Monday, January 17, 2011

Yakitori Tori Shin: Stickin' with Chicken

With all due respect to vegetarians, but there's something irresistible about meat cooked over an open flame. That smokey perfume that wafts from the flames, the "crackles" and "pops" from the meat as it cooks, makes the act of grilling a complete sensory experience. But despite the fact that Americans pride themselves as being the undisputed kings of charcoal, to me, its the Japanese who have truly perfected this form of cooking. Rest assured, this is nothing like your typical backyard barbecue where the finished product ends up tasting like nothing but lighter fluid. No, using only organic chicken and importing their charcoal directly from Japan, yakitori, or "grilled chicken," is something the Japanese have down to a science. Fortunately, for New Yorkers at least, there are several respectable yakitori restaurants more than capable of satisfying your craving. So after having enjoyed Yakitori Totto, it was finally time to pay a visit to yet another master yakitoriya, chef and owner Shu Ikeda, of Yakatori Tori Shin.

Nestled between the crowded storefronts of 1st Avenue on the Upper East Side, MW and I were greeted by the intoxicating aroma of grilled meat and the raucous laughter of drunk salarymen as we opened the door to Tori Shin and pushed past its curtain. Whereas some believe Tori Shin's menu is limited compared to Totto, others (myself included) see it more as an affirmation of Chef Ikeda's dedication to all things chicken. Moreover, there is perhaps no better example of this homage of the "bird" than either of the restaurant's two omakase menus (required before 9 pm). Both menus utilize all parts of the animal, including offal such as hearts, gizzards and liver in addition to the standard breast, wing and thigh. Greeted by the hostess, we asked to be seated at the U-shaped bar, allowing us to watch Chef Ikeda himself prepare our meal-- dinner and a show indeed. Seated and settled, it was as if we were transported back to Tokyo, and just like in Japan, we started with a pitcher of Sapporo Beer.

After consulting with our server, we chose the Chef's Omakase, allowing for the full Tori Shin experience. Our meal began with Pickled Daikon Radish and Japanese Cucumbers. The vegetables weren't overly pickled and still contained a pleasant snap to them, whetting our appetites as we watched and smelled cooking food.

With more savory food approaching, our server then gave us each a small bowl of Grated Daikon with a hint of Soy Sauce to act as a palate cleanser.

Next on the menu was a seasonal dish, Stewed Daikon Radish with Chicken Wings. Similar in many ways to a Cantonese daikon preparation, the radish absorbed all the flavors of the cooking liquid, transforming this simple vegetable into something much greater. The chicken wing was tender and moist,  just not how I prefer my chicken wings.

Our "amuse bouche" for the evening, consisted of what Chef Ikeda described as, "Buffalo" Chicken Wings. Though I appreciated Chef Ikeda's playful rendition of this popular bar snack, being from Western, New York, I didn't have the heart to tell him to his face, that no matter how he tried to spin it, this was NO buffalo wing. Semantics aside, the wings were delicious. Lightly fried, and coated with a sweet sesame sauce, I could easily imagine myself tucking into a dozen or so of these at my favorite izakaya back in Tokyo.

The salad course contained a combination of Kombu and Japanese Radish with a Miso-Vinegar Dressing. Although the vegetables were good, I found the dressing a bit too sweet and was began growing restless for some grilled meat.

The first skewers to arrive were Chicken Livers. I like chicken liver...but prefer it either puréed with lots of schmaltz or deep fried. Here, the livers were cooked just a moment too long, and tasted a bit dry, the least successful dish of the meal.

Next up, the Chicken Roast. Described as a tender part of meat, located behind the leg, Chef Ikeda informed us that this was a delicacy that is reserved exclusively for the omakase menus. Delicacy or not, while the roast was moist and tender, it lacked flavor and was far from my favorite skewer.

Fortunately, the Chicken Rib was more to my liking. A bit chewier, it contained much more flavor and unlike the delicate roast, the chef need not worry that the smokiness from the grill would overwhelm the meat.

Similarly, the Dark Breast Meat combined the rich flavor of the rib, with the tenderness of the roast, resulting in one of the best skewers.

