Monday, March 6, 2017

Our Fukuoka Christmas 12 - Yakitori Zen ... a barbecue state of mind

Put it on a stick, place it on top of an open flame and I'm yours!
Whether it's a bright red hotdog or bits of tripe, a slice of pork belly with fat or tightly bunched together chicken entrails ...  if it's barbecued, it's food that I love.
The humblest piece of meat, with the proper seasoning or marinade is transformed once it's grilled.  
In Japan, the equivalent of barbecue is yakitori -- mostly grilled chicken but diverse enough to  include other meats, fish or even vegetables.
Yakitori is a popular offering in izakayas or bars.   My favourite yakitori joints are smoky, boozy
little places, usually nestled in narrow alleys or under the train tracks and frequented by salarymen and locals. 

On this trip to Fukuoka,  there were many restaurants around our Airbnb apartment rental, one of which was a yakitori place right in our building.   How convenient -- I could pop down and have my 
yakitori fix anytime.

A few evenings later, this is just what we did.  We traipsed down to Yakitori Zen (an apt name
for the state of mind that good food invariably reduces me to) for a few skewers and a few beers.

 Yakitori Zen was a bit bigger, neater and certainly better lit than most of the hole-in-the-wall,
along-the-riles (by the railway tracks) places that I normally go to in Tokyo.
There were a few tables for bigger groups.   We hesitated as to where we would sit but the chef waved us over to sit at the counter in front of the open kitchen. 

I was happy to see an english menu.   At Yakitori Zen, you can order a la carte or have your skewers by the set.  Tonight,  we were just "grazing" so  we ordered one serving composed of  7 skewers,  "omakase"  style (chef's recommendations).  

Izakayas normally give you small dishes of otsumami or snacks to go with your beer.  
These are placed in front of you the minute you sit down.  
If there is a "table charge" (between 300 and  500 yen)  this is what you are paying for.  For places without a "table charge"  like Yakitori Zen,  these are on the house.
Our small bowls had stewed mushrooms with bits of chicken and an appetiser of simmered vegetables with fried tofu and a few slices of hot red peppers. 

I could not wait to sip my beer -- ice cold and heavenly.  Hand torn cabbage leaves tossed with a refreshing ponzu vinaigrette  is not a salad but is meant to be eaten with the yakitori -- think of it as having slaw with your barbecue.

On the counter is a glass encased chiller with trays of the various prepared yakitori sticks -- just waiting to be seasoned and grilled.  On the first night that we visited, we ordered the set but on our next visit (yes, I went twice)  I just pointed to what I wanted to eat.

Yakitori can be seasoned two ways -- shio or just lightly salted and tare, brushed with a special sauce.  Normally the chef makes his own tare so you never quite get the same flavour from each yakitori place.  While I prefer plain shio some cuts of meat are better eaten with tare sauce.

With our counter seats, we had a ringside view of  the chef as he worked  -- here he lightly drizzles the skewers with salt (usually also mixed with a bit of ground pepper).

The sticks are placed on the grill for just a minute or two. The skewers are frequently turned so that a 
good sear can trap in the juices.  Yakitori is never dry but always moist and juicy.

Our omakase set  started with sunagimo or chicken gizzard which is one of my favourites.  
The other skewer looks like tsukune or chicken meatballs but the chef said it was made of  both ground chicken and pork. 

Our next skewer was sinful but scrumptious pork belly with negi or japanese leeks, a riff on the classic negima.  
Some poor octopus lost a few of his eight legs, giving it up for this tako yakitori -- it was soft but still firm and just so delicious.  
Check out Yakitori Zen's special chopsticks at the top of this photo. Rough hewn twigs that looked like they had  been taken straight from the tree.   

Reba or chicken liver, alternated with bits of scallions, is brushed with tare sauce and dredged through sesame seeds.  The sesame seeds and the bits of crunchy char work together to remove the mineral-ly, metallic  taste of chicken liver that I normally do not like.

We have a few more skewers -- mune or chicken breast is paired with sliced white onions. 
We also get chicken with asparagus stalks -- the chef's healthier but no less tastier version of the 
more common  aspara bacon (bacon wrapped asparagus). 
And I finally get to taste the chef's excellent tsukune or chicken meatballs glazed with tare.   
Motto biru kudasai! (one more beer please!)  
Full disclosure -- we had double orders of the tsukune right after we tasted it.  

Our chef was rather shy but not unfriendly.   I liked his twists on the normal yakitori varieties --  
his "zen" focus resulted in perfectly matched ingredients and flavours.
While there was an assistant to slice the meat and deliver the orders to the tables,  the chef himself  attended to us seated along the counter while at the same time, cooking up the orders as they came in.

At the other end of the counter, our seat mates were obviously enjoying an evening of beer-y banter and what seemed to be a steady supply of yakitori

Izakaya fare includes other items besides yakitori -- agedashi tofu is a popular order.  
Silky tofu is dredged through cornstarch and lightly fried till a crisp golden crust covers the creamy block of soybean softness.
Set on a light dashi and shoyu sauce,  the chef's version comes with thinly sliced nori and grated daikon topped with a smudge of pickled ginger.  
Lightly simmered shishito peppers remind me of my favourite Galician treat - pimentos de  padron -and provide just the faintest sweetish heat. 

Yakitori Zen offers sashimi but only chicken,  duck and the specialty of Kumamoto  -- basashi or sakura yukke aka horse meat sashimi.  
Before you condemn me for eating My Little Pony,  please let me tell you that horse meat is part of the culinary traditions of  the Japanese and I was in no way eating something taboo. 
I had first enjoyed sakura niku (as horse meat is called) many years ago in Tokyo and remembered how much I was surprised by the delicate taste of the meat.
Sakura yukke is often served with a mild and sweet shoyu  sauce.  A small raw quail's egg 
yolk is placed on top of the meat  -- everything blends so well together that we finish the dish in no time at all. 

We took our sweet time at Yakitori Zen, enjoying the "zen" like feeling of being completely 
at  peace.   Or was it merely a yakitori and beer induced stupor? 
If you are ever in Fukuoka,  don't miss out on ascending to this "zen" state of mind.  
Look for  Yakitori Zen along Meijimachi dori, somewhere off the Sumiyoshi-jinja.  
The door is marked by this simple piece of wood that looks somewhat like a walking stick (or the rough chopsticks you'll find inside).

N.B. Thank you to my son Gani for some of his photos used in this post. 


No comments:

Post a Comment