If you’ve had yakitori, you know what a treat it can be. Grilled (yaki) skewers of chicken (tori) basted in a savory-sweet sauce or salted (shio) just so. Most yakitori places, at least in the New York City area, are drinking houses first and eateries second. Places like Kenka or Yakitori Taisho (and sister Oh! Taisho) or Village Yokocho. It’s telling that all 4 of those places are within a one block radius and all are within a few minutes walk from most of the NYU dorms. These are places to share pitchers of beer and simple food on the cheap. Patrons sit in cramped spaces that are energetic if not downright eat-splittingly loud.
There are, of course, yakitoriya (“ya” is the designation to denote a shop) that aspire to something more than cheap suds and a cheaper grilled menu. Yakitori Totto stands out as a bastion of calm sitting above West 55th Street just off 8th Avenue a few blocks north of bustling Times Square. Walking into their dining room you’re transported to Tokyo without the airfare. Their menu is stellar and their staff attentive. If you’re lucky and a party of 4-6, get one of the semi-private rooms near the front window. If you’re in a small group, sit at the bar and watch the cooks work their magic.
Another temple to grilled chicken is Tori Shin, randomly located on 1stAvenue between 64th & 65th on the Upper East Side. They took over a high-end sushi restaurant a few years ago and have never looked back. The communal seating – nearly all of the restaurant’s chairs are around the square bar where the magic happens – adds to the experience. There are just 3 tables for ‘private’ dining, but it’s much more fun to be right in front of the action.
So what exactly makes yakitori so special? Heck, what is yakitori besides “grilled chicken skewers”? Good questions.
We went to Tori Shin to find out.
It all begins with the charcoal, which is charred wood imported from Japan. It burns super hot and super long. At the end of the night the charcoals are dropped into a bucket of water to cool and then dried overnight before being used the next day.
These coals sit in narrow basins in semi-open grills.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It actually all begins with a chicken.
Step 2: Inspection
Before any work is done, the executive chef inspects every bird.
Step 3: Dress the Birds
If you go for lunch, you can sit at the counter and watch the assistant chefs prepare the birds for that night’s menu. They do this during the evening as well, but it’s not nearly so big a production. They use virtually every part.
Step 4: Prepping the Skewers
Once the meat is cut to the chef’s exacting specifications, skewers are made one at a time. This job, perhaps the most tedious, often falls to the least experienced member of the kitchen. This young man was recently hired.
Step 5: Processing the Other Parts
Parts that are not used for specific “special” skewers are ground into chicken meatballs call Tsukune. These delicious balls are marinated in the chef’s special sauce – a trade secret.
Prepared meats are stored in under-counter refrigerators to keep them fresh for that evening’s customers.
Once the skewers have been prepared an assistant takes count of the available stock to see if anything has been overlooked.
Just as they would in a sushi restaurant, the prime cuts are displayed in a refrigerated glass case. Vegetable skewers are proudly displayed on top.
Step 8: Working the Grill
Finally, the grilling can begin. It’s exacting work, making sure that the meat is properly grilled, not burnt. Each skewer is turned a minimum of 6 times. Tori Shin serves their chicken “medium”, which is essentially unheard of in Western restaurants.
Only two grills operate in the open kitchen. One by the executive chef and the other by an assistant. Having been invited to turn a skewer myself, this is very hot work. My fingers hurt – these guys do it for hours every day.
Step 9: Plating the Skewers
Skewers are plated and served to bar customers by setting them on the ledge above their seat.
Skewer facing the customer, of course.
Time to eat! But that’s Yakitori 201: The Skewers