Food & Drink

Yakitori Souten: The artful power of organic collaboration

by Melissa Uchiyama

Contributing Writer

While much of the world seeks a return to clean living, pesticide-free produce, free-range poultry and meat, Teruaki Nakamata, of Yakitori Souten, is already there, preparing and serving la creme de la creme — jidori chicken — for nearly 15 years.

In order for a chicken to qualify as Japan Agricultural Standard- (JAS) certified jidori, the birds, which are a cross between a native Japanese breed and an imported commercial breed, must have at least a 50 percent native bloodline. Free-range, organic and free of growth hormones, only 1 percent of Japan’s domestic chicken market meets the strict JAS requirements. Far less is expected from meigaradori (commercial broilers).

Souten’s three main jidori hail from Kochi, Iwate and Oita prefectures, the latter famous for its Toyono-shamo breed. Souten’s menu also includes organic French capon from Kagoshima Prefecture.

“I can eat other chicken, but I don’t feel good about it,” Nakamata’s wife, Sakiko Kubota, translates for him. She later elaborates: “He is proud of the farms we work with — how they take care of their chicks, the environment, their way of thinking and their heart.” Altogether, on the hunt for optimal sourcing, Nakamata visited more than 20 chicken farms.

Even today, Nakamata takes twice-yearly trips to see jidori feasting on clover and, in the summer, wild gōya (bitter melon). In such an environment, jidori develop greater muscle tone, a potential drawback from a culinary standpoint, but one more than compensated for by the resulting stronger flavor. With his trademark high-intensity heat, Nakamata coaxes out and locks-in umami over a 200-degree Celsius — sometimes up to 400 — fire. Grilling each skewer only takes one or two minutes.

The rapturous scent of binchōtan charcoal fills the space, heat lapping at various cuts of chicken, duck and tarragon-sprinkled guinea fowl. Nakamata’s yakitori skewers have singed corners, skin stretched taut, little pillows of explosive flavor seasoned with sunny yuzu-koshō (a paste of yuzu citrus and chili pepper) or raw black pepper. There is nothing timid or perfunctory.

“He is an entertainer,” Kubota says. In his five years working at Ramura Izakaya — learning soba, tempura and sashimi-making skills — it was the smoldering, performative world of yakitori that drew him in. Nakamata’s next stint at a yakitori restaurant was just long enough to cement his drive to try his own hand at it.

Watching Nakamata direct steady puffs of smoke and steam, interspersed with flashes of salt, brings to mind the commencement of a sumo match. The best spot is right in front and, beyond the showmanship, there is an air of purity in each ingredient.

Pairing craft sake and nihonshu with his cuisine is also a thrilling challenge. “Yakitori should be good for sake, and sake should be good for yakitori,” Nakamata says. This drive, along with Souten’s simpatico with its main three sake and nihonshu distillers, in Gifu, Hiroshima and Nagano prefectures, have pushed each maker to raise the “pairing bar.”

“We visit each other,” Nakamata says, explaining how they re-adjust to bring out each other’s best.

Ultimately, Nakamata’s vision for Souten is simple and exciting: Source the best of Japan in terms of health and taste. Set up shop in a low-key area famous for nihonshu and serve food in custom-made pottery. Create a lasting entity, crank the heat and go from there.

Since 2015, Souten has consistently earned Michelin’s Bib Gourmand award. In addition to this triumph in Otsuka, there is Nakamata’s Roppongi restaurant, Ichiuji, which opened November 2018.

“The first 15 years have been input, in terms of learning. The next 15 years will be output,” he says. These are thrilling words for anyone who has already delighted in Souten. At its heart, yakitori is for every person, though it is, under Nakamata’s steady hand at the helm of his grill, a treat and a testament to the artful power of organic collaboration.

Minamiotsuka 3-39-13, Toshima-ku, Tokyo 170-0005; 03-5944-8105; yakitorisouten.com; open Tue.-Fri. 5:30-11 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 5-11 p.m.; closed Mon.; course menus from ¥3,500; nonsmoking; major credit cards