Friday, May 12, 2017

Torishin: A Yakitori Paradise

If you're seeking an exceptional restaurant in New York City, then I must give one of my heartiest recommendation to Torishin.

While planning our recent visit to New York City, my good friend Adam Japko made reservations for us to visit Torishin. He'd dined there before and been thoroughly impressed, knowing that I would appreciate it. Before our visit, Pete Wells of the New York Times wrote a stellar review of Torishin, giving it three stars. After I dined there, I fully understood the reasons for the raves as it is an exceptional restaurant, offering yakitori that elevates chicken to new heights.

The name of the restaurant breaks down into “Tori,” which means “chicken,” and “Shin,” which means “spirit.” And that spirit of the chicken permeates the restaurant. It is a Japanese yakitori, "grilled chicken," restaurant, and originated in Tokyo, Japan, with an outpost established in New York City back in 2007. They specialize in using traditional methods to prepare and cook every part of the chicken, wasting nothing. I actually wouldn't have been surprised if they had found a way to use chicken feathers. The chickens they use are organic, and their other ingredients, such as their vegetables, are often locally sourced except much of their seafood which comes from the seas of Japan.

Their grilled chicken are cooked over Kishu Binchotan, a traditional Japanese charcoal that releases larger quantities of infrared rays, allowing the meat to get crispy outside while remaining moist and juicy inside. It burns at a lower temperature, but for a longer time, than regular charcoal and also doesn't release lots of smoke. Cooking over these binchotan is a skill, and you will see the chef at the grill, frequently fanning it throughout the evening, keeping the charcoals hot.

As you enter the restaurant, there's a small bar to the immediate left and then you proceed through a doorway into the main dining area or you can go upstairs to a smaller dining area. In the regular dining areas, you can order the yakitori and organic vegetable skewers a la carte, generally priced $4-$8 each. You also have the option of a 10 Skewer Set (with 7 meats & 3 veggies) for $65 or an Omakase for $70. In addition, they offer some Small Plates ($6-$27), including dishes such as Grilled Organic Edamame, Broiled Sea Urchin with Garlic, Chawanmushi and Homemade Chicken Cha-shu. There are also several Rice Dishes ($17-$22), such as Oyako Don and Ume Chazuke.

We though had reservations at the Select Counter, basically a chef's table with only eight seats at a counter and where you are served a superb omakase dinner. The counter is made from Hinoki wood, Japanese cypress, which is considered a sacred material. Chef Atsushi Kono (pictured above) presides over the grill, and spent nearly all of the evening in front of the grill, cooking all of the yaiktori to perfection. The Chef had two assistants at the Select Counter and we interacted more with them, as they prepared, plated and served us the various dishes we would enjoy. We also had a server, who worked only in the Select Counter room, providing us attentive and responsive service. All of this combined to transform  this from a mere dinner to a more expansive dining experience.

Torishin has a full bar, from Wine to Beer, Japanese Whiskey to Shochu. Their Sake list has about 21 options, with more than half available by the glass. There is a good variety of Sake, prices are generally reasonable, and some of them are offered hot. Over the course of the evening, we ordered two different Sakes, and both were quite good though very different. The Harada Muroka Namagenshu Junmai Ginjo ($110/bottle) had a round mouthfeel with some delightful berry flavors along with floral elements. The Fukuju Junmai Ginjo ($75/bottle) was superb, with a dry, clean and elegant taste with plenty of fruit notes. It was silky smooth, drinking so easily, and I could have sat all night drinking this Sake. Highly recommended.

On their drinks list, you'll also find they carry about 12 Shochu, most made from Sweet Potato, and all available by the glass or bottle. Before going to Torishin, I spoke with Stephen Lyman, a Shochu expert, seeking some recommendations. He noted that Torishin is one of his favorite restaurants and he gave me some Shochu recs, which I'll discuss later in this post.

As you sit at the Select Counter, you'll find in front of you a few containers of soy sauce, sansho (Japanese pepper) and shichimi (a Japanese spice blend). Though you can use these condiments on any of the skewers or dishes you receive, the Chef's assistants give advice on when they recommend you use certain condiments with specific items. We followed their advice, figuring they knew best how to season the various skewers and dishes.

The Omakase ($150/per person) offers the seven skewers in the box above, with your choice of either a King Crab Leg or Kumamoto A5 Beef. In addition, you'll receive a number of other dishes and also get a choice of a rice dish, like Oyako Don, or a soup, like Ramen. During the course of the dinner, we also ordered a few extra skewers a la carte, to sample more of the various chicken parts. It's the type of restaurant where you want to sit and sample everything they have to offer.

