Ranjatai: Inventive yakitori in the backstreets of Jinbocho


Special To The Japan Times

Chicken and charcoal are a classic combination: Morsels of meat carefully skewered and cooked over glowing coals until they’re tender, juicy and golden brown. Good yakitori is always a pleasure. At its very best it’s worth crossing the city for. And Ranjatai’s certainly belongs in that category.

Ranjatai is a one-minute stroll into the back streets behind the Jinbocho crossing. From the outside it looks suspiciously smart for a yakitori joint. But that is appropriate: There is a lot more going on here than just grilled chicken — no matter how good it is.

Almost 10 years have passed since owner Hideyuki Wadahama set up shop here. He honed his skills at the renowned Bird Land in Ginza, the restaurant that popularized the idea of inventive yakitori. The scale may be smaller at Ranjatai but the standards are, if anything, even higher. Wadahama’s expertise and dedication to quality are apparent throughout his ¥6,000 omakase (chef’s selection) tasting menu.

The meal opens with his signature appetizer plate featuring a cherry tomato from Asano Farm in Chiba, a couple of slices of cheese, a miniature French-style baguette baked in-house and, in the middle, a pot of what looks like a creme brulee but is actually chicken liver blended with cream and egg to the texture of a delectably rich, smooth mousse. The cheese, from Shimizu Bokujo, a dairy farm in upland Nagano Prefecture, has a bite and flavor reminiscent of good farmhouse cheddar. From these initial nibbles, you know you have ventured well beyond standard yakitori territory.

The first skewers arrive from the grill. Perfectly browned breast meat interspersed with crunchy negi (Welsh onion); dark red liver, soft to the bite and with a delicate mineral taste; quail’s eggs; gizzard served on slices of pink-tinged heirloom daikon; and sasami, the tender, white breast meat.

From Ranjatai’s earliest days, Wadahama has always served flavorful Hinai-jidori chicken from Akita Prefecture. Recently he has also begun buying from a farmer in Hyogo Prefecture who has developed a chicken that can be aged like game birds for as long as a month. This draws out a deeper level of umami, while losing nothing of the chicken’s lovely succulent texture.

Grilled slowly, the fat on the surface of the thick leg meat gains a crisp outer layer, leaving the strata of flesh underneath moist and juicy. Right now, the only other place in Tokyo you can taste this variety of chicken is at Quintessence, the Michelin three-star French restaurant in Shinagawa Ward. That Wadahama uses such high-quality meat is a measure of his standards and his ambition to keep improving his cuisine.

The meal continues with grilled seasonal vegetables, a green salad and a soup of rich chicken broth. And then, another highlight: Wadahama’s tsukune (chicken meatball) — a patty of ground chicken almost the size of a burger —has a distinct tang of cumin and other spices.

He calls this his “Jinbocho tsukune,” in reference to the spices that call to mind the numerous curry shops in this student neighborhood. Paired with a good New World wine from his capacious cellar, this is more than just top yakitori. It is excellent all-around dining.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.