One of the clear gastronomic advantages of being close to New York City is the ready availability of international cuisines not easily found in other parts of the country, especially traditional Japanese food (although good ramen, for example, is popping up in a lot of places now). Having spent some time traveling there, Mrs. Hackknife and I have a profound fondness for the cooking of Japan, which, like most countries, can vary from region to region. One particular item that's mostly indigenous to the typical workingman's tavern (known as an izakaya) in Tokyo is yakitori, or "grilled chicken", a class of savory snacks (not all of which are chicken parts) that are skewered, brushed with a long-simmered marinade called "tare", and then grilled on a hibachi using either charcoal (preferred) or gas flames. Like most bar snacks, these are designed to go down well with a pint of beer or glass of sake, and the best yakitori chefs have perfected their craft of skewer grilling over many years.
In America, yakitori can be elusive. I can recall having some at Japanese restaurants in Chicago (Momotaro) and Las Vegas (Abriya Raku Grill), but I hadn't encountered a true yakitori izakaya here until Mrs. H. clued me in to one right here in Manhattan that she visited after work one day. Conveniently for us, it's located near the Theater District and we just happened to need a place to get dinner with the kids after seeing our first Broadway show a few weeks back, so off we went.
Yakitori Totto (251 W. 55th St.) opened 2003 and, like many good restaurants in Japan whose owners can't afford to pay ground floor rents, is situated on the 2nd floor of its building. This cozy tavern (and I do mean cozy - the space is tight, giving me flashbacks to Tokyo) recently hosted Anderson Cooper and Anthony Bourdain, who were doing a promotional interview for the new season of Parts Unknown, and M. Bourdain lauded the house's chicken skin skewer.
I couldn't definitely determine if the grilling at Totto was being done over charcoal or gas (it could have also been an electric hibachi, I suppose), but our little group was eager to try a bunch of different skewers regardless. First up was shishito peppers:
Lore has it that every 20th pepper or so is a spicy one, or as the Totto website puts it "shishitos are delegated as none spicy pepper but among them there are exception. If you've got one, like we say, you've got a luck". I guess we had a lot a luck since 2 of our 6 peppers were on the fiery side.
Not for the squeamish, these are chicken hearts (3 of them make a single skewer, although we've got 4 on ours), an uncommon delicacy not usually seen outside Japan. Although a tad chewy, they had a nice flavor (I've found the few animal hearts I've had to be similar to pot roast) that even the kinder liked (Mom and I were delighted and proud of them for trying something out of their comfort zone).
Cherry tomatoes - tasty, but not much notable otherwise...
Here's the Bourdain favorite chicken skin - I had high expectations for this and was a little underwhelmed, more flaccid than crunchy.
This is negi pon, or pork pieces with ponzu sauce, which was a very nice combination of savory, citrus, and bite from the scallions on top.
The chicken meatballs (braised in the tare sauce just like everything else) at Totto are stuffed with shishito peppers and are one of the most popular items on the menu - I can see why as all 4 of us enjoyed them very much.
The plates kept arriving fast and furiously - (from left to right) roasted garlic, kalbi (beef short rib), and beef tongue (Hackknifette surprised us by trying and liking some of this one).
One last skewer, this time another uncommon one that they call hatsu moto, or "muscle beneath the heart" (4 chickens per order), a little more tender than the heart itself, but similar in taste. Although I had a tough time finding much information online about this cut, I eventually determined that it's the ascending aorta vessel of the chicken heart (had I known that at the time, I might have demurred a bit).
I had to be talked into getting dessert and I'm glad I caved in. The kitchen serves something called an "ice banana" that consists of a frozen banana floating in a broth of tapioca, mint, and coconut milk (in foreground). After a few minutes, the texture of the banana drifted into the zone between frozen and thawed, thus becoming the perfect foil for the sweet liquid (this will be added to my list of best desserts of 2016). We also tried a green tea affogato (background), which was a bowl of vanilla ice cream, sweet red beans, and green tea mochi (gelatinous rice ball) with a side of green tea dipping sauce, also very good. Had we combined the 2 bowls, I suspect we'd have ended up with a concoction similar to Filipino halo-halo, but I was perfectly happy keeping them separate.
So now I know that we can get terrific yakitori in NYC along with ramen, sushi, tonkatsu, and probably 50 other Japanese delicacies just waiting to be found. Pretty soon, the only reason we'll ever need to return to Japan is for the whisky and wacky television shows...