During my high school years in New Jersey, I would from time to time drive out to Manhattan’s Saint Marks neighborhood with friends to go to one of the many Japanese izakayas there. At those casual drinking establishments (of course, we couldn’t order alcohol), we would almost always order some yakitori skewers since they are easy to share and are almost always delicious. The izakaya culture in the city has since boomed across different parts of Manhattan, and it’s easy to view these skewers as nothing more than easy-to-make bar food. The yakitori, however, is a serious craft in Japan, requiring many years of training in how to properly grill the meat. Toriko, which recently opened in West Village, is one of those restaurants seeking to showcase the elevated form of yakitori dining, led by a head chef with (according to the restaurant’s website) 15 years of grilling experience and butchering all of the meat in-house every day. Was the restaurant demonstrably better than the cheap izakayas in Saint Marks? My wife Jun and I recently visited it to find out.
We sat at one of the counters where the seating might be uncomfortable (the chairs have no back support), but you can see the master chef in action grilling each skewer with meticulous care until it is served to the diners by one of his assistants/disciples. For counter seat dining, you have to order one of the tasting menus (Toriko course at $70 per person and omakase course at $85 per person). We went for the former, and had no issue with portion even though the latter option had more dishes. We first met an assortment of seasonal amuse bouche, consisting of delicious snacks such as white fish, cod with egg cake and chicken liver mousse (chicken bone soup in the middle was a little bit too thick for my liking), followed by a wonderful foie gras chawanmushi (Japanese egg custard dish) with shaved truffle that was perfect for getting our taste bud ready before the skewers started coming in.
The Toriko course we went with consisted of a total of 7 chicken skewers and 2 vegetable skewers. Almost all of the meat skewers were spot on, with a juicy, tender texture of each part of chicken from tenderloin to heart to breast that shows the chef really understands how to grill the part in an ideal state. There is already a moderate amount of seasoning on top of each meat so you probably don’t need to add any pepper or other condiment. My two favorite skewers came at the end. It’s hard to go wrong with chicken meatball (tsukune) but the consistent level of texture was nonetheless very satisfying. While I haven’t come across a chicken part called drumette (it’s where the wing is attached to the main body), and am surprised why this is not used more often in chicken dishes after tasting the skewer made of it. For vegetables, cherry tomato skewer gave a nice citrusy break in between the skewers, but I can’t say I was a fan of the okra that was overly slimy.
Getting a reservation was Toriko wouldn’t be too difficult although if you want to grab the counter seating (which got almost packed during our meal), you might want to plan ahead. The restaurant has full bar with a diverse sake, wine and cocktail options; I would recommend going with sake flight (where you can get three shot glasses of different sake for $35 each; when Jun and I ordered one flight each, we got a total of six different sakes) to complement your meal. The sleek décor of the restaurant sitting on a relatively quiet street in West Village means Toriko would be an ideal place for a casual dinner without feeling interrupted by outside scenes (i.e. ideal for date nights). After our meal, I asked Jun what she thought about the place. Jun was a little bit more hesitant to say it was a definite upgrade from many izakayas she had been to. I guess that’s the inherent limitation of yakitori dining; it’s hard to distinguish yourself as a premium yakitori establishment. If I had blind tasted skewers prepared by Toriko and one of the cheap joints in East Village, would I be able to tell the difference? I doubt it. That doesn’t mean I give credit to Toriko for what it is looking to do in the dining scene, and I can confidently say that its yakitori experience is one worth visiting at least once if you feel adventurous.
KenScale: 8.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.0/10)
- Creativity: 8.0/10
- Execution: 8.5/10
- Ingredients: 8.5/10
- Flavor: 8.5/10
- Texture: 8.5/10
- Value: 8.0/10
Address: 76 Carmine Street, New York, NY 10014
Telephone: (646) 596-8198