1193 1st Ave., btwn. 64th & 65th Aves.
After a disappointing visit to Ariyoshi for less than mediocre izakaya fare, I was hell-bent on uncovering a newcomer worthy of an authentic Japanese badge of honor. While searching for a sushi joint on the Upper East Side, I accidentally stumbled into Tori Shin, a yakitori haven for all things barbecued and skewered. Obscured by closed blinds and a sliding black door, I felt like I was entering some secret Asian supper club. A traditional eating counter takes centerstage at this sleek space where twenty, gray ultrasuede chairs wrap around a generous, maplewood eating counter with glass classes, displaying yet uncooked, bamboo-skewered chicken parts.
What is yakitori you might be wondering?
A popular after-work cuisine in Japan, yakitori translates to
bamboo-skewered chicken barbecued over charcoals. While many cuisines
dress up their food with countless ingredients, yakitori uses simple seasonings: salt, lemon juice,
yakitori sauce or dipping sauce. While yakitori refers specifically to barbecued
chicken and vegetables, the term has lent itself to beef, pork and
many other meats. And now back to our regularly scheduled programming – Tori Shin…
While New York admittedly offers a boundless array of flavors and regional cuisines, I still find myself pining for the earnest passion and unaffected cooking style that I’d discovered in Tokyo. Tori Shin manages to transplant the authentic experience of a traditional Japanese procession of small plates, all simple in execution and yet precisely prepared, evoking pleasing and pure flavors in everything from a breast of chicken to vegetable soup. In the company of Japanese diners (always a very good sign), guests watch yakitori chefs man the barbecue, fanning the meat with paper fans, using only the simplest of seasonings, if any at all. Perhaps, the absence of such a place in New York, was precisely the reason that co-owner and manager, Keiji Suzuki, partnered up wtih chef Koichi Inoue, who formerly cooked at Toriyoshi (a popular yakitori spot in Tokyo), to open Tori Shin, focusing all of their efforts on chicken – organic chicken to be exact. Diners can choose from either a chef’s omakase course ($60) or a “dinner set” ($45), which includes salad, soup, appetizers and six skewers, four chicken and two vegetable.
But the meal begins with a bowl of mildly pickled vegetables, which wasn’t particularly revelatory, though I am a sucker for warm hand towels, which Tori Shin seems doles out between every course, and there are many. This was quickly followed by minced soy-spiked daikon, a Japanese palate cleanser, preparing you for the Japanese version of an amuse bouche. Not the traditional amuse bouche that’s become practically obligatory “compliments of the chef” at the city’s most elegant restaurants, Tori Shin presents a melange of four cold bites: a chicken terrine, carrot gelee, burdock root wrapped in tofu and springy Japanese mushrooms. While each was gently seductive and simultaneously simple in its own right, the chicken terrine, a dish that evoked flavors of chicken liver & the texture of gefilte fish (in a good way), was a savory, and yet pure pleasantry that I could’ve happily committed more time to, but there was still yakitori to be had.
Tori Shin offers a generous selection of organic chicken skewers, some de-skinned, others with skin on, a celebration of every imaginable part of the chicken, from wings to gizzards. As is often the case in traditional Japanese haunts, the chef strongly suggests how to eat the plate presented before you; whether you should
invoke soy sauce or whether it’s best eaten undressed.
Such was the case
at Tori Shin, with the exception of the underseasoned skewer of three
parts of chicken. For this dish, I added a little soy, which indeed did the
trick. While I didn’t take much to a skewer of chicken hearts, I took pause over the miso-marinated chicken, often overplayed in seafood dishes, a la Nobu’s miso cod or staple miso sea bass at many a Japanese spinoff of late, most of which are good, but predictable. Miso-laced bits of chicken were so intensely moist and flavorful that I demanded seconds. Not quite as astounding but nevertheless tasty, the pounded chicken wrapped around a fresh, crisp leek, was skewered with a blistery Japanese pepper, the perfect combination of crisp vegetables and silky chicken meat. Perfectly crispy on the outside, supremely tender within, the chicken meatballs (tsukune) were simply seasoned with a bright
yakitori sauce. The parade of chicken was quickly followed by two vegetable skewers; ginko beans, nutty and crunchy, and gentle Japanese mushrooms.
If that wasn’t enough, which it was, there was another course to be had, that even if you’re nearing full, is worth risking the aftereffects of eating too much.
With a choice of oyaka don and dashi chazuke, I tried both. While the dashi chazuke, a simple bonito broth with rice, was soothing, I was more enchanted by the oyaka don, a traditional bowl of rice topped off with a rich chicken meatball and a gooey, half-boiled egg. If you don’t have room, I highly recommend bringing it home and eating it for breakfast – well-worth the shame of asking for a doggie bag. For dessert, I took part in a subtly sweet mound of crushed ice with specks of oba leaf.
Until we eat again,
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