6, 2009
TOKYO FOOD FILE
One bird in the pot is worth two on the stick
It's awfully damp and chilly in winter alongside Meguro-gawa, the deep, concrete-lined creek that runs through Naka-Meguro. In summer, the cherry trees that line each bank provide blissful dappled shade, but at this time of year their boughs are bare.
Warmth and nourishment are called for: Hashidaya supplies plenty of that.
If the welcome glow from this handsome timber-clad two-story building does not lure you in, then the sight of chefs at work over a charcoal grill should do the trick. The clincher is the menu, with its promise of bubbling nabe hot pots and other fare that stokes the inner flames. Once inside, there's no guarantee you will be seated, though. Twice on impulse we entered and were (most politely) turned away. The third time we made sure to reserve well in advance.
Hashidaya's popularity lies in its setting. The interior, also done out in wood in semitraditional style, offers glimpses of the windows from every seat. The prime tables at the front gaze out directly on branches that will soon be heavy with pale-pink blossoms.
Hashidaya specializes in chicken — not any old broilers but free-range fowl from designated areas of the country. These include Nagoya kochin bantams; Hinai jidori from Akita Prefecture; and the more generic, but still excellent, russet akadori from nearby Chiba. Whether cooked up in hot pots, deep fried or grilled on sticks, there are some unusual variations on the tried-and-true recipes.
We're not interested in raw chicken unless the quality is proven. The sashimi platter at Hashidaya is worth investigating if you enjoy cuts of dark-red heart and other viscera. We chose instead the tataki, fine slices of raw breast meat with its outer skin lightly seared. There's plenty of texture (yes, it's chewy) but the flavor is great, offset by a garnish of ginger and shredded myoga buds.
Hashidaya's take on that old yakitori shop staple, tsukune, is excellent. Instead of being grilled on a stick, it is cooked as ishiyaki, directly on flat, superhot stones. The ground meat is formed into small patties that are lightly seared as rare (or not) as you want them. Like everything at the restaurant, it's simple and tasty — just the way food should be when the ingredients are good.
The menu entry for tamago-yaki (rolled omelet) offers it in two versions — okasan aji (mother's taste) or otosan aji (father's taste). The former is sweeter; the latter much more lightly so. Made from the eggs of the same breeds of premium chicken, they are fluffy, savory and delectable.
Don't miss the teba chicken-wings. Forget anything you have ever eaten in standard yakitori joints: Hashidaya's teba are small (winglets if you will), marinated in a savory-sweet sauce and quickly deep fried until they are tender. The minimum order is eight pieces. That may seem like a lot. But they're just a couple of bites each, and so juicy and lip-smacking good that they're impossible to eat enough of. You will probably wish you'd ordered 12 or even 20.
Outside of the chicken-centric main menu, there is also a daily list of produce shipped direct from the farm: new-season broad beans, whole in their pods; juicy naga-negi leeks; green asparagus; and plump shiitake mushrooms that are taken from the basket set out on the counter by the open kitchen and lightly cooked on the charcoal grill.
Portion sizes are not huge, but there's very little on the menu over ¥1,000. If you order ahead (and if there are four or more of you), Hashidaya can lay on fixed-menu set meals from ¥3,800 a head. But most people are there to nibble — this is Naka-Meguro dating territory, after all — ordering a couple of dishes at a time to go with their drinks (the usual suspects, enhanced by a couple of standout sake brands such as Denshu).
Do not linger too long — Hashidaya's popularity means you are limited to two and half hours before being asked to vacate your seat, so you should budget plenty of that time for your nabe hot pot.
There are three varieties to choose from, including a pork-based version for those looking for a change from all that chicken. We weren't: We plumped for more Hinai jidori tsukune with plenty of vegetables, cooked up at the table in a broth seasoned with white miso and thickened with viscous tororo yam. Rich, tasty, wholesome and satisfying — especially after adding rice at the end to make ojiya porridge — this was the perfect way to round off our meal and bolster us against the chill on our stroll back to the station.
If you're set on eating chicken and you can't get in at Hashidaya, you can always try your luck around the corner at Kushiwakamaru. The chances are you'll find it just as busy. The difference here, though, is that you will eventually get in, as long as you don't mind waiting.
You won't be alone. This ever-popular yakitori shop has been open nigh on 30 years now, and it's a Naka-Meguro institution. It fills up as soon as it opens, and with a line forming outside the door almost as quickly, especially on weekends.
What's the draw? Kushiwakamaru boasts all the attributes of a classic neighborhood yakitori shop. It's convivial, affordable, always busy and often filled with clamor and smoke. It's clean (but not too clean), the chicken is good (though never brilliant), they grill it over charcoal (essential for flavor), the drinks are cheap, and the service prompt (they're too busy to be chatty, though).
On top of that, the menu is far more extensive than you'd expect, with a range of simple appetizers to accompany your first beer (from ¥400) plus a remarkable selection of grilled, skewered tidbits. Alongside the standard cuts of chicken (from as little as ¥180 per stick), you will find an impressive array of vegetables, mushrooms, other kinds of meat and even seafood — where else in town serves oyster kushiyaki (grilled on skewers)?
These are some of the more unusual items we always enjoy: aigamo, juicy chunks of grilled duck (¥300); tomato chunks rolled in bacon (¥260); shiso tsukune (minced chicken rolled in green perilla leaves; ¥260); and the unmissable jaga-imo, a Hokkaido spud that is halved, grilled and stuffed with oozing salty butter (¥360).
To slake the thirst, we usually order up some chilled sake, which is served in squat cups carved out of lengths of green bamboo. The short list of regional brews includes a particular favorite, Shizengo, a Fukushima junmaishu brewed from organic rice (¥500). What more could you ask for?
An English menu? Kushiwakamaru can provide that too, although the specials of the day are not translated. And, just to prove that it goes well beyond the remit of any regular yakitoriya, you can even pay by credit card. That's remarkable.