De Gustibus: The Bird’s the Word

By Mark Rinaldi

lIf you’ve never had occasion to enjoy the marvel that is Japanese yakitori, I’ll break it down for you: wooden sticks are stuck through bits of chicken, and then those bits are grilled over coals. Simple, right?

Not so fast–there’s a bit more to authentic yakitori. The grilling medium absolutely must be binchōtan, a slow-burning, low-smoke charcoal made from oak (specifically Quercus phillyraeoides, for those dendrologists among us) the gentle embers of which impart a flavorful char to poultry and vegetables. After their time on the fire, skewers must be glazed with tare, a sweet-and-salty reduction made from rice wine, soy sauce and chicken stock. A procession of condiments also accompanies these bites of fowl–some sweet, some sour, some funky and some incendiary.

If this brief description has piqued your interest, you should consider yourself quite fortunate that the Rockefeller campus finds itself a mere two-block jaunt from the best yakitori in the city, served by the ablest of hands across the dimly-lit bar at Torishin. The atmosphere at this reservations-only spot is convivial and focused, with diners who are otherwise embroiled in excited conversation occasionally eliciting “oohs” and “aahs” whenever a chef reaches over the counter to present them with a glistening, steaming skewer. The noise level is never deafening, but you should not expect to really get any reading done there, either. Adult beverages flow freely, with a requisite selection of Japanese beers (the perfect accompaniment to yakitori) and an ever-evolving selection of sake and shōchū – the latter being a spirit made from a variety of starches ranging from Japanese sweet potatoes to barley. On school nights you can opt for their exceptional green tea (and save yourself a few dollars in the process).

Menu selections are best left up to the chef by way of $50 and $55 omakase – or “chef’s choice” – options. These guarantee you a healthy portion of all-organic poultry skewers, along with two or three vegetables. The more expensive option also features a seasonal dish and a small bowl of brothy, tea-soaked rice called chazuke to round out the meal. Both options also include refreshingly cold, homemade pickles and a palate-cleanser of grated daikon radish in broth (dashi) made from dried skipjack tuna.

The meat skewers themselves are succulent, tender revelations, with immediate stand-outs being a tightly packed row of rib meat, a trio of supple and vaguely cartilaginous meatballs called tsukune, and the juiciest chicken wing I have ever experienced in my entire life. So juicy, in fact, that my schmaltz-soaked shirt required subsequent dry cleaning. It was worth it.

More unique offerings abound as well – humble breast meat, stuffed with preserved plum (umeboshi) and swaddled in shiso leaf, takes on a new and graceful countenance. The “oyster,” an often-forgotten morsel of tender flesh hidden at the base of the thigh, here is ushered into undying light. Even regular-old thigh meat is reborn through the intercession of a modest dab of yuzukoshō, a caustically savory relish of chilies and Asian citrus that wavers one notch below potential weaponization. It begs to be experienced.

If you have an adventurous palate or friends who like to dare

you to eat strange things, Torishin can take you places you never thought you’d go. Crispy chicken skin happily flies solo; hearts are fresh and snappy and livers are smooth and rich. Even the gristle of the knee joint – a part of the chicken that I had never even con- sidered as edible – provides a satisfying half-crunch that will in- cite your carnivorous guilt as much as your satisfaction. I would definitely avoid the kidney, though; it’s gamier than a Pac-Man machine.

The only warning I should offer about Torishin’s hospitality is toward vegetarians, including my fiancé: there is possibly not a single item on their menu that is devoid of any form of flesh. I suppose that, if asked nicely, the chefs would be willing to forego the sacramental bath in tare for a few sticks of veggies, opting instead to anoint them with sea salt or lemon. But the risk of having one’s shishito peppers or enokitake mushrooms dipped into a meaty sauce or a fishy broth is just too high. It is better to steer clear.

Vegetarians, don’t despair—I will deal with your needs in a later issue, I promise.

Torishin’s price point forbids habitual visits for most of us–I have indulged on birthdays, and when I’ve had a particularly frustrating day at work. But their elevation of the common domestic fowl, to an almost sanctified level, warrants at least an encounter. This is less of a restaurant and more of a temple, where chef’s knives dance in a ballet of deft fabrication and ruddy coals smolder in ceaseless patience. And the chicken is really, really good.

October 2013