At Torien, Pleasures on the End of a Stick
General Menu

At Torien, Pleasures on the End of a Stick

Of all the places in Japan where yakitori is sold — the all-night convenience stores, vending machines, izakayas, yearly fairs and seasonal festivals, the crowded inlets around train station entrances, the two-wheeled pushcarts known as yata — the Tokyo restaurant Torishiki is, by general acclaim, considered the best. Those who have secured places at one of its 17 counter seats speak of a chicken-skewer meal there as if it were a kind of chamber-music recital and Yoshiteru Ikegawa, the proprietor and chef, were a virtuoso whose instrument happened to be a charcoal grill.

Standing before a long, narrow trough of fiendishly hot oak embers, almost never looking up, he will raise the heat by rapidly waving a paper fan at the coals, then return to fractionally adjusting the position of each skewer until he is momentarily satisfied that they are all cooking at the speed and temperature he wants.

Torishiki opened its first (and so far, only) overseas offshoot last year, on Elizabeth Street in NoHo. Called Torien, it arrived a little more than two months before the general shutdown and remained closed for almost exactly a year. When it re-emerged in March, it resumed offering its $150 menu of about 15 courses.

The food is prepared in a gleaming steel kitchen and served at a brightly illuminated camphor-wood counter with 16 seats. Nearly everything else in the dining room is either black or cast in shadows, and for a while I thought that the room looked like an Off Off Broadway experimental theater from the 1970s. Only after the third time a server refilled my water glass from a carafe in which a length of Kishu binchotan was bobbing around, as a filter, did it occur to me that the walls and ceiling were the color of charcoal.

Most of the courses are chicken skewers grilled over glowing branches of imported binchotan charcoal. A few are vegetable skewers. One, about midway through the meal, is called the “skewer break.” At the end of the meal comes a bowl that will smother any remaining hunger pangs: white rice with minced chicken or a chicken omelet; or ramen in shimmering, intense chicken broth with some ovals of broiled chicken breast standing in for chashu. This is followed by dessert — of strawberries and granita sandwiched inside mochi biscuits, for instance.

The appeal of snacking on one or two grilled yakitori skewers is obvious to anybody who likes grilled chicken. The appeal of sitting down to an hourslong dinner featuring a dozen or more skewers — drawn from parts of the bird’s anatomy that taste, generally speaking, like chicken (thigh, shoulder, oyster) as well as more distinctive bits like beaks, gizzards, tendons, tails, ovaries and testicles — may be somewhat less obvious.

The success of such a meal depends almost entirely on the chef’s ability. Skillful manipulation of the grill can make unpromising odds and ends worth eating. It can bring out idiosyncrasies of flavor, texture and structure that make those seemingly interchangeable fleshy cuts as easy to tell apart as marshmallows and graham crackers.

The bumpy tube of skin from the neck is folded on the skewer, accordion style, then grilled slowly and patiently. This drives out the fat as the skin, normally as chewable as latex, slowly turns crisp. Torien does this masterfully. As a bonus, the folds become delicately etched with smoke, giving it a complexity you might associate more with spit-roasted meats than with chicken skin.

Skewered hearts are cooked faster and hotter, like steak. They’re as dark as black tea on the outside but when you bite them, they will gush with a few drops of bloody red juices. Bits of thigh can be yielding, shoulder pieces more resilient and chewy. Both will have a chip of skin that is gloriously golden in contrast to all the meat around it, which isn’t charred or even browned.

Fanning the fire, lining up the charcoal, keeping the skewers in motion: These are the elements of grilling vegetable skewers, too, and can result in vividly different effects. Torien’s shiitake caps are as smooth as flan, while the shishito peppers are smoky, with a juicy freshness that separates them from the near-liquid stage of cooking that would have come next.

Grilling technique is especially important because Torien’s use of seasonings is minimalist; almost every skewer is salted, and some, but not all, are brushed with tare. On the counter are ceramic pots of powdered sansho pepper and the spice blend shichimi togarashi. There is also a pot of soy mixed with dashi, but most Japanese customers would use this only to season the raw daikon radish, which plays the same role in a yakitori counter that pickled ginger plays at a sushi bar: It’s there to reset your palate. (The juicy, sweet, roughly grated daikon at Torien also happens to be delicious.)

Mr. Ikegawa taught his chef at Torien, Atsushi Ganaha, how to cook yakitori his way in frequent remote-learning sessions during the pandemic, supplemented by some in-person training. With the help of this far-from-traditional apprenticeship, Torien stands in the upper tier of yakitori restaurants in New York. Its nearest competitor is the omakase counter at Torishin, possibly — I have not been back since the chef, Atsushi Kono, left.

And yet: A still higher level of yakitori skill is possible, a sensitivity that can make it seem as if the ideal cooking technique has been discovered for each skewer. I experienced this level on a night when the grill was being tended by one of Mr. Ikegawa’s lieutenants from Tokyo. Flavorful juices that tasted like captured essences swirled through a nearly collapsed cipollini onion and a meatball of minced chicken and scallions. Every skewer tasted of smoke, but not of soot or char. My memory reeled back and forth in time, trying to come up with a more effectively frizzled nub of broccoli, another forewing that tempted me to lick every bit of flesh from the harplike frame of thin bones.

The bad news is that this lieutenant was called back to Tokyo a few days later. This is, of course, the problem with trying to open a branch of a restaurant whose fame rests on the touch of one chef. That’s often the case with small sushi counters, and explains why simply taking Shion Uino away from Sushi Saito, in Tokyo, and setting him up at Sushi Amane in Midtown did not mean that his restaurant was as good as Sushi Saito.

Torien is not Torishiki, either. But no matter who is at the grill, a meal there still provides a glimpse of new and unsuspected pleasures that can be yours at the end of a bamboo skewer.

What the Stars Mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.