Yakitori for gourmets: a 1-2-3 guide


There was a time when yakitori shops were hole-in-the-wall grills, often under railway tracks, where cheapness made up for the lack of sophistication and rotgut sake or rocket-fuel shochu were the libations of choice. Much has changed, though, and “upmarket yakitori” no longer seems a contradiction in terms.

No one has done more to refine the art of grilling chicken than Toshihiro Wada, the master of Bird Land. He first set up shop some 15 years ago in the back alleys of nether Asagaya, but it didn’t take long before Tokyo’s knowledgeable bird fanciers began beating a path to his door. They came, not just because Wada cooked delectable yakitori, some of the best in town, but because he brought a modern gourmet sensibility to this most traditional of cooking styles.

The decor at Bird Land was cheerful; there was no smoke in the air; jazz played on the sound system. He offered Guinness or Belgian Lambic beer to go with the food, and a wine list that ranged from basic Chilean plonk to Montrachet 1er Cru and Veuve Clicquot. And as an appetizer, he served chicken liver pate, as good as at any French bistro, with sliced baguette — it was radical, a stroke of brilliance.

A couple of years ago Wada moved Bird Land to Ginza. Apart from the location, in a basement just a stone’s throw from Sukiyabashi Crossing, little has changed. The main grill area is slightly larger, as is the wooden counter that runs along three sides of it. There are a few more tables at the back of the room, and rather more staff to attend to customers.

But the quality of the food is still paramount. Wada uses free-range Oku-Kuji shamo (gamecocks), reared in the mountains of Iwate. Their meat is tender, fragrant and so fresh you can eat it just as it is — and that is how many people choose to start their meal, with shamo sashimi, a rare delicacy complemented by a traditional shoyu-wasabi dip.

There are set meals (6,000 yen or 8,000 yen), which include a serving of the house-special liver pate; several sticks of yakitori; Wada’s legendary sansho-yaki — a fillet of breast meat, basted delicately with peppery sansho; and oyakodon, a rice bowl topped with semirunny omelet containing chunks of succulent chicken breast. Whether you wash it all down with beer, sake or a glass (or bottle) of Brunello di Montalcino, this is five-star yakitori, the standard by which all others must be judged.

Because Bird Land is so popular — every seat is full each evening — you have to be lucky (or just patient) to get in. Reservations are taken one week in advance for the table seats, and from noon on the same day for places at the counter. But, if you drop in as the first wave of customers starts to leave, around 8:30 p.m. say, you may not have to wait too long.

Bird Land, Tsukamoto Motoyama Bldg., B1, 4-2-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku; tel: (03) 5250-1081. Open: 5-9:30 p.m. (last order); closed: Sundays, Mondays and holidays. Nearest station: Ginza (Ginza, Hibiya and Marunouchi lines). Exit C-6 takes you straight into the basement housing Bird Land. English menu; some English spoken.

Bird Land may be the benchmark, but these days it’s not the only yakitoriya in town that elicits superlatives. Its closest rival — at least in terms of taste — is actually an offshoot. Grill-meister Yasuyuki Nojima worked under Wada for many years, before setting up his own place in 2000, under the name of Bird Court.

The erstwhile apprentice has, if anything, surpassed his former teacher — and he has done so in much humbler surroundings. Kita-Senju is an earthy part of the city, a former post town where the traditional ways still run deep. Up to now it has been off most people’s radar, in terms of fine eating, but the arrival of Bird Court has ushered in a new era.

Nojima’s principles closely follow those at Bird Land. He uses the same Oku-Kuji fowl, high-quality seasonings and premium Bincho charcoal from the Kii Peninsula. He makes a very fine chicken liver pate, and his wine list is no less interesting. We homed in on a fine bottle of Ribera del Duero (1997 Alion) and found it went brilliantly with everything. He also has plenty of cheaper bottles, too.

There is no full-course menu here, although a good way to try the various cuts of the chicken (skin, heart, liver, etc.) is to order the 2,100 yen set of seven sticks. But only do so after you have sampled some of the starters. Order up some sasami (sashimi of delicate chicken breast) served with a mound of rich, creamy yuba (fresh soymilk skin) pepped up with a dab of wasabi. This would go especially well with a glass of chilled sake, perhaps the Shinkame nama-oroshi, as would the oshitashi of Kyoto ama-nage togarashi (long green peppers) lightly seared and served chilled.

At lesser shops you are usually asked if you want your yakitori with salt or thick soy tare. Not here. Nojima gives the chicken a sprinkle of sea salt and coarse black pepper. It’s all the seasoning it needs, perhaps with an accent of sudachi citron.

The lightly grilled zucchini and maitake mushroom are moistened with a gentle squirt of olive oil. The sticks of sunagimo (gizzard) are firm and flavorful, with none of that customary brackishness. And Nojima’s sansho-yaki is every bit as good as at Bird Land, the skin seared almost black, the inside moist and still rare, the peppery marinade leaving your lips atingle.

But the highlight of the evening is the tsukune. The minced meat formed around the stick is extra fine, with none of those annoying crunchy bits of cartilage mixed in. The outside is gently browned, while it is still moist and pink within. And it is served with a whole yolk of a raw egg, which you break and smear over the cooked meat. It is absolutely outstanding.

At this level of quality, it is hard to say which place serves the better food. But Bird Court is smaller and still has that sense of earnest endeavor that older restaurants gradually lose as they get set in their ways. This is what gives it the edge over Bird Land. And this is why the cognoscenti feel it is entirely worthwhile taking that subway ride north to Kita-Senju. We agree entirely.

Bird Court, 3-68 Senju, Adachi-ku; tel: (03) 3881-8818. Open 5:30-11 p.m. (last order); closed Mondays and second Sunday of the month. Nearest Station: Kita-Senju (Chiyoda, Hibiya and JR lines). From the JR station walk west for one short block, turn right just after the Mizuho Bank, and Bird Court is on the right after 100 meters. No English menu; no English spoken.