Juicy chicken grilled over slow flame topped with sauces and other usual suspects, trying a proper yakitori place in Japan was unavoidable. What were pretentious and overpriced affairs back home are humble and down to earth neighborhood joints in Japan. I looked no further than one that was recommended by Anthony Bourdain and the Michelin Stars guide. And I had some raw chicken!
Toriki was a bit out of the way in the suburb neighborhood of Shinagawa. It was featured in Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and was awarded one Michelin star. After about an hour train ride and two train transfers from downtown Tokyo, Toriki was only steps away from the train station just down an alley. Gone were the towering business skyscrapers and iconic neon signs, this was the more down to earth residential district of Tokyo – definitely not a place where a typical tourist would hang out and certaintly not where a Michelin starred restaurant would usually be located.
I arrived around 5:30pm to beat the dinner rush and it worked, the restaurant was half empty when I arrived. I braved a few stares from the chef and the locals as I was ushered by the waitress, who happened to be the chef’s wife, to a counter seat so I can watch all the action. No skimpy waitresses or upscale decor here, it was quite the opposite. My seat at the bar was so squished that I didn’t have room to put down my bag. Besides the 4-5 seats at the bar, there were only 2 or 3 tables behind us. The working space where the chef and his apprentice worked was so small and so close to the electric grill that I was surprised they haven’t gone mad by now. The typical clientele seemed to be retired seniors and salarymen that were just getting off work. And then there’s me, some no name food blogger from Vancouver that was sweating like a pig
(from the heat).
Chicken Tataki. Lightly seared on the outside and raw in the middle, this was something North American izakayas could only dream of. No risk of Salmonella here as the chicken was prepared fresh by the chef every morning. It was quite chewy and tasted like tuna.
Natto (Fermented Soy Beans with Quail Egg Yolk). The chef’s recommendation was to put in some soy sauce and mix them all all together, which I did. What resulted was gooey mixture with a strong, but odd flavor from the beans.
Grilled Chicken on Skewers. The timeless classic. Alternating between tender, juicy pieces of chicken and leeks which cut into the richness, the freshness of the chicken spoke for itself – there was simply no need for fancy sauces or melted cheese.
Chicken Breast Tenderloin with Grated Japanese Radish. A slightly bland dish, this was also a little dry for my liking. Pouring a small bowl of grated Japanese Radishes was recommended to add some much needed flavoring. I still thought this dish was lacking something…
Seared Chicken Thigh Meat. This was so, so good. The chef said this was their signature dish and it was definitely worthy of that title. The skin was beautifully seared, squeezing every ounce of flavor from the skin. The meat itself was cooked medium rare to maximize taste and tenderness, again, a feat not possible in North America due to Salmonella. The chicken itself was tender and juicy, but the chef recommended me to pour the minced shallot dressing over the chicken. It elevated the taste to tenfold. How could something be so simple but tasted so good? This was easily one of the most memorable chicken dish in my lifetime.
Chicken Skins. Knowing that I was a tourist, the locals that I shared the bar with suggested (and ordered for me) Chicken Skins. The skin retracting, shrinking, and slowly turned into chips of golden brown beauty on the hot grill was quite a sight to see. When it was served, it was crispy and enhanced by bits of fat underneath. So good!
Being the elephant in the room, the chef asked me if I found out about this place from No Reservations. That ice breaker pretty much opened up a conversation between the chef, two other locals at the bar, and myself through the night. Even though their English was limited and my Japanese was almost non existent, a little help from Google Translate on our smartphones and the connection we have on the food helped us communicate. While the level of quality and style of the food was exactly what I was looking for, it was the interaction between the chef and the locals that made my experience at this cramped Michelin starred restaurant much more memorable.
Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations segment:
JAPAN™ Ratings: The average food and service quality in Japan far surpass the same we have in Vancouver, it is only appropriate that they should be rated on a different scale.