Friday, September 7, 2012

Japan times - part 6: Bird Land, Ginza, Tokyo

I recently 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 sixth of several posts of food, booze and sights in Japan.

Bird Land, Ginza, Tokyo, Japan
Our search for yakitori grilled chicken skewers in Tokyo had identified Bird Land as a top rated yakitori restaurant. Our traverses about Ginza were pretty random and unplanned, so it was mostly coincidence that the hotel map we managed to acquire had Bird Land highlighted as a marker.

Despite its address featuring a building name, Bird Land and its neighbouring restaurants are accessed most directly via a very specific set of Ginza subway station stairs.

The recognisable chicken logo helps, and it's only once we're down there that I realised why the sign next to the chicken looked so familiar.

Look familiar? Sukiyabashi Jiro
It was the corridor that first struck me - this is where he toasts the nori seaweed every day! And then the elegant, simple wooden doorway - by now I could hear the soundtrack in my head!

This was none other than Sukiyabashi Jiro of Jiro Ono and the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi fame. In the presence of 3-Michelin starred sushi restaurant greatness, we peered in as unintrusively as possible but it was hard to catch a glimpse of Jiro from the outside of the tiny restaurant.

Sitting at the Bird Land counter, watching chefs in the open kitchen
Going back to Bird Land, which I believe was once 1-starred, we didn't have a reservation but were given a reasonable time to be out of there. The restaurant is mostly counter seating, which provided the perfect vantage point to watch the kitchen hierarchy in action.

There was plenty of shouting and skewer action over the centrally-located binchotan Japanese coal-fuelled grill, and with no waiters, it's the junior chefs that serve drinks, take orders and ferry dishes to customers.

Appetisers from the tasting menu
As an early dinner we decided to share the larger 8,000 yen or so tasting menu option, adding a few a la carte options (indicated with an *) and beers.

I think there was a single English menu in the whole restaurant; however, there wasn't a detailed description of the appetisers which probably change regularly. The spear was a raw, young ginger shoot which I'd come across in a cocktail earlier in the trip, while the bowl held some kind of white gloop in a thick, clear gel with what looked like foraged sea greens.

The jellied chicken gizzard was on the menu and wasn't all that revelatory from memory, and the browned strips of chicken skin were rather unmemorable.

Sasami with umeboshi and shiso
But it's all about the grilled chicken at Bird Land. The first dish of lightly grilled sasami tenderloin topped with umeboshi pickled plum sauce and finely shredded shiso leaves looked like a great start.

Picking up a piece of chicken from the plate with chopsticks, I could see the centre was still raw pink. There were probably a few, if not several, moments of hesitation before I had my first mouthful of raw chicken.

It's a lot chewier than cooked chicken with no particular benefit in taste from its rawness, or so at least I thought. The plum sauce and shiso leaves are also big flavours that require some effort on my behalf to really enjoy.

Chicken liver pate
Next, two pretty solid cubes of chicken liver pate served with a tiny piece of bread, implying that it was to be spread thickly. The pate was an excellent primer to a night's worth of chicken, pretty much from beak to bonjiri tail if one so desired.

Sasami wasabi
From here, the chef looking after us brought yakitori by the stick to a plate in front of us, straight off the grill. We saw almost everything seasoned with salt flakes and spritzed with a mystery spray before being grilled.

This was more sasami breast meat, cooked through with a dab of wasabi on each skewered piece.

Sasami with shishito peppers
I think this was sasami breast again, interspersed with small, thin pieces of shishito Japanese green peppers, though it seemed a little more lively in flavour than the one before.

Tomato salad*
Seeing the tomato salad, we thought a vegetable addition wouldn't be a bad thing amid all the chicken. We were soon rewarded with a lightly dressed watercress salad featuring the most amazing tomatoes ever.

It was pure, true-to-flavour tomato; sweet with a noticeable umami flavour - and definitely the most tomato-ey tomatoes I've ever had the pleasure of eating. It still makes me smile to think about this tomato salad though it makes me wonder what kind of tomatoes I'm eating day to day.

Reba - liver
The generous skewer of grilled liver also presented some eye-opening benchmark levels. Its just-cooked state is the sweet spot for liver, soft and not grainy in texture. Along with perfect salt seasoning, this was probably the first chicken liver I've eaten and genuinely, enthusiastically liked.

The subsequent tofu dish was a pleasant surprise, almost passing for a scoop of gelato. There was an Italian overtone with its drizzle of extra virgin olive oil along with cracked black pepper and more of those amazing tiny tomatoes.

Most likely made in-house, the tofu had a creamy texture and very subtle soybean flavour, enhanced by the olive oil and pepper, and was sensationally pure and cleansing in many ways.

Gingko nuts
The gingko nuts ended up being one of my favourite sticks; as the soft, subtle nuttiness seemed the perfect carrier for the seasoning used for all the yakitori .

Sori - chicken oyster
I learnt about the chicken oyster a couple of years ago - it's a revered piece of dark chicken meat (considering breast as white) that comes off the thigh piece as though chickens had hips.