Grilled Chicken Gizzards are one of my favorite parts of the bird, and these were no exception. Lightly grilled, but well seasoned, I reveled in the slightly crunchy texture of the gizzards.

The Chicken Hearts were texturally similar to the gizzards, still moist and wonderfully crunchy, and though I'm sure this texture may not suit all American sensibilities, I absolutely love how these two dishes reminded me of deep fried chicken cartilage, my favorite izakaya dish.

At this point of the meal we were served some grilled Shisito Peppers, a nice break from the meat-fest we were enjoying. The peppers were beautifully blistered, with black exteriors. Served with only a pinch of salt, the sweetness of the peppers really came through.

After the short vegetable detour, our meal resumed with more meat. The Chicken Wing arrived expertly de-boned with a crisp skin. The meat was moist and very good, but left me wishing we had a lemon or some other form of acid to help cut all the fat.

Next, I requested a skewer of Chicken Skin, always a gluttonous treat. Coming from the neck, the caramelized bits of skin added a good bit of texture to this particularly unctuous skewer, but would have benefited from some lemon.

Our second vegetable was grilled Okra, imported from Japan. Normally, unimpressed with its slimy and mushy texture, this okra was neither slimy nor mushy and was some of the best I've ever had. Covered with a sprinkling of bonito flakes, which further upped the smokey quotient, I found both of the vegetable courses to be equally as satisfying as any of the meats, considering the much needed respite from all the chicken.

The only non-chicken skewer we ordered was Pork Belly served with a Garlic Miso and Lemon. Finally, some lemon! The Pork Belly had the perfect ratio of chewy meat to luscious fat, which the acid from the lemon cut beautifully, and was so good that we immediately ordered another round.

The last skewer we ordered was the special (aka large) Chicken Meat Ball that was served with a Raw Egg. More oblong-shaped than the more common sphere, the meat ball was incredibly flavorful and juicy, so much so, that liquid leaked out after the initial bite. Mixed with a touch of soy sauce, the raw egg provided even more umami flavor.

But the real coup de grâce was our last course. Having our choice between four rice dishes, we both selected the Special Oyakodon which featured: Grilled Chicken, Egg, Onion and Nori over a bed of Rice, and because the dish wasn't gluttonous enough, was topped off with a Raw Egg. Served with a scalding hot Chicken Soup, this was an uber filling, comforting way to end our meal.

Before dessert Chef Ikuda offered us both a glass of Tea. After thanking him for an incredible meal, he gave us his business card, telling us to request him when we made future reservations.

MW received a homemade Green Tea Ice Cream. Tasting strongly of matcha, the ice cream was borderline bitter, which we both enjoyed.

I was given a homemade Shiso Sorbet, which was, as expected, much lighter. The herbaceous notes of the shiso stood out, acting as a refreshing palate cleanser of its own.

For someone like me, who usually finds chicken the most boring of options, yakitori is somewhat of a revelation. In fact, I rarely seek out a restaurant which specializes in chicken that's not deep fried. Having said that, yakitori is the exception to this rule. Somewhere in-between all the beer, smoke, and meat, I fell in love with yakitori during my time in Japan and welcome any opportunity to relive this experience. On our way out, we made it a point to personally thank Chef Ikuda again for our great meal. It's not every day that you get to watch a master in action.

Yakitori Tori Shin
1193 1st Avenue
New York, NY 10065
(212) 988-8408

To see all the pictures from this meal click HERE.

Tori Shin on Urbanspoon


  1. I'm surprised that most of the dishes are cooked, although it looks amazing though. & you are right, I do find chicken boring haha ;-) rarely eat them, unless I'm on diet by my trainer!

    The pork belly, Okra & chicken liver look yumm!

  2. Thanks Manda, contrary to the formality of most Japanese restaurants I love the laid back vibe of yakitori and izakayas.

    You know of any good places for yakitori in the Bay area? I was saving Japanese food for a future trip to L.A. Can't wait to compare Urasawa to some of the food I ate in Japan!