Sunday, February 15, 2015

Toritama - Finally, a legit yakitori joint

We have been longing to go to this new yakitori restaurant on Glenealy but their waiting list just grew longer and longer since it opened last October. So when my friend managed to make a booking on a Tuesday night and asked who's available to join him, we immediate raised our hands.

Toritama marks the latest Japan-based restaurant making its entry to the local culinary scene. Originally based in Tokyo (in Shirogane neighborhood) with a branch in Singapore, the restaurant specialized in chicken and pretty much chicken only. We made our climb up to the steep Glenealy above Lan Kwai Fong for our late dinner booking (9pm), and found ourselves inside this small restaurant with only 20 seats ringed around the open kitchen. Instead of many yakitori restaurants in Hong Kong which looked like an old-schooled izakaya, Toritama featured a rather contemporary decor, with recessed lighting and dark wood counter, and wines and sakes showing off in the glass cabinet around.

We were seated at one end near the entrance, which meant most of the time we only saw Chef Hironobu Matsumoto's back as he's facing the front cooking behind the electric grill. Not a big problem really and I could take pictures at will without feeling awkward flashing my camera at his face all the time. We were given the menu on a simple piece of paper while munching on raw cucumber and carrot sticks served with a red miso paste.

The menu features a couple dozen types of chicken parts and innards cooked in skewers, with an anatomy diagram printed at the back of the menu detailing what exactly they were. There were also a number vegetable choices plus a few meat skewers, and cooked side dishes plus rice completed their offering. They also have 3 "o-susume" menus, set choices based on chef's recommendation from 7 skewers to 12 skewers plus sides and dessert. But this time, wanting to take things in our own hands with focus on the more unusual items, we decided to order a la carte.

First to arrive was tsukune - grounded chicken meatball. It has a soft texture with some cartilage bones mixed inside and was lightly-seasoned. I think it was okay, though I am more used to the type with more crunchy bones and a richer tare sauce.

But the rest was nothing less than spectacular as we went through the whole spectrum of dishes from the more usual choices like tebasaki (wing) and sunagimo (gizzard), to special ones like soriresu (chicken oyster) and misaki (hen tail). A few of them stood out as particularly memorable. Soriresu, or chicken oyster, is the dark meat close the thigh, said to be one of the most flavorful cut of a chicken. It's so soft and delicate. The engawa was the rib "meat" which has a super crunchy texture, almost like soft bones, and served simply with a light splash of seasonings on top. It's different than the genkotsu (the knee soft bones) we were more familiar with. Sasaki (white meat with wasabi) could be dull and dry in many other places, but here it's surprisingly tasty and moist, even for white meat. It showed excellent skills of Chef Hironobu manning the grill and timed the cooking perfectly.

I am usually not a fan of chicken tail but I went along with the misaki (tail of a female chicken). We were told that's the only part imported from Japan - the rest uses local chicken. It doesn't have that gamey flavor I detest and I actually like its bouncy texture. We also went for a few vegetable skewers - of which my favorite was kinshinsai, or daylily/golden needle vegetable. It has a delicate texture with subtle sweetness. I also like the ginnan, or the gingkos, with the unique sweet flavor too (and not a hint of bitterness).

We were in for the late seating and we were disappointed that a few items we wanted were sold out by the time we ordered. But they do have a few off-menu items available (which was shown in the diagram at the back but not the list in the front). We had the saezuri, or the esophagus, and that was excellent.

I lost count of the number of skewers we had, but we felt like we wanted to finish with a pair of donburi bowls and a small cup of chicken soup. I was surprised at how nice the donburi was - the Toritama Donburi was served with a poached egg, grounded chicken and grilled chicken thigh, while the Oyako Donburi was cooked with scrambled eggs, onions and chicken breast then topped with shredded nori strips. I love the right balance between the sauce and the rice, and the rice was cooked perfectly with the "al dente" texture. On the other hand, in retrospect I think I would be happy to swap the soup for another skewer instead - the soup was alright, but I was expecting something more intense. Guess local chicken doesn't have that rich flavor as compared to those Japanese special breeds, which became evident in the making of the soup using the bones.

Our friend brought along a bottle of shochu from Kagoshima so we didn't even look at the drink menu. I wasn't a connoisseur of shochu but this one, fermented using local rice and imo and distilled over traditional wooden cask, went down smoothly and was very enjoyable. They charged a corkage fee for opening your own bottle but was more than reasonable. And the service was excellent throughout the evening - food was presented in perfect pace, staff was friendly and knowledgeable, and I like the overall vibe of the place where we saw chefs working at ease behind the counter and people just talking, laughing and enjoying their food around us. 
Toritama is probably the best yakitori joint in town right now, and it's more than decent even in Tokyo standard (my friend was saying the place would probably garner a 3.6-3.8 tabelog rating if it's in Tokyo). We have been looking for a yakitori place we could go more regularly since the previous ones we went were either closed or gone downhill since their chef left - maybe we have found one finally here.

When? February 10 2015
Where? Toritama, 4 Glenealy, Central, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Everything chicken!
Drinks? Gokujo Kura No Shikon Imo Shochu, Komasa Jyozo (極上 蔵の師魂 芋焼酎 - 小正醸造)

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