The idea of upmarket yakitori — presenting premium-quality charcoal-broiled chicken in suave settings, often with fine wine and other foreign influences — is taken for granted in Tokyo these days. But nowhere else in the city is this venerable concept — the skewering and grilling of fowl — translated so dramatically and successfully into the present tense as at Izayoi.
It’s not just the cool jazz that plays on the sound system or the youthful kitchen crew with their samue work clothes and indigo kerchiefs to cover their heads. Nor is it the minimalist aesthetic — a striking monochrome roomscape in contemporary-casual dining-bar mode that is so spare and uncluttered it would feel aseptic were it not for the bright labels on the awamori bottles displayed along the counter and the rows of gently flickering oil lamps that cast warmth and life onto the end walls.
What makes Izayoi really stand out, though, is its food. The master of the house, Yukiyoshi Hara, is a kaiseki-trained chef who first established a name for himself at Konakara, a small izakaya in Tokyo’s Otsuka that enjoyed almost cult status. Despite the obscure location, aficionados would make the trek to nether Toshima Ward to sample his creative washoku dishes and extensive jizake selection.
For his new venture, opened this past September, Hara has shifted the focus of his attention from seafood to chicken and other fowl. But what remains unchanged is his inventive take on traditional themes and his insistence on using ingredients of the highest quality. Here at Izayoi (the name is a poetic reference to the night after the full moon), he has assembled a team of young chefs who understand much more about the culinary arts than merely being able to twiddle a skewer over hot coals.
Hara bases his menu around two varieties of free-range jidori chicken: Akita hinaidori; and yamato shamo gamecock from Nara. Both are exceptionally tasty birds, each with its own distinctive characteristics. Sample and compare them prepared as simple kushiyaki (basic yakitori). The yamato shamo is rich, full-textured and delectable. The hinaidori is a tad lighter in taste but so juicy and flavorful you will be forgiven for smacking your lips and grinning with delight.
But there is even better to come. Consider these combinations: Morsels of delicately grilled momo (thigh meat) of yamato shamo, skewered with a wedge of crisp, juicy pear; the same chicken paired with a whole fresh chestnut, earthy-sweet and redolent of the French mountains from where it was foraged; a bite-size chunk of sasami (tender meat from the flank) of hinaidori, topped with a single segment of mikan mandarin, still slightly tart and bursting with juice; or — more outrageous still — a cube of foie gras, grilled and lightly salted, with a wedge of soft, golden-ripe persimmon.
These are flights of decadence that are, of course, far beyond the imagination of the average yakitori joint. But then, Izayoi is much more than a kushiyaki specialist. It offers a full menu — appetizers; salads both Japanese and Western in inspiration; grilled and deep-fried dishes; nabe (hot pots); rice and noodles — and features not just chicken and other birds of the field, but also Hokkaido venison and other specialty meats.
Over the course of a couple of visits, we have worked our way through much of the menu and, so far, can unreservedly recommend the following. Each come in small servings ideal for two (or, at a stretch, three) and most are priced around the 1,000 yen level.
The otoshi appetizer, set in front of you as as soon as you sit down and get comfortable, is akadashi soup served in a bowl of deep-black lacquer, and fortified with chunks of lotus root and sato-imo yam. Its nourishing warmth quickly puts body and soul at ease.
Small sausages, prepared from the gizzard (sunagimo) of hinaidori mixed with ground pine nuts. Smooth and delicate, they come with grain mustard and a small mound of mizuna herb dressed with olive oil, salt and pepper.
A bowl of o-hitashi of watercress greens adorned with an excellent wafu dressing made from katsuo dashi and usukuchi (light) soy sauce. And fresh, wild jinenjo yam cut into white rounds, looking like banana slices but crunchy and intriguingly gelatinous, the starchy taste offset by the savory tang of shoyu.
A leg of quail (uzura) deep-fried on the bone in kara-age style, its juicy meat enrobed in a crisp coating, laid on a bed of rocket and sprinkled with a hint of garam masala. Or the breast meat of yamato shamo, prepared similarly but accented with Szechuan pepper. Both rewrite the definition of that overworked phrase “finger-licking good.”
Grilled chicken liver, still pink and rare, firm and slightly sharp, matched with a sublime apple sauce into which Hara has incorporated fine cubes of kohlrabi and just a hint of fresh cream.
Kamo-tsukune nabe, perfect cold-weather fare. Load the heaping mound of vegetables and mushrooms into the miso-flavored broth, bring to the boil, then scoop the minced duck meat into rough-shaped sumire balls and cook briefly. This is sophisticated soul food, Japanese style.
And, to round off the meal, if you don’t feel like having rice, try the pasta. It’s spaghetti, with a rich sauce of minced chicken, zucchini and deep-fried burdock root. And after eating this substantially, it is unlikely that you will need to explore the dessert listing.
Essentially, Izayoi is a place not for formal dinner but for slowly snacking. It’s food that goes equally well with beer (premium Braumeister draft); sake, of which there are 15 listed; shochu (19, including seven awamori from Okinawa); or wine (a choice of 12, mostly French or Californian, served in Riedel glasses).
So settle back nurse your drink and take your time. And while you’re at it, you may feel inspired to raise a cup in appreciation to Hara, his henchmen and the trail they are blazing in so effectively updating their time-honored tradition.