Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Eiki: A remarkable stage for a young yakitori master

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

All good meals incorporate elements of theater, whether in the table setting, the waiters’ movements or the way each dish is unveiled. Dining out in Tokyo often adds an extra dimension: watching the chefs at work on your meal from a kitchen-front seat. At Eiki, the dramatic tension builds before you even slide open the front door.

The inscrutable frontage of plain, untreated timber; the traditional andon-style lantern glowing at ground level; the indigo blue noren curtain half obscuring the entrance — the complex kanji characters of the name, barely visible on that cloth, are the only indication you are in the right place.

Once inside, you find a shallow ramp leading to a second doorway. The passage through this narrow, wood-lined antechamber barely takes a couple of seconds, but it’s enough to further whet your anticipation. And then you’re there, transported from the outside world into a compact space of light and warmth and wafting aromas.

Lead man: Owner-chef Kohei Onoda, 31, hails from an impressive yakitori lineage | ROBBIE SWINNERTON
Lead man: Owner-chef Kohei Onoda, 31, hails from an impressive yakitori lineage | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

With its still-pristine cedarwood counter running three sides of the open kitchen, this is an impressive setting worthy of any high-end Tokyo restaurant. For a yakitori specialist — and that’s what Eiki offers, chicken simply cut, skewered and grilled — it verges on the sublime. But of course, as you will already have guessed, Eiki is no ordinary yakitoriya. It comes from an exalted lineage.

Owner-chef Kohei Onoda was just 30 when he opened Eiki in February last year. The son of a yakitori chef of some note in Tokyo’s suburban Denenchofu district, he had already spent much of his adult life in close proximity to the grill. To hone his skills further, he apprenticed under Yoshiteru Ikegawa, yakitori supremo at the much vaunted Torishiki in Meguro.

Before long, Ikegawa had picked him to run Torishiki’s first official offshoot, the chic, sleek and equally theatrical Torikado, where he manned the grill for two years. Now, at Eiki, Onoda is forging his own independent path. But the Ikegawa influences are evident throughout, from the style of the ceramic platters and cruets of condiments to, most obviously, the way he grills and serves his yakitori.

There’s no set menu. You give him carte blanche and he will carry on grilling and serving skewers (ranging in price from as little as ¥300 to around ¥800) throughout the evening until you’ve had your fill and you tell him to stop.

Thick cuts of chicken liver, cooked rare and served straight from the grill. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON
Thick cuts of chicken liver, cooked rare and served straight from the grill. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

While many of the cuts will be familiar to all — leg, breast and wings, for example — they will be interspersed with less common parts of the bird, such as seseri (rich, flavorful neck meat) or bonjiri (tender, fatty tail). Expect plenty of internal organs, including sunagimo (gizzards, firm but never gritty), hatsu (heart, firm and flavorful), and rebā (liver, still red and rare, with its distinctive smooth texture, lightly metallic on the tongue).

Exactly as at Torishiki, you only get one skewer of each. All are seasoned by Onoda from the pots of tare sauce, oil and shoyu lined up behind his charcoal grill. And throughout, there will be counterpoints of taste and texture: pickled vegetables to prime the palate and accompany your first drink; and various grilled vegetables, such as eggplant, small green peppers or ginkgo nuts.

The two perennial highlights of Ikegawa’s repertoire are his tamago and his atsuage. The first is a skewer with three small quail eggs, their yolks still slightly molten, encased within soft whites infused with the smoky aroma of the charcoal. The latter, two cubes of deep-fried tofu, grilled crisp and golden-brown, rich with chicken fat, topped with daikon sprouts and myoga ginger.

To close, Onoda offers rice cooked with neck meat and hamaguri clams, which is served with piping hot chicken broth that you can pour over the rice in ochazuke style. After a couple of hours (or more) of leisurely, pleasurable nibbling on protein, this makes a perfect coda to the meal.

By this point in the evening it is clear that Onoda has more than mastered his metier. As he works the charcoal grill, he keeps an eye on the entire room, greeting customers as they arrive and bantering with his regulars as they drink, making sure his two assistants are keeping their glasses full.

His yakitori is already among the best in the city. And although he has not yet matched his master, Ikegawa, time is on his side and he has a remarkable stage on which to try.

Yakitori a la carte (from ¥300; figure around ¥10,000 with drinks total); Japanese menu; little English spoken

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