TOKYO, Aug 6 — In Malaysia and elsewhere in the world, Japanese restaurants are always popular as most will offer a wide variety of Japanese foods such as sushi, sashimi, tempura and udon.
Back in their country of origin, however, we’re more likely to find restaurants that each specialise in a single food. Izakayas selling street-level food such as ramen and yakitori serve nothing else, other than alcohol.
Yakitori, in particular, is considered by Japanese salarymen as the best accompaniment for copious after-work drinking. These skewers of bite-sized, charcoal-grilled chicken are made from nearly every part of the chicken, from juicy thigh meat to less commonly consumed innards.
Seasoned simply with either shio (salt) or tare (a sauce made from mirin, sake, soy sauce and sugar), yakitori is humble fare. Or is it?
These days, yakitori has been elevated to the level of gourmet cuisine and nowhere else is this truer than at Yakitori Imai. A six-minute walk from Gaien-mae station on the Tokyo Metro, we discover the yakitori specialty restaurant (or yakitori-ya) hidden in a quiet back street.
Classy and understated, Yakitori Imai has an open kitchen layout with 30 counter seats wrapped around the charcoal grill in the centre, where owner Chef Takashi Imai holds fort.
Born in 1973 in Saitama, Chef Imai first pursued an atypical Japanese career as a rock musician before joining the culinary world in his late 20s. Even then he was unconventional, abandoning a job at an upscale Japanese restaurant in favour of apprenticing at Birdland, the famous Ginza yakitori-ya before opening his own eponymous place in 2006.
As the affable Chef Imai carefully grills the skewers of chicken parts over charcoal fire, his equally friendly team busies themselves preparing the skewers or waiting on customers.
There is an easy, practised rhythm here. A calmness that everything is as it should be: from the subdued jazz music and discreet down lighting to the team’s black uniforms in contrast to their sensei’s chef’s whites.
While our skewers of yakitori and a selection of the day’s fresh vegetables are grilled, we are served an appetiser of leba pâté and a cup of soul-nourishing chicken broth.
Leba is Japanese for liver, thus named after the German word for liver (“Leber”). A generous dollop of creamy, rich chicken liver pâté on top of a crusty sourdough slice: there’s almost a smoky flavour to it, perhaps a preview of the charcoal-fuelled treats to come.
We begin our yakitori experience with a couple of slightly charred edamame (immature soybean) pods, a little taste of green before a skewer of momo (thigh meat) arrives, the tender meat grilled to perfection.
Chef Imai and his team time everything perfectly so that the next skewer is placed on the grill only after we are done with what is before us. Everything has to be served hot directly from the grill.
Jidori (literally “from the ground” in Japanese) chickens are used for their robust flavour. These are a type of domestic free-range birds fed on an all-natural vegetable-based diet, making them not unlike the chicken version of premium Kobe beef.
Yakitori Imai sources their poultry from a farm in Tamba Shinoyama as well as other highly sought after varieties such as shamo chicken.
These chickens are delivered the day they are slaughtered and are so fresh Chef Imai barely cooks some of the parts, such as the breast.
One of Yakitori Imai’s signature dishes is the isobeyaki where the breast meat is perfectly rare, seared lightly in the tataki fashion, and served with a piece of nori seaweed for wrapping. This is finger food — no utensils are used — and we just manage not to lick our fingers when we are done.
Chef Imai uses a type of white charcoal called binchotan that is popular with yakitori cooks as it doesn’t release any unpleasant odours as it burns. Made from ubame oak from Wakayama, binchotan also burns longer at a lower temperature than normal charcoal thus allowing the meat to stay juicy.
As a result, favourites such as hatsu (chicken heart) and negima (thigh meat and leek) are moist with the barest hint of char.
Not every course has to be chicken, of course. Chef Imai serves us some lightly grilled pork from Yamagata. Saturated with its own cooked juices, this piece of choice pork needs only a scattering of sea salt to complement its natural flavours. Honestly, it tastes like butter to us — a slice of porcine ambrosia.
More traditional are the tsukune or meatballs made from lightly spiced minced chicken, egg and coriander. We watch a cook deftly shaping the cylindrical patty on a pair of skewers by hand before passing it respectfully to Chef Imai.
Right before they’re removed from the grill, each tsukune is brushed with a sweet and savoury glaze.
Throughout our meal, the meat-heavy yakitori skewers are interspersed with servings of grilled vegetables to balance things out. A slice of koshin daikon (watermelon radish) is a burst of colour with its fuchsia-hued heart.
What looks like an ordinary oven-baked tomato turns out to be a complete umami bomb. Doused with olive oil and salt upon serving, the heirloom fruit tomato tastes like savoury tomato consommé held inside charred, wrinkled crimson skin.
The highlights come towards the end of our meal. While the salt-encrusted momo at the start was more than tender enough, it’s nothing compared to the succulence of a skewer of sori — the best part of the thigh — that is dipped in a sweet sauce before serving. Little wonder it’s also called the chicken oyster.
Departing again from the chicken theme (but not straying too far), we enjoy the breast, thigh, gizzard and wing of an imported French pigeon.
Each part is grilled to a different doneness in order to bring out its best side — from the almost raw breast meat to the addictive crispiness of the wing dripping with pigeon fat.
A treat for the true yakitori connoisseur is the bonpeta or chicken “tail meat” (basically the bishop’s nose). It reminds us of kawa — crispy strips of fat-laden chicken skin — albeit with a lot more fat (and flavour). Yes, sir, these dainty nubs of crunchy chicken tail fat are the very best part of the bird for us.
Other types of yakitori available include nankotsu (cartilage), leba (liver), sunagimo (gizzard), harami (diaphragm meat), engawa(ribs), kata (shoulder), fukurahagi (meat beneath the thighs).
Adventurous diners may wish to try the seseri (chicken neck) or horumon (broiled oesophagus). For something tamer, there is always the uzura no tamago or grilled quail’s egg.
The dessert menu here is rather limited. In fact, there is only one item — dorayaki (sweet adzuki bean paste filled pancakes) with caramel ice cream.
Instead of something sweet, we end our meal with cheese — yakitori style, of course. Chef Imai uses Caciocavallo (originally a type of Southern Italian stretched-curd cheese made out of ewe’s milk) from Hokkaido and grills it slowly until it develops a lovely golden crust.
We are careful as we take our first bite — the grilled cheese oozes slowly like molten lava. It’s seductive, just like great yakitori: one skewer is never enough. You always want more; we certainly do.
1F Rosa Bianca, Jingu-mae, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan
Tel: +81 3-6447-1710
Open Tue-Sat 5pm-11pm; closed Sun-Mon