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Friday, Feb. 19, 2010
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Stellar yakitori down in Gotanda
The idea of gourmet yakitori is nothing new. There are plenty of restaurants around town where the humble art of skewering and grilling chicken has been elevated to a degree of sophistication. But you don't expect to find it in the back streets of Gotanda, just north of Shinagawa.
More seedy than downright sleazy, the block immediately to the east of the Yamanote Line tracks is lined with cheap drinking dens and massage parlors. But there are also clear signs of gentrification — and none more so than the presence of Yoshicho.
You'd never stumble on it by chance. Hidden from view on the second floor of a newish building just off Sakurada-Dori, there is little inside or out to suggest that this unpretentious restaurant, with its open kitchen, glass-enclosed grill, counter seats and three small tables, is anything out of the ordinary. It's the food and not the setting that makes it worth searching out.
Unlike many yakitori chefs whose skills are solely limited to grilling, owner-chef Kenji Yoshimoto is trained in the spectrum of traditional Japanese cuisine. He has a deftness of touch that is obvious from the outset, even in the otoshi (starter) that arrives with your first drink — perhaps a small serving of nanonhana greens with an aemono dressing lightly spiced with mustard.
Although chicken is the main event and your reason for being there, Yoshimoto has a couple of appetizers on his menu that are well worth trying. One we loved was his take on onsen-tamago (soft-coddled eggs), which he serves chilled on a gelee of rich chicken stock.
Another unusual offering is the sasami kazeboshi, strips of chicken breast meat that have been wind-dried until they have a jerky-like texture and deep orange-amber color that's almost translucent. After being gently warmed to soften it, the meat is cut into slivers for nibbling on — a brilliant accompaniment for one of the better labels of premium sake on Yoshicho's list, perhaps the Kokuryu daiginjo or Juyondai junmai-ginjo.
The yakitori is equally good. One reason for this is that Yoshimoto grills it over premium kishu bincho charcoal. But the main factor is the quality of the chicken itself. He only uses a variety of free-range fowl called shamorokku, a cross between Japanese shamo gamecocks and the U.S. Plymouth Rock breed. Bred in rural Aomori Prefecture, their meat is excellent, with a firm texture and plenty of flavor.
A good start would be to order one of Yoshimoto's yakitori set courses (¥1,500 for five skewers; ¥2,400 for eight). The five-stick set, served one item at a time, included excellent negima, juicy chunks of chicken interspersed with negi leek; a skewer of okra (each set course includes one vegetable) and sunagimo gizzards, dense but not gritty.
But the two standout items we were served were the tsukune, a long patty of ground chicken beautifully browned and perfectly cooked inside; and the kyomiso-yaki, a stick of white meat, daubed with Kyoto-style white miso and scattered artfully with poppy seeds. Equally good was the donburi rice bowl that we closed our meal with, topped with oboro (ground chicken meat) and another of those onsen-tamago eggs.
Subtlety and finesse are not words usually used in describing yakitori, but this chicken is prepared and presented with the kind of artisan care it deserves. At the same time, Yoshicho has a warm, friendly feel. No doubt this is due to the fact that the young assistant is Yoshimoto's brother and the waitress serving your sake is likely to be his mother.
Is Yoshicho the finest yakitori joint in the neighborhood? That's a very hard call, because over on the other side of Gotanda Station you will find Takahashi, another yakitoriya of rare quality.
It, too, is a small place tucked away inconspicuously on the second floor of a modern building. And it also has that personal touch that comes from a hands-on owner-chef dedicated to detail. However, the style and approach are considerably different.
For more than two decades, Yuji Takahashi had his own upscale French restaurant, La Primeur, in Setagaya Ward. But it was always his dream to run a boutique-scale yakitori counter. When he realized that ambition three years ago with the opening of the eponymous Takahashi, he carried over with him both his expertise in French cuisine and his love of wine.
One corner of the small dining room — a stripped-back space, just an L-shaped counter seating 10 around an open kitchen, plus a small table with high bar stools for six more — is occupied by a large wine refrigerator and an impressive array of stemware. The wine list is compact but well selected to match the cuisine.
Ask for a recommendation and floor manager Katsumi Sato (who also worked with Tahakashi at La Primeur) is likely to direct you to a red that is produced and bottled in France by Co^tes du Rho^ne specialist Alain Paret. It's been developed to accompany the yakitori and, once it has been opened up from its refrigerated slumber, it drinks very nicely indeed. Have the bottle opened straight away while you settle in with your appetizers and some bubbly.
From the start the accent is firmly on chicken. We opened with a serving of the excellent terrine, served with slices of baguette bread. From there we moved on to sashimi of delicate white breast meat daintily daubed with piquant wasabi. Another side dish not to miss is Takahashi's wonderful fluffy-runny omelet, prepared in classic French style rather than as Japanese tamago-yaki.
For both the chicken and the eggs, Takahashi uses a breed of gamecock from Nagano Prefecture called gitaro-shamo, which has outstanding flavor. You realize this as you eat his yakitori (his set course is ¥1,800 for five skewers). Each is lightly seasoned but the overall taste is so balanced you don't even think of reaching for the shichimi seven-spice.
This is exactly the kind of place where we'd like to settle in for long, leisurely sessions of wine and nibbling. Unfortunately that's not possible, as evenings are split into two three-hour seatings (from 5 or 8:15 p.m.). But that is plenty of time to understand why Takahashi — like Yoshicho — was awarded a star in the most recent Michelin restaurant guide.