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Gallus: Torishiki spinoff is a chick of the same feather

by Robbie Swinnerton

It’s always exciting when a favorite restaurant sprouts an offshoot, especially if that restaurant is among the best of its kind in the city. And even more so when it’s such a hot table that reservations are nigh-on impossible.

But will the new spinoff complement the original, or diminish it by splitting the chef’s time and attention? And, most critically, will it be easier to book?

Making my way past the celebratory orchids on the sidewalk outside Gallus, it didn’t take long for my concerns to be allayed. After all, this snappy-looking new yakitori restaurant on Meguro’s main street has serious pedigree. It is the new sister operation to Torishiki, one of Tokyo’s holy-grail destinations for skewers of charcoal-grilled chicken.

Not that it’s a clone. How could it be without the powerful presence of owner Yoshiteru Ikegawa, the grillmeister supreme and focal point of Torishiki? Understandably, he is staying put, rather than splitting himself between the two locations, even if they are only a minute apart. Even more wisely, he’s produced a very different sort of restaurant.

He hasn’t tried to replicate the traditional one-counter setup at Torishiki, where everything revolves around him and his grill. Instead, Gallus feels modern and relaxed, with tables and chairs, knives and forks alongside the chopsticks, gleaming modern furnishings and a cool jazz soundtrack. And the grill has been relegated so far to the back you hardly know it’s there.

“There are so many great ways of cooking chicken, besides just yakitori,” Ikegawa told me last week. “My aim at Gallus is to show off much more of its potential.”

So, instead of just one chef he has brought in two. In charge of the grill is Tomohiko Abe, Ikegawa’s youthful right-hand man from Torishiki. He is working side by side with Yasunori Yamamoto, whose background is in Italian cuisine. It sounds hybrid, but it works wonderfully.

Yamamoto’s contribution is obvious from the very start of the ¥4,500 omakase (prix-fixe) seven-course menu. Far from being some dainty Japanese-style zensai starter — at Torishiki you’d get a saucer of homemade pickles — what arrives looks more like a selection of antipasti misti.

Last week our platter held five different appetizers, most of them involving chicken in some shape or form. There was rich liver pate on rusk-crisp slices of baguette; slivers of breast meat topped with slices of red onion and thick consomme jelly; sunagimo gizzards with marinated bell peppers; bonjiri (tail meat) paired with celery; and soft-cooked halves of kyō-nasu eggplant seasoned with anchovy and garlic.

Garnished with chervil and parsley and given a light drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, this was as tasty as it was attractive, proving that Gallus is not your average yakitori joint — and rather than sake or shōchū, the food goes perfectly with wine.

The list is ample and affordable, mostly French and Italian, with a smattering from the New World — the Argentinian Nina Blend made for good drinking. Most of the bottles are in the ¥5,000 to ¥6,000 range; Gallus is not the sort of place to flaunt big-ticket trophy wines.

It was only now the first yakitori arrived. Abe may not have Ikegawa’s gravitas, but he’s certainly learned his skills. He’s working with the same premium chicken, Date jidori from the uplands of Fukushima, the same top-quality Bincho charcoal and the same tare basting sauces as at Torishiki. His yakitori is as good as all but the very best.

A small soup followed; right now it’s likely to be a creamy chilled potage made from new-season sweet corn. Then a small hot dish — soft-simmered miso-nikomi chicken on my first visit; rich chikuzen-ni (root vegetables with chicken) on the second — and then another round of skewers from the grill.

But the most memorable course of all comes at the end. As a “main” dish to close the meal, there is a choice between a mildly piquant chicken curry with rice; or katsu-sando, a deep-fried breaded cutlet of chicken breast. The curry is good; the chicken katsu outstanding. Served with slices of soft white bread, a mound of shredded cabbage and some great homemade sauces on the side, this, just as much as the yakitori, could well turn out to be the Gallus signature dish.

In the course of the evening, the meal covers the gamut from Japanese to European and back to yōshoku (westernized Japanese). And it all hangs together beautifully. All my initial doubts are dispelled.

But what about that last and most important question? Don’t expect to walk in off the street, but reservations can be had without difficulty right now. That is likely to change, though, as soon as word gets out through the local media. Gallus is going to be very popular.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.