Served with a wedge of lime of some sort, the red-centred oyster didn't concern; rather, it added to a more intense poultry flavour in the small nugget of meat.

The strips of red capsicum, cooked to silky soft, presumably from a roast and peel, were simply dressed in olive oil with salt. It was an interesting intermission between the chicken, that once again seemed to reference Italian cuisine.

Tsukune - chicken meatballs
Tsukune chicken meatballs had quickly become one of my favourite yakitori items in Tokyo, and it was easy to pick out the better ones from the not so.

Bird Land's was up there, served with a very light treatment of a tare soy-based sauce and without a raw egg yolk as seems traditional.

Spying on Jiro (left) and Yoshikazu Ono
Through dinner I may or may not have been turning around, constantly checking the traffic at nearby Sukiyabashi Jiro, in the process discovering the very traditional send-off of customers from an establishment.

Every time a customer finished at Jiro's restaurant, both he and his son would walk them to the door and thank them as they left, waiting until the customers were well on their exiting way before returning to the restaurant.

It was kind of sweet to see a 3-Michelin starred chef do something like that, while it also provided me with a sneaky photo opportunity.

Teriyaki momo thigh
I seem to remember an odd chewiness about the serving of the well-browned, teriyaki sauce-basted thigh pieces with gorgeously caramelised skin but boy, they looked appetising.

Shitake mushrooms
The scored and grilled shitake mushroom skewer was elegance on a stick, with only salt and a spritz needed for the fresh, natural flavours of the fungus to shine.

Negima - chicken thigh and leek
Bird Land's negima thigh and leek skewer was done with tare sauce and impossible to fault. With beer in hand, I'm sure I could eat an embarrassing number of these negima skewers.

Cacciocavallo cheese
The world went a little quiet when the cheese arrived on a fresh plate. Seeing the skewered block of cacciocavallo cheese go on the grill momentarily still didn't prepare me for the stick of molten, melted cheese that sat so temptingly before us.

One stringy mouthful of the stretched Italian cheese was all I needed to declare this my favourite. Sorry chickens, I'm a cheese girl.

Maitake mushrooms*
I'd never heard of maitake mushrooms before and grilled as simply as everything else, they were an unexpected winner. It is quite the amazing mushroom with weird stalk shapes but an out-of-this-world depth of flavour.

This is probably the closest I've tried to a vegetable replacement for meat, such were the complex flavours of the mushroom. I absolutely loved it, and it is definitely in my top two mushroom dishes of the trip (yes, I have a top two).

Teba - chicken wing*
And finally, as a chicken wing fan I had to give Bird Land's teba a go. Comprising both the mid wing and drumstick, the perfectly golden skin of the wing didn't quite warn us as to their searing heat. As great as the wing was just salted, it reminded me a little of backyard barbeques.

Oyako-don - chicken and egg rice bowl
The chef checked that we were all done on the yakitori front before shouting an order for oyako-don from the back kitchen.

This petite bowl of rice, topped with mostly cooked egg mixed with chicken pieces and shallots, is the filling end of the meal where the rice ensures that diners don't leave hungry. It was a lovely, comforting dish that featured quite wet rice underneath.

Creme caramel
There was a well timed pause after the last savoury dish and dessert, and we were right on schedule ahead of impending reservations. The creme caramel was textbook with a just-bitter caramel sauce worthy of drinking by the bowl full.

Out by 7.30pm or so, it was an appropriately light dinner that gave us capacity for shopping in Ginza and supper at a later point.

There was so much to take in during the meal: the food with remarkable attention to detail; the chefs' practised yakitori techniques; people watching and of course, Jiro spotting. I would recommend Bird Land without hesitation for any of these reasons.

Next stop: Osaka, Japan. See more photos on my Facebook page.


john@heneedsfood said...

Oh good lord that cheese! I'd be ordering seconds and thirds of that little morsel! I'm really not sure about the undercooked chicken and share your hesitation with it. All in all a pretty good yakitori and I love their logo!

Tina @ bitemeshowme said...

You kill me with your Japan posts! It really feels like you've steered away from the main stream stuff. Good on you for doing that. Clearly, you've found some great little places in doing so and it really helps readers, like me, to plan for whenever I do get my butt there.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I want that cheese so much! :o

missklicious said...

Ahhh jiro!! I really want to go there. The skewers look fantastic too

Tina said...

Hi John - It was a great experience, raw chicken and all! But especially the cheese!

Hi Tina - I'm not sure what constitutes mainstream in Japan. Depends who you talk to I suppose :)

Hi Lorraine - Me too! Again!

Hi missklicious - Yeah, Jiro wasn't quite within budget this time around...

S Lloyd said...

At the exception of the dishes marked with an *, is all of that part of the $80 tasting menu? Also: any other yakitori / or affordable restautarants/food stalls that has impressed you there? Especially in Shinjuku? Thanks

Tina said...

Hi S Lloyd - Yes, there are two tasting menu options. You need to check out Omoide Yokocho in Shinjuku - you won't get more yakitori choices than that! See


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