Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Yakitori Totto: Food Just Tastes Better on a Stick

One of the foods I miss most from my time in Tokyo is yakitori. The Japanese word, "yaki" means grilled, and there are thousands of these tiny smoke-filled huts grilling just about everything you would want to eat across the country. But where should a New Yorker turn to when they crave yakitori? Perhaps the Japan-centric East Village or Lower East Side? Nope, contrary to what one might believe, I think that a small restaurant in Midtown West serves some of the best yakitori in all of New York. I'm talking about Yakitori Totto, a restaurant visited by the likes of Thomas Keller and Anthony Bourdain. But Yakitori Totto has been on my radar long before these ringing endorsements.

Wanting to go early before they ran out of popular items, I finally found the perfect opportunity after returning from a Braves/Mets game at Citi Field. The restaurant opens its door for dinner at 5:30 p.m. and I would suggest you get there quickly to put your name down. In our case, MW and I arrived a mere 15 minutes after opening only to discover an hour wait. We decided to put our names down and give the hostess our phone number while we grabbed a drink or two from a nearby bar.

Our patience was rewarded with delicious food.

By the time my phone rang we were finishing up our last two Sam Adams Summer Ales and quickly made it back to Totto. As with any sushi restaurant I prefer to sit at the bar when I eat yakitori, allowing me to see all of the grilling action close up. Luckily, we were led to two seats at the corner of the bar and close to the grill. We were greeted by the smell of smoke and the hissing sounds of meats being grilled; an amuse bouche for your senses! We ordered two Sapporo drafts and began ordering whatever looked good.

Before each seat was a tray of condiments. There was your usual suspects, salt, pepper and soy sauce but also a bowl of togarashi, or a Japanese pepper blend. There was also a tall cup for your discarded skewers.

We began with my favorite drinking food of all time, Tako Wasa. I know this will come as blasphemy to fellow Western New Yorkers who argue that the Buffalo chicken wing is the quintessential beer food, but I've love the slightly chewy, spicy and salty combination of this dish. I was introduced to this dish consisting of raw octopus marinated in a wasabi sauce by a Japanese friend and order it almost every time I see it on a menu.

Knowing we were about to enjoy a meat buffet, MW and I decided to order some rabbit food in the form of Totto's Salad. This irony of ordering this "salad" was the fact that it was topped with large slices of chicken breast. Regardless, the mixture of greens and tomato topped with a shiso dressing was incredibly refreshing.

Another round of beers were ordered, and our meat bonanza commenced. First up was the Momo, or chicken thigh. Simply seasoned with salt and pepper the chicken thigh was super moist and actually tasted like chicken.

The next thing we ordered was the Sunagimo, or chicken gizzard. The first time I ever had a grilled chicken gizzard was at a BBQ thrown by MW's friends, and I've been hooked ever since. I love the chewy texture and rich flavor of chicken gizzards, and these were no exception.

The Chicken Oyster, described as a rare part of the chicken thigh was the next item we ordered. The chicken oyster had less flavor than the thigh but was more tender and moist.

I've long been a fan of chicken cartilage, deep fried being my preferred preparation method, but I wanted to try both of the grilled options at Yakitori Totto. The Nankatsu, or soft bone was triangular in shape and was quite sharp. It still retained a pleasant crunch and was well seasoned, even if it did not have a strong flavor.

The second type of chicken cartilage was the Hiza Nankatsu, or soft knee bone. Compared to the soft bone, the soft knee bone had more flavor, provided by a layer of fat surrounding it. It was also crunchier. Of the two types, MW and I preferred the soft knee bone over the soft bone.

The Mune, or chicken breast was enhanced by the addition of freshly grated wasabi that we dabbed on each piece of juicy meat.

Of all the skewers we ate that evening, the most gluttonous was the Kawa. Rolls of chicken skin, seasoned with salt and cooked until it developed a nice caramelized exterior, was spritzed with some lemon and was happily devoured.

To finish our chicken skewers, MW and I chose two types of Tsukune, or chicken meatballs: a salt-flavored one came with a raw egg dipping sauce and a shiso-flavored one. Instead of your typical round shaped meatball the tsukune are oblong shaped and were both very moist and full of flavor. The raw egg dipping sauce wasn't a hit with MW (most Americans probably wouldn't like it either), but it was another amazing thing I was introduced to by my Japanese friends. The egg helped tame some of the salinity in the meatball, while the shiso flavor was prominent in the other.

Next, we had two preparations of pork belly. The Kurobuta Karashi Lemon was grilled organic Kurobuta pork belly served with lemon and mustard. The fatty pork belly was nicely crisped, balanced by the acid from the lemon and bite from the mustard.

But it was the Kurobuta Nebi Pon, or organic Kurobuta pork belly with ponzu and scallion that was our favorite. The scallion and ponzu was mixed in a complex dashi that complimented the flavor of the pork belly.

The only beef we ate was the Harami, or skirt steak. Coated with a sweet sauce, pieces of medium rare skirt steak were combined with grilled pepper and onion and was surprisingly amazing.

We had two vegetable skewers that were wrapped up with strips of smokey, flavored bacon. The first skewer was Asparagus Bacon, no translation needed. Sweet, crunchy asparagus combined with smokey crisp bacon for another favorite.

The Enoki Bacon, segments of enoki mushrooms wrapped with bacon tasted a little off. MW commented on how the mushrooms had a slight chemical taste and may have benefited from a more thorough washing.

MW and I ended with seafood. Upon being seated we noticed some huge prawns being grilled and knew we had to order them. The Kuruma Ebi was a large prawn simply grilled, allowing you to enjoy the natural sweetness of these shrimp. The prawns were served with the heads still attached, which I appreciated and allowed me to suck out the brains.

The final two skewers were Hotate, or sea scallops. The first preparation was with soy sauce and was slightly overcooked, tasting a bit rubbery. But the second preparation, seasoned with salt and pepper, easily overshadowed the first. MW and I loved how the freshly cracked pepper meshed with the sweet, plump scallops.

Four more beers, many used skewers and an hour and a half later MW and I exited Yakitori Totto reeking of smoke. Totally satisfied, I understand completely why this place fills up so quickly and why some of the best chefs in the U.S. speak so highly of this Midtown restaurant.

Yakitori Totto
251 West 55th Street
New York, NY 10019
(212) 245-4555


To see all our pics, please click the flickr link.

Yakitori Totto on Urbanspoon

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