A brave new Year of the Rooster has dawned — so what better way to celebrate it than by eating one? On such auspicious occasions as this, naturally, only the finest fowl will do — and it’s hard to find any that taste better than the variety known as Hinai jidori.
Japan has some 120 different kinds of chicken that are now recognized as jidori (local varieties). But few compare with the special breed from Hinai-cho, in the snow country of Akita. Reared in home-on-the-range bliss, with freedom to flap and plenty of dirt to scratch, they have a texture that reflects their healthy, outdoors environment and a flavor incomparably superior to flaccid, factory-farmed broilers.
There are plenty of places in Tokyo these days that serve these premium birds, but few have made them the central focus of their menus the way Imaiya Honten has. From humble beginnings, serving up yakitori and nabe hotpots in the back streets of Ebisu, Imaiya has expanded and now has 11 branches in Tokyo and Yokohama. The formula for its success is simple: top quality ingredients; a no-frills menu; and unpretentious settings that are always much brighter and cleaner than the average yakitori joint, but casual enough that you can sling your jacket over the back of your chair and make plenty of noise.
Having mastered the basics, Imaiya took it all to a gourmet level with three upscale restaurants called Kagetsu (“Flower Moon”), fitted out in traditional vein to invoke the tranquility of a kakureya (“hidden refuge”). Here, the full-course meals include a full range of chicken dishes, including rare cuts of sashimi — not just the usual tori-wasa (pale, white sasami meat with grated wasabi), but raw liver, gizzard and even brain. Because these Hinai jidori are in such good health, you can tuck in with full confidence that there will be no ill side affects.
With its new branch in Ebisu, Imaiya has taken the concept in another direction. Called Saryou — literally “tea pavilion” but implying a place for leisurely appreciation — its contemporary look matches the upwardly mobile aspirations of its location on the busy side street that leads from Wendy’s to the foot of Daikanyama.
Steppingstones take you across a bed of pebbles to the front door. Inside, a large, glass-fronted refrigerator display premium jizake and shochu by the entrance. The dining room has comfortable dark-wood furniture and an array of fresh oysters on ice. The serving staff sport indigo samue work tunics, but the crew in the open kitchen are dressed in crisp white. No lowly izakaya this: Saryou does yakitori for the dining-bar generation.
The oysters are evidence that there’s plenty more on the menu here besides yakitori. Further confirmation is provided by the large fish tank in the center of the kitchen, its only occupants a school of large, graceful squid. This is the main point where Saryou diverges from the Imaiya template: There is even a full-course meal (for 4,800 yen) featuring squid at every juncture, from sashimi through grills and salads to the final meshi (rice).
We were there for the chicken, of course, but our eyes were caught by the list detailing the catch of the day and its provenance. So we started our meal with a mixed plate (mori-awase) of very good, very fresh sashimi. This we paired with some sake — Jokigen yamahai junmai from Yamagata — from their excellent list of 40 brews.
The yakitori was every bit as flavorful as we were expecting, on the basis of visits to the original branch of Imaiya, just round the corner. The menu reveals that not all of it is Hinai jidori, although it’s all cooked over Bincho charcoal. With careful scrutiny and the assistance of the waiters, we homed in on all the good stuff.
Negima: morsels of breast and thigh meat, interspersed with lengths of crunchy leek, seasoned with a light sprinkle of salt. Sunagimo gizzards: chewy and firm, but not as dense and gritty as they can be in lesser places. And tebasaki: a couple of small wings, basted with a delicious tare sauce that tempts you to gnaw down to the bone — especially if you sprinkle it with shichimi seven spice. All were great, but it was the tsukune, as always at Imaiya restaurants, that was exceptional.
It’s a large patty of mincemeat, rather than the more usual small balls, slowly grilled until its surface is lightly browned, drizzled with sauce and served with a single whole egg yolk. This has to be the finest advertisement for the hens of Hinai-cho: They lay wonderful eggs. The yolk sits there proudly on the plate, like a golden shining sun, firm and with a natural sweetness that blends perfectly with the savory tare. You will want to wipe up every last drop of this smooth, rich dipping sauce.
Saryou offers several specialties available at other branches. Shio-kosho-yaki is a substantial chunk of breast grilled with a coating of salt and black pepper until the meat is tender, its outer coating crisp while still full of rich juices. They also grill a fantastic French foie gras and fillet mignon of Japanese wagyu beef. Vegetable side dishes include steamed green asparagus, and a salad of young spinach greens with bacon bits.
This is the time of year for nabe hotpots, which here are served at the table on small hibachi charcoal grills. The options are spicy kimchi-chicken nabe; Akita-style kiritanpo, a chicken hotpot filled out with substantial, tube-shaped patties of rice; or mizutaki, chicken meat on the bone (cleavered drumsticks) with vegetables and tofu, a style we are particularly partial to, especially when it’s as good as it is here.
The thick, milky-white soup that fills the cast-iron casserole is cooked down from the skin and bones of all those birds used in the earlier courses. To whet your appetite, the waiter scoops up a small cup full of this liquid for you to sip on as you wait for the nabe to cook. More than merely delicious, this nourishes and revives — the proverbial penicillin in a pot.
The tender meat falls easily from the bone; once all is eaten, the remaining soup is whisked back to the kitchen to be cooked up with delicate Inaniwa udon noodles (or rice porridge, if you prefer) in it. We left the table with stomachs full, appetites sated and bodies well fortified against the cold.
As we made our exit, a small line of people were waiting for tables. As much as the pleasure derived from eating food of good quality, it was equally satisfying to know that we had been left in peace, without being hurried. For that, and the calm, adult ambience, Saryou is certainly worth crowing about.