Monday, December 3, 2012

Japan times - part 11: Bourdain recommends Toriki

Earlier this year I spent two-and-a-half weeks in Japan, eating and drinking my way through a destination I've wanted to visit for more than a decade. This is the eleventh of several posts of foodbooze and sights in Japan.

I didn't do much or enough food research for the trip; my reasoning being that almost all Japanese eateries are highly decent at the very least.

I did, however, watch a few Tokyo episodes of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations which highlighted, among other places, Omoide Yokocho or Piss Alley and a yakitori restaurant a bit out of the way in the Shinagawa region of south-east Tokyo.

Main street in Hatanodai, Tokyo, Japan
Guided by our thoroughly-used train and metro map, we found the suburb of Hatanodai through the maze of train lines. We were barely out of the relatively quiet station before I spotted the kanji characters of Toriki, translating to 'bird (or chicken) tree'.

Aside from the glee of finding one of Bourdain's Tokyo yakitori favourites so easily, being out of the city hustle and bustle of Shinjuku and Ginza for a night was a pleasing change.

Aihara-san with his knife and a whole raw chicken
Standing in the alleyway, we peered past the sliding doors into a tiny but packed restaurant when a woman came out and asked if we had a reservation. We responded negatively, and I forget exactly what ensued, but were offered two very squishy seats at the counter, right in front of the chef Aihara-san.

We were two of seven diners sitting at the counter which was really probably designed for five. The rest of the compact restaurant comprised three or four tables, and a private room that hosted a larger table for about eight.

English menus were on hand, but the hostess could speak a little English and so too the chef. This became apparent after we'd ordered beers, when he asked us something in Japanese - the only part of the question I caught was "Bourdain".

Laughing, I nodded, which is when his rather good English started coming out in completely tourist-appropriate fashion. This set the scene for the night, where the chef would chat enthusiastically and entertainingly in a mix of Japanese and English (for us) to the counter diners, some of who were clearly regular customers.

Natto - fermented soy beans with quail egg yolk
A small bowl of natto fermented soy beans arrived before each of us, unprompted. Natto is one of those things that people love or hate (it's been likened to our Aussie Vegemite) and I relished my first moment faced with the gooey, goopy, stringy textured soy beans.

Toriki serves its natto with a raw quail egg yolk and finely diced shallots, while Aihara-san recommends stirring in a small amount of soy sauce. I didn't find the aroma of the natto all that bad - perhaps masked by the smell of grilling chicken - and overall it wasn't too bad other than a slightly bitter aftertaste.

Asazuke - Pickled vegetables
Along with the natto, we received a bowl of chicken broth with cabbage and daikon. I'm positive that it was the sweetest chicken broth that I'll ever taste in my life; so we certainly know where all the chicken bones from the restaurant end up.

We got our vegetable fix via a variety of asazuke salt pickles: crisp cuts of cucumber, carrot, daikon, celery and capsicum that are made for eating with beer.

Tofu with shallots and bonito flakes
Eating tofu in Japan is an experience in itself. A picture of purity and subtlety, the soy beans and even the water of the bean curd can be tasted in a mouthful.

The brick of tofu at Toriki was served in a traditional fashion: cold in a pool of soy, topped with diced shallots, thin katsuobushi dried bonito flakes and a blob of finely grated ginger, making for a very clean tasting appetiser.

Chicken on the grill
It was certainly a few degrees warmer sitting at the counter watching the grill than other parts of the squishy restaurant. The best part was our prime view of chef Aihara, who handled all the raw and cooked chicken himself.

Preparing whole chickens to order, he would pull the unbelievably large birds out from a fridge beneath his work space, like a magician, and weave his chicken chopping magic with a small, thick-bladed, rustic looking knife.

Chicken breasts would be freed from the carcass in moments, the tenderloin separated with a pull. Bones were chopped with a crack of the knife, and all the while Aihara-san laughed and chatted with his customers.

Negima - grilled chicken and leek skewers
The classic negima grilled chicken and leek were skewered to order, using what seemed like miscellaneous cuts from a tray. In fact, these pieces were mostly breast and some thigh bits that seemed to have no official place on the menu.

Grilled simply in shio salt yakitori style, the tenderness and sweetness of the chicken meat said something about the utter freshness of Toriki's specially farm-sourced chickens.

