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Torikado: Elevating yakitori to an art form

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Tokyo has no shortage of yakitori restaurants. They range from funky, smoky hole-in-the-wall grills to elegant emporia serving prime skewers of the finest fowl. But there’s nowhere quite like Torikado.

At the bottom of an anonymous flight of stairs, you push through a heavy wooden door into a room with a spacious open kitchen in the center, a counter of scrubbed white cedar running along three sides. The rest is in shadow, as soot-black as the curtains that cover the rear wall.

There are no windows, but at intervals staffers enter from a second kitchen hidden in the back. Clad in white tunics and with hachimaki towels across their brows, they appear bearing drinks or dishes before retreating from sight. You could be sitting in on a kabuki drama.

There is plenty of substance to go with all this style: Torikado is the offshoot of the superb (and tantalizingly hard to book) Torishiki, considered by many the apogee of yakitori dining in the city.

Yakitori maestro Yoshiteru Ikegawa officially opened Torikado in January, 10 years after he set up shop at Torishiki. Besides acting as an overflow for his main restaurant, he sees it as a place where his apprentices can gain hands-on experience before heading off to create their own restaurants.

Though you will not see Ikegawa himself at Torikado, you are in safe hands: Kohei Onoda, the man in charge of the grill, is the son of a yakitori chef. He has also acquired Ikegawa’s intense artisan’s focus and attention to quality, his understanding of premium Bincho charcoal and the skill of pacing the meal as it unfolds.

As at Torishiki, there is only a fixed omakase tasting menu; simply let Onoda or his assistant know if there’s anything you don’t want. (Be warned, the meal includes plenty of internal organs.) Then, sit back as a succession of chicken morsels and side dishes appear.

Your appetizer plate will be a selection of raw vegetables with a miso dip, along with a selection of enzyme-rich nukazuke (rice bran pickles). It’s a great way to set your digestion up for the skewers of protein that follow.

Most of the cuts will look and taste familiar to those who have dined at Torishiki. Among the highlights are toriwasa, lightly seared breast meat with dabs of grated wasabi root; kashiwa (breast meat); kubi no kawa (skin taken from the chicken’s neck); bonjiri, the rich, fatty tail meat; and tsukune, balls of ground meat grilled to golden perfection.

Where the menu does break new ground is in the range of excellent side dishes from the kitchen. These include a lovely “salad” of smooth mashed potato on a layer of hot ground chicken, and saucers of yodare-dori, white-meat chicken doused with a piquant Sichuan-inspired dressing.

It is still early days for Torikado, but word is spreading and it soon looks set to rival its parent restaurant for popularity. But Ikegawa does plan to keep a few seats back later in the evening for drop-in customers.

Omakase (tasting menu) from ¥6,000; Japanese menu; a little English spoken. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at tokyofoodfile.com.