Like sushi, yakitori has humble beginnings. Directly translated to mean ‘grilled bird’, yakitori started as a street food where morsels of chicken were skewered and cooked over charcoal. Also like sushi, however, the dish has evolved since its days as a humble market stall offering and can now be found at higher-end establishments where yakitori is elevated into a fine dining experience.
One such restaurant is Torishiki, a small, sleek joint near Meguro Station which comfortably serves some of the finest – and arguably even the best – yakitori in the world. Owner and head honcho Yoshiteru Ikegawa opened the restaurant in 2007 and it has held a Michelin star since 2010. A reservation at this 12-seater is hard to come by, with availability booked out two months in advance.
As is the tradition of omakase-style restaurants, there are no menus here – just a row of wooden plaques on the wall with traditional kanji characters listing the seasonal items available for the day. Diners leave the rest up to Ikegawa to decide.
There are deceptively simple skewers ranging from unfathomably tender morsels of chicken thigh to sunagimo (chicken gizzard), yet even the familiar classics distinguish themselves at Torishiki. Chicken liver, for instance, often has a gamey, minerally taste and a grainy texture. But at Torishiki, the ruby red morsels are so buttery they practically melt in your mouth.
‘We only use a special breed of free-range chicken known as Date chicken from Fukushima. The birds are a similar variety to French Bresse chicken, so the meat is more flavourful than other domestic chicken in Japan,’ says Ikegawa.
There’s another element that’s crucial to the quality of Torishiki’s first-rate yakitori – the charcoal. ‘Using high-quality charcoal is important because it has to be able to withstand extremely high temperatures. It’s the heat that makes the chicken juicy.’
To get an idea of how hot the grill needs to be to meet Ikegawa’s standards, you only need to look at his fingernails – some of them have blackened and melted off from years of flipping skewers with his bare hands. It’s this passion that captivates diners above all else. Despite the Michelin star plus an upscale New York City outpost, Ikegawa remains exceptionally grounded in his passion for grilling chicken skewers for his guests.
‘We’re a small restaurant, so we aren’t always able to accommodate those looking for an opening at the counter. I always feel sorry for turning people away when we’re full and I never want to take for granted that people are willing to go out of their way to eat here.’
The chef gestures to the kamidana (miniature altar) mounted to the wall at the entrance. ‘That’s dedicated to the deity of Otori Shrine in Meguro. Before we start service every night, we take a moment to pay our respects to the deities for the restaurant and express our gratitude to all of our diners.’
When asked about the staggering demand for a seat at his counter, the ever-gracious Ikegawa had just one response. ‘Everyone loves yakitori,’ he shrugged. ‘We might only serve a small number of people here at this restaurant, but I’m looking forward to growing our business abroad in the future so more people can have access to this culture.’
‘That’s why it’s so great to have Hideo on our team,’ he says, beaming at his apprentice like a proud uncle. ‘He studied abroad in the States so he speaks better English than me. It’s really important that we’re able to converse with our diners no matter where they’re from because interacting with your diners is one of the most important things about serving yakitori.’
Torishiki is open from 5pm to 11pm (last entry 9pm) and closed every Sunday and Monday. Want to try your luck at scoring a reservation? Try calling the restaurant on the first service day of every month and you might just find an open spot or a cancellation: 03 3440 7656.
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