We’ve been really fortunate here in Japan so far with dwindling covid-19 cases in comparison to a lot of countries around the world. It’s reflected not just in the relaxing of all state of emergency requests, but the people of Tokyo have definitely started to come out of their burrows. We’re still taking all the precautions that we can reasonably take and it’s comforting to see the community be diligent about it as well. It might be awhile before we can hug friends and family or see smiling faces uncovered by masks – but we’ll celebrate small victories while we can. If a global pandemic has taught us anything at all, it’s really to carpe diem.
Cue a mini revival to the food blogging component of this blog. One of our first out-of-home date nights was held at Yakitori Toriyama. This modern and spacious restaurant is the avian sister to the ever-popular Japanese beef BBQ joint, Yakiniku Daichi. It might not seem big compared to spaces overseas but it is a far, far cry from hole-in-the-walls where elbows knock and human legs and chair legs tangle every time someone needs to go to the bathroom. As such, social distancing isn’t quite the gargantuan task here. Add to it being conveniently located in Roppongi (yet tucked well away from the rowdy side of the city) and you have yourself a solid venue. Before entering, a temperature scan and use of hand sanitiser is requested of all guests.
Our preference when dining yakitori has usually been to order the 串お任せ (course menu dictated by the chef) to get a taste for their staples before moving onto choosing our favourites. Yakitori Toriyama has a 6 skewer course for 2,300 yen per person and an 8-skewer course for 3,000 yen and we opt for the latter. There is no option to choose shio/tare (salt or soy sauce) marinade for your skewers here, which is unlike other restaurants which means the restaurant decides the best way to prepare each skewer.
The starter is grated daikon with soy sauce and a raw egg, a refreshing precursor to some bolder dishes to come.
Both courses also come with a cup of chicken broth, a staple at most yakitori restaurants and one of the things I most look forward to. It may not sound very exciting but imagine how deep the flavours run after boiling kilos upon kilos of chicken carcass. The clarity of the broth gives nothing away but trust me, it is potent.
Edamame and crushed, seasoned cucumbers
Another great way to make the waiting game more enjoyable is to order some otsumami, quick snacks that are usually had with alcohol. Edamame are a pretty standard fixture to most Japanese menus but I was very surprised at how much I liked the cucumbers aka crunchy water. They were crisp with a slight hint of salt and sesame oil.
Sasami Sabiyaki/Tenderloin with wasabi
It’s worth mentioning here that raw chicken is perfectly safe and acceptable to eat in Japan. The only caveat of course being to have it at reputable and reliable restaurants, but this is true even for when consuming raw seafood. The sasami sabiyaki at Toriyama will test your boldness if you aren’t used to having chicken this way, as it is only cooked partially with a raw middle. It’s great for this cut of chicken as the end result is not dry at all and the wasabi neutralises the “rawness” of the middle as well.
I can’t think of anyone who doesnt like this classic chicken skewer. While I love my tare, I’m pleasantly surprised that this momo is served with shio, allowing the natural flavour of the chicken to shine through. There’s also a nice crisp to the skin on the top piece of thigh, because well, you deserve it.
Confessing right now that isn’t my favourite vegetable despite the fact that I do enjoy the western variety of capsicum. I eat a piece and am surprised by how the bonito does alleviate the grassy taste that I’m not a fan of. Having sated my curiosity, I hand the rest to Emi, to preserve my stomach space for what else is to come.
Chicken chashu (not included in the course)
This Japanese-style chashu is the true dark horse of the meal – I didn’t even see it on the menu until Emi pointed it out to me! As someone who doesn’t eat pork, I’m always on a look out for substitutes of my previous favourite pork dishes to try and I seriously think this dish is alone makes coming to Toriyama, worth it. There’s a deep caramel and umami saltiness that comes through in the flesh, with the meat itself tender enough to be just like the pork chashu I remember. It pairs well with the mustard that is served with it and it’s not hyperbole to say that I could have ordered five more plates of it.
Liver is a personal favourite of mine. The key to liver and to Toriyama’s rendition is a nicely charred exterior with a creamy interior. Props for also serving each piece rather bite-sized as it can be a bit overwhelming if it’s too big.
Hands down my favourite stick and the one I seek the most for at every yakitori place, is chicken cartilage. But rather than pure cartilage, the stick at Toriyama has a bit of meat in between each piece which breaks up the texture so it no longer feels like you just have a mouthful of bones.
Like the sasami, mune has a strong tendency to be served very dry but I’m happy to report that this one had juices literally running and accumulating onto the plate.
Pork avoidance meant both sticks went to Emi so I can’t pass judgment on this. But based on appearance the bacon looked nicely charred and paired with a tomato would have given it a nice balance of freshness.
Sori is a muscle found in the chicken pelvis, also known as chicken oysters and arguably the best part of the chicken. It’s packed with flavour, incredibly juicy and the flesh is so – robust? Definitely ask for sori at any yakitori-ya that you go to. It’s wonderful.
Sunagimo is Japanese for chicken gizzard, which is also part of the digestive tract. It helps birds ‘chew’ food since they don’t have teeth. Texture-wise it tastes a bit like a cross between liver and cartilage as it also has that crunch to it. Throw a generous amount of salt flakes on and you have the perfect chewy vessel.
I find chicken heart quite similar to liver in that they are both quite creamy with a hint of that blood-metallic taste. The heart usually has a bit more chew to it thanks to the artery bits that stick out at the top. Toriyama’s was rather soft and lovely.
When the tsukune (chicken meatball) first arrived, I was visibly disappointed as it looked suspiciously like kombini tsukune. It turned out to be a not judging a book by its cover moment though, as once again chicken juice was literally pooling on the plate as I took this photo. Once again very flavoursome, but maybe just a hit too much fat.
The Toriyama Oyakodon is the reason I actually visited at all, after spying on this beautiful bowl on Instagram which seemed to contain everything I love. Avocado, sea urchin, ikura, raw egg and raw chicken mixed into a bed of rice for a power-packed umami hit! I mean just look at it, how can you disagree? I didn’t mind the raw chicken but I think charring it might have lended a nice smoky flavour and break away from that raw taste that’s already coming through from the seafood.
Sweet potato balls
Last and apparently best (I didn’t have this as I was close to exploding) Emi swears this was the real kushi MVP.
Despite an almost lifelong love for sushi in its various forms, yakitori has probably been my most requested dining out item since I moved to Tokyo. From fast food-but better kombini sticks, cheap and dirty Torikizoku to a modern interpretation like Yakitori Toriyama, chicken on a stick has many faces. If you’re looking for a place to impress without being overly stuffy and also want to wear nice clothes (so well ventilated), pay a visit here.