What better way to mark the start of this new lunar year than with yakitori? It’s the Year of the Fire Rooster, so that calls for some good skewers — prime jidori chicken, of course, carefully prepared over proper charcoal. At Yakitori Imai that’s exactly what you get, in the most stylish of settings.
Grillmaster Takashi Imai’s self-named restaurant in Jingumae opened two months ago to minimal fanfare. But for those in the know it was one of the most keenly anticipated arrivals of late 2016. Until last summer, Imai ran an intimate one-man operation in Sendagi on the other side of the city. It was the sort of insider place that was renowned as much for how hard it was to book as for the quality of the chicken.
His new place could hardly be more different. Set back from view on a quiet residential side street, it is spacious and modern, with discreet down lighting and jazz on the sound system. He has 30 seats at the long counter that runs three sides of his big open kitchen, and a bevy of black-clad waiters who move to and fro ensuring that you do not lack for food and drink.
At the outset of his career, Imai trained at Bird Land in Ginza, one of the first restaurants to elevate yakitori to a gourmet level. He follows the same model here, opening the meal with French-style chicken liver pate and pairing his skewers with craft beer and an impressive selection of natural wines (you may even find some bottles of Radikon or Philippe Bornard).
But at heart Yakitori Imai is a local restaurant, with prices to match. The basic menu, a very affordable ¥3,800, starts out with the chicken pate and a small cup of warming chicken broth. Then you get half a dozen sticks of the excellent yakitori — including Imai’s trademark isobe (rare breast meat wrapped in nori seaweed) and tsukune (minced chicken patties) — interspersed with vegetables such as daikon, carrot or onion, also grilled over charcoal. You could add a light dessert (dorayaki pancake) or a bowl of oyakodon (rice topped with a chicken omelet) and still leave with a bill for two of under ¥10,000.
But it’s really not that sort of place. You will want to linger with a nice bottle or a snifter or two of sake, and maybe investigate the a la carte options. In one corner of the menu, you’ll find a few high-end delicacies, such as French pigeon, Basque Kintoa pork or asparagus with truffle. And don’t miss the caciocavallo cheese (from Hokkaido, not Italy), which is slowly grilled until it turns a beautiful golden brown, almost oozing off its skewers and crying out for one more glass of wine.
Seats are still at a premium and best reserved (through the OpenTable booking site) well ahead of time. But later in the evening, it’s a good idea to phone (in Japanese only) to see if any places have freed up — or even drop by on the off chance. Yakitori Imai is definitely worth the detour.
Japanese menu; little English spoken. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.