During the course of our dinner, I took numerous photos but I didn't take any notes. I was primarily there to enjoy the experience, and not write a detailed review. Plus, I wanted to eat each skewer as soon as it was put before me, garnering the maximum amount of pleasure. So, you won't find many notes accompanying the following photos but I can't stress enough how delicious and exceptional the experience was that evening. Much of the food was prepared relatively simply, but the high quality ingredients and perfect execution of cooking techniques elevated these items far above the ordinary. The chef was able to extract so much flavor in many of these items, including more unusual body parts that you might not even consider to be edible.

Ever had chicken arteries?

This was our first taste, an Eggplant dish, and though I'm not a huge fan of eggplant, this was a tasty item, with some creaminess and slightly bitter notes.

The next dish was killer, two pieces of lightly seared fish and grilled bamboo shoots. Both of the fish were from the waters off Japan, and the middle piece is Rosy Seabass though I don't recall the name of the other fish. However, both were excellent, tender, melt-in-you-mouth seafood. The bamboo shoots were also tender, with a nice crunchy texture, and a nutty, savory taste. Torishin might be best known for its chicken, but their seafood is exceptional as well.

The first two yakitori skewers included Chicken Liver and Tenderloin. The liver was tender and earthy, with a silky texture. The tenderloin pieces were more flavorful than much of the chicken you are probably used to, with a very light sear. Relative simplicity but so much flavor.

The Neck meat was also tender and flavorful, with some crunchier, charred pieces adding to the taste.

The Baby Corn was tender and slightly crunchy, a nice intermission before additional chicken skewers.

This is the Main Artery, actually comprised of the arteries from 6 chickens. I was surprised at how tasty this was, with a lightly chewy texture (which I expected to be far more chewy). This was actually one of my favorite skewers of the evening.

This small fish was prepared with a light tempura and accompanied by a green veggie, also tempura. It resembled a flying fish caught in a tree. Again though, this was an excellent and delicious dish, with a light and crunchy tempura and the meaty fish.

Next, were some slices of Kumamoto A5 Beef with a couple potato slices. The beef was very tender and moist, with compelling flavors.

The King Crab Leg was sweet and tender.

These grilled Tomatoes impressed, despite their simplicity. When I popped one in my mouth, and bit into it, my mouth was filled by the hot, sweet and acidic juices inside of the tomato. A burst of umami that went well with the Sake.

I wasn't as crazy about this dish with Chicken Gizzards, more of a texture issue than flavor-wise.

Besides the chicken, the restaurant also has Quail, which was tender and meaty, with a bit of a gamier taste than the chicken, and some nice crispy skin elements.

The Chicken Oyster is the small piece of dark meat on either side of the chicken's backbone, and is considered by many to be the best part of the chicken. It certainly was full of flavor, moist and tender, with a nice char. I certainly would have enjoyed a few more skewers of this.

The Chicken & Duck Meatball was accompanied by an egg and they suggested you stir up the yolk and dunk the meatball into the yolk. The meatball was amazing, moist and meaty, and didn't need anything more but the yolk actually enhanced the meatball.

The Knee Gristle wasn't as tough as you might expect and had plenty of flavor.

Two more skewers and I'm not exactly sure what they are, though I do recall both were tasty and well cooked.

For our rice or soup dish, we opted for the Tsukemen, a type of ramen where you dip your noodles in a separate bowl of broth, and you can see the broth bowl above. The slightly chewy noodles were excellent, and the broth was full of umami and intense flavor. Tsukemen is certainly a way to ensure your noodles don't get too soft from continually sitting in a bowl of broth.

We then ended our dinner with a choice of desserts. I opted for the Shiso (Japanese Mojito) Sorbet because I was planning to have a glass of Shochu, the Tenshi no Yuwaku ($18/glass). Shochu expert Stephen Lyman recommended the pairing so I took his advice. The Tenshi no Yuwaku is a sweet potato Shochu which was fermented in Sherry casks for about 10 years. This is a more unique Shochu as few are ever aged this long. It's name translates as "Angel's Temptation," a reference to the Angel's Share, the amount of spirit that evaporates over time while it ages in a barrel. I enjoyed it neat, finding it rich and creamy, with intense Sherry notes, hints of sweetness, and plenty of complexity. And it worked well with the sorbet. I really need to get a bottle of this Shochu.

What a superb dining experience, an evening of great food and drink. Within the Select Counter, it almost feels as if you were dining at a tiny specialized spot in Tokyo. I thoroughly enjoyed the various skewers and dishes, so much delicious diversity, which was accompanied by tasty Sake. I fully understood why Adam Japko was so impressed with this restaurant and I now share his sentiment. Service was excellent and I didn't have a single complaint about anything. Torishin is definitely one of my favorite restaurants of the year and receives my highest recommendation.  I will certainly be returning there on one of my next trips to New York City.

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