Kawa - grilled chicken skin
There was no question that we would be having the kawa grilled skin, which features in Bourdain's episode. A whole piece of skin, presumably from the breast side of a chicken, is thrown flat onto the grill.

It shrivels, it chars and it turns into a dish of absolute beauty. Just crisped and seasoned simply with salt, I'm not sure there is any better way to eat fat.

Tataki - Toriki's signature grilled chicken thigh
We ploughed on through the yakitori portion of the menu, ordering the restaurant's signature tataki chicken dish. This was thigh meat with the skin on, served in chopped boneless pieces on the utilitarian oval metal plates.

Tataki - Toriki's signature grilled chicken thigh with dressing
As if the perfectly golden chicken skin wasn't tantalising enough, we were instructed to pour over a dressing of minced shallots and many other tasty ingredients.

Tataki - Toriki's signature grilled chicken thigh with dressing
The sweet and lightly tart sauce was unexpectedly the dish maker. Cutting through the fattiness of the thigh, the dressing lifted the already excellent chicken to heights one wouldn't think chicken could reach.

Teba - grilled chicken wing
The seven seated at the tight-fitting counter had gotten well and truly settled, with almost more drinking done than eating and not even a toilet break from memory.

Having scoffed the tataki, we were left licking our lips, watching what others ordered directly from the chef. The wings from the large chickens were correspondingly large and impressively well cooked for their awkward shape.

Sasami - grilled chicken breast fillet
We probably didn't need to, but we went one last dish (in hindsight, we should have gone the tataki a second time). The three strips of delicately grilled chicken breast were diced and awaited another dressing.

Sasami - grilled chicken breast fillet with grated daikon
A bowl of grated daikon and shallots, to which I was instructed to mix in soy sauce, was piled on top of the chicken. This dish was mild in flavour compared to some of our other yakitori items, and probably would have made for a better starter.

Aihara-san enjoying a beer at the grill 
Wiping sweat from his brow, Aihara-san poured himself a draft beer at a point during the night, joining his customers who were all obviously having a great time devouring chicken morsels from his grill.

It was hot and hard work in the tiny kitchen space, but for the jolly, fun-loving chef it seemed as though connecting with his customers on the front line was getting him through.

I suppose it also helps when one of the world's most renowned food media personalities gives you a thumbs-up and brings food tourists from as far as Australia to your humble door, and he happily obliged us with a souvenir happy snap as we left. Thanks for the tip, Tony.

More Japan posts to come. See more photos from my Japan trip on my Facebook page and Bourdain's No Reservations episode on Toriki below.


8 comments:

gaby @ lateraleating said...

I remember that episode! Great that you had the opportunity to experience it first-hand. Looks amazing.

milkteaxx said...

that grilled chicken thigh looks amazing! i wish i had the chance to explore more of japan!

Food is our religion said...

I have been trying to go to Japan for the past few years and the only thing that I keep doing is bookmarking all these restaurants to go to. This is def one of them, love the grilled meats.

Richard Elliot said...

Looks like chicken heaven!

I went to a Gordon Ramsey recommendation while I was in Indian and it was frankly a bit mediocre. Pleased to know that Bourdain provides some more reliable tips!

Tina said...

Hi gaby - Great episode, wasn't it? Toriki was the bomb - and full of locals still ;)

Hi milkteaxx - That was definitely the dish of the night, if not the trip!

Hi Food is our religion - So many place, so little time!

Hi Ruchard - You'd expect Bourdain to be more on the ball than Ramsay though :)

S Lloyd said...

In hindsight, which one had the edge in terms of flavors: Birdland or Toriki? Did you book in advance or just dropping by should be fine? Also: an approximate idea of the cost of the food there? Do they offer a tasting menu as at Birdland's. If Yes, how much did that cost? Thanks

Tina said...

Hi S Lloyd - They both had great flavours - Toriki a little more traditional, old school in its setting. We didn't book for either, although it's recommended (Toriki we just fit in; Birdland we had an early meal). Can't remember cost, but Toriki was definitely cheaper than Birdland. No re tasting menu, but the owner/chef will no doubt look after you. Loved the experience at Toriki :)

Jason said...

This place looks awesome, but let's be clear---this place is a favorite of one of Bourdain's fixers, not him. The guy knows fuck all about Tokyo---it's not as if he discovered it on his own. There are scores of places throughout the city that could have taken its place.

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