Wednesday, April 3, 2024

20 Courses of Chicken (and Sake)

“Take one sip after eating and swallowing. The best time is 5s after the food is gone from your mouth. Do not drink in 2 sips”

We have seen chefs being super particular about timing, portions and steps – for example, Chef David Chang’s recipe for his signature Soy Sauce Egg at Momofuku calls for the eggs to boil for exactly 6 minutes 50 seconds – but this is perhaps the first time we have seen chef being THIS particular about how his dishes are to be consumed. 

Yakitori Hirako sat in a quiet residential neighborhood not far from the busy Roppongi with a subtle entrance on a side street that looks more like a backdoor of some bars or nightclubs. Unlike most yakitori place which essentially was like an izakaya, this restaurant was quiet like those serious speakeasy style kappo place. Reservation is a must with menu pre-arranged, so we did that a few weeks in advance to book for the second seating at 8:30pm on a Saturday night and taking up the sake pairing option – more on that later. 

I love the dark wood décor with counter-only seating over an L-shaped bar with the capacity of 10. Dishes were prepared in the open kitchen with charcoal grill and plated right in front of us before serving. The place specialized in grilled chicken, prepared using the special chicken raised in Miyazaki Prefecture in Kyushu with various parts prepared in different ways. Some non-chicken ingredients were used as well, but in most cases there’s still chicken in those dishes. And before each course they passed us these little cards with detailed description of the dish along with the way of eating – and they were so kind of translate all those to English for non-Japanese speakers like us. And we needed those as we followed along.  

Our 20-course dinner began with Samgyeopsal – Korean style grilled pork belly – served with braised chicken on top and sparkling sake as aperitif. It was soon followed by a pair of chicken skin – Jo-gawa that came from the leg, and kawa which came from the neck area – with pickles served on the side. The neck skin served with soy sauce was crunchy with a nice bite while the Jo-gawa got an amazing gamey hint, working well with a dab of grated wasabi on top.  The half ajitsuke tamago (seasoned egg) was then served with sake in sipping portion served in a shot glass. We were told to drnk while eating and alternate 2 or 3 times (“each time you feel it’s delicious, drink alcohol” was the instruction given) 

The piece of thigh was grilled skin-on and seasoned with yuzu salt and we were told to drink one sip before eating in one bite and do not drink immediately after swallowing, so one could savor the aftertaste of the meat properly. Then the breast was seared tataki style – just grilled and cooked on top while the rest is served raw. This time, the suggestion was to drink while eating. Reba (Liver) was served raw. A rustic Junmai with slightly higher alcohol content was picked, with the subtly aged alcohol flavor brought out the sweetness from the soft piece of liver seasoned only lightly with soy sauce.

Throughout the night there were the usual chicken parts like thigh and breast and wing, and then there were some special ones like esophagus or kinnchaku (hip) or sasami (small pectoral muscles), or some with chicken being part of the dishes. The scallop with chicken skin was one of my favorite courses, with the piece of scallop carved and served raw with a brush of soy sauce with grilled chicken skin underneath – I love the combination of smokiness and fat in the skin with the crisp umami flavor from the scallop. I enjoyed the pairing with a delicate Junmai Daiginjo. The sasami was mild and tender and served with ground chicken topped with caviar in a small cup that brought out the flavor. 

There was this mistakable aroma as soon as the lid of the small bowl was open for what’s described as “Omelet”. It’s soft-cooked scrambled egg with grated white truffles on top – couldn’t beat that combination during the peak truffle season, I suppose. With that we were told to take one sip of a balanced sake before each bite and let the aftertaste settled before repeating the sipping and eating. 

We also had a non sake pairing too, with a glass of New Zealand Pinot Noir served with the grilled Maitake mushroom. By itself the mushroom got a nice charcoal, rustic flavor, but with the drink pairing, I felt it’s more rounded with a hint of sweetness coming through. The bonjiri no bacon (Bacon of Tail) was delicious too – it’s smoky and crunchy (like a bacon) and served with crunchy boiled soy beans on the side, which added to the texture and balance a little of the fatty mouth feel. Jo Seseri (neck) and Muneniku no Tataki were two excellent courses too - the former with a good bite, the latter with well-balanced flavor having seasoned in slightly sweet vinegar. 

Last savory course was rice with raw eggs and a bowl of ramen cooked with clear chicken broth. The raw egg was so good that I asked for a refill (one could refill up to 10 bowls, we were told) and finally, the customary egg pudding to conclude our meal with. 

Overall I thought it was an interesting experience – the instructions and all were a little over the top but it’s all fun. And we got to try over a dozen different types of sake in one night too, all done in different styles with a few vintage ones – that’s not something we managed to do often. They passed us sipping portion initially (for good reason since there were quite a number of bottles) but then we were free to ask for refill so we ended up drinking quite a bit. Would love to come back next time for more of these. 

When? November 25 2023
Where? Sumibi Yakitori Hirako, 1/F 1-5-23 Nishiazabu, Tokyo
焼鶏 ひらこ 東京都港区西麻布1-5-23 東ビル 1F
Menu Highlights? Everything chicken!
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