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How to Eat the Best of Tokyo Without Leaving New York City

By Katherine LaGrave

01.13.20

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The interior of Torien is set like a stage, with lights trained on the chefs.

Photo by Liz Clayman

The interior of Torien is set like a stage, with lights trained on the chefs.

A new restaurant from Tokyo’s yakitori master recently opened on the Lower East Side.

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My husband and I are not usually quiet during dinner. There’s the weather to discuss, the state of the New York subway, the state of the, well, state. But on a recent weeknight, we were rendered practically speechless in a sleek 16-seat restaurant behind an unassuming entryway on the Lower East Side.

It wasn’t just the 13-course meal that kept our mouths open (and closed, and open and closed, again). It was that there was so much to see: Chefs coating precisely cut pieces of chicken shoulder with a ripple of salt from three feet above the skewer; chefs knocking apart blocks of onyx-black binchotan charcoal and adding them to the grill. Then there was The Chef himself, Yoshiteru Ikegawa, in from Tokyo, who stood manning his station like a conductor fully in control of his orchestra—a flick of the wrist here, a swipe of soy sauce there. It was a concert of the highest culinary sort.

When it comes to yakitori, or skewered chicken, Ikegawa is considered a shokunin, or master artisan, according to New YorkFood & Wine has called him “the world’s greatest yakitori chicken master,” and Ikegawa’s hometown newspaper, the Japan Times, notes that “nowhere does it better” than Ikegawa’s 17-seat restaurant Torishiki. But in Tokyo—which has more Michelin stars than any other city, mind you—perhaps nowhere is harder to get a seat.

Binchotan is prized for the way it burns—cleanly and without smoke.

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It’s excellent news, then, that Ikegawa’s just-opened New York City offshoot, Torien, does take reservations for its two-hour yakitori omakase. The chicken isn’t from Japan, nor are the vegetables flown in from the Land of the Rising Sun. But the menu is identical, and the two types of binchotan—the charcoal that fuels the $2,500 grills, also imported from Tokyo—are the same. 

Also from Japan: The wood, the plates, the rice cookers, the bar, the soy sauce, the sansho and chili pepper seasonings. The aesthetic, too, is distinctly Japanese, thanks in no small part to the work of Japan-based Oyamatsu Design Studio, which outfitted the foyer with a neat rock garden and fashioned the main dining room as a sort of stage, with black walls and lighting fixed on the chefs. (An eight-seat private dining room, tucked behind a curtain, is also available for rent.) The staff, from the chefs to the sommeliers to the hostesses and the waiters, all speak Japanese.

Ikegawa won’t stay behind the second grill at Torien—Torishiki without Ikegawa is hardly Torishiki, after all. But the New York restaurant will be in good hands: Yoshiteru Maekawa, who worked for Ikegawa in Tokyo for a number of years, will be running the show. 

Yoshiteru Maekawa, who worked with Ikegawa for a number of years in Tokyo, fans his grill at Torien.

And what a show it is. After starting with a gazpacho of chicken breast, tomato, plum, bell pepper, garlic, and cucumber, we moved through grill-kissed cuts of meat and vegetables, all placed carefully in front of us, still sizzling: There was kashiwa (chicken thigh), kata (chicken shoulder), zucchini, chicken heart, okra, nami (chicken neck skin), konomono (pickled vegetables), shiitake, sunagimo (gizzard), tsukune (ground chicken), kamo (duck breast), and tebasaki (chicken wing). Seasoning was largely absent—save for the soy sauce cut with sesame oil, dashi, and water, and brushed on in intervals—but the flavor of each skewer was magically, miraculously, distinctly its own. 

In case 13 courses don’t fill the tank, Torien offers additional options to finish the meal: sobolo don (rice with ground chicken), tori soba (noodles with chicken meatballs and broth), and tori chazuke (rice topped with chicken and soup), which can be added on for a fee. Though I knew I’d reached fullness around course eight, I looked at my fellow diners, smiling into their bowls and slurping their way to nirvana, and couldn’t say no. When in Tokyo, right?

Torien is located at 292 Elizabeth Street. The two-hour yakitori omakase is $150 per person and can be booked online here. The menu changes daily.

>>Next: Tokyo’s Long Lines Lead to Magic (and Life-Changing Ramen)

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