You can never get sick of eating toriyaki – skewers of charcoal fire grilled chicken – and you can also run out of excellent choices. I brought our host of the evening the last time to Toriyoshi in Akasaka, he returned the favour this time with “Akasaka Zanmai”.
Jidori does not correspond to a specific region of Japan. Instead, the term roughly translates to “from the ground.” Jidori chicken refers to a type of mixed-breed domestic free-range chicken known for its robust flavor. The original Jidori chicken began when a precious pure breed of chicken called Hinaidori was crossed with the Rhode Island Red to create Akita Hinai-jidori. Freshness is the real difference between jidori-style and factory-raised chickens. Jidori chickens are never frozen, and retain less water than most chickens, resulting in a pinker breast, firmer texture, and fuller chicken flavor.
Akita Hinai-jidori 比内地鶏 is, along with Nagoya Cochin 名古屋コーチン and Satsuma Shamo 薩摩鶏, one of the top three chicken varieties in Japan. Hinai Chicken (hinaidori) is so good; it was certified as a protected breed more than half a century ago, like Kobe beef. Some people say it tastes like Copper Pheasant. As the delicate nature of Hinai chicken isn’t quite compatible with modern farming (kind of like trying to hand make millions of gallons of craft beer), its roosters have been bred with the Rhodes Red hens to produce the Hinai Jidori. It has all the taste of the Hinai chicken, but with greater availability
In Zanmai, they only serve hinai-jidori that have been sent daily to the store. Carefully selected chicken are skewered skilfully together and seasoned with natural sea salt from Izu Oshima. This pure domestic natural salt rich in natural minerals born from the Kuroshio Current of Izu Peninsula enhances the umami of the ingredients to the max.
Like all izakayas, you are presented with an otoshi once you are seated and the cost is already counted in your “seat cost” typically charged with izakayas. An otoshi is often served as soon as you sit down at a table, or arrives with your first alcoholic drink. It is similar to the amuse-bouche of French cuisine. However, otoshi is not complimentary and is added to the bill as a cover charge at most restaurants. The otoshi system is actually more similar to the Italian coperto, which includes a cover, bread, and service charges.
The word “otoshi” is derived from tosu in Japanese (to make a path between two places). There are several theories concerning the origin: one claims that tosu means “to relay orders to the kitchen,” and another claims that tosu means “to guide guests to a table.” In either case, otoshi was originally intended as a hospitality nibble to serve guests until their food arrives.
After our host ordered for the table, the first appetiser course of grilled edamame with Izu salt was served with our drinks. The grilling gives the edamame a smoky taste.
ホヤの塩辛 marinated squid
Another favourite of mine to go with the drinks, ホヤの塩辛 marinated squid is a whole squid instead of just the innards or cut up pieces of squid. Very salty, so it has to be eaten in moderation – sodium and cholesterol count alert!
比内地鶏の鶏わさ Hina chicken wasa
Only in Japan can you safely eat chicken sashimi. 比内地鶏の鶏わさ Hina chicken wasa was poached only so slightly and mixed with a wasabi soya sauce and sesame oil with boiled greens and garnished with seaweed for that umami.
比内地鶏 Hinouchi Chicken
Now the proper dinner starts.
To highlight the goodness of the chicken, any yakitori restaurant would definitely serve their ささみわさび sasawa wasabi if you order the omakase. The chicken breast meat is grilled using Bincho charcoal so slightly to have that charred taste, but when you bite into it, it is still raw but warm. The breast meat retains the juiciness. The wasabi gives you a false sense of security as many say the wasabi has antiseptic properties.
Tsukune (つくね) is Japanese chicken “meatballs” that are never the shape of balls when you eat them in Japan. Tsukune is usually seasoned with salt or sweet soy sauce – yakitori “tare”. Ingredients for “tare” are similar to teriyaki sauce, but “tare” is much thicker and saltier. When the yakitori “tare” gets caramelized under the broiler (or over the grill), the tsukune becomes incredibly delicious. Slightly charred soft ground chicken with bits of shiso leaves and scallions and drizzled with tare…it’s hard to stop eating just one.
But here, they don’t use a tare. Instead, they depended on the natural taste of the chicken and the seasoning they used with the minced meat. Fantastic flavours and moisture. It is one of the best tsukune I have tasted by far, and I have tasted so many tsukunes!
Innards of the chicken are usually overcooked everywhere, but in Japan the highlights of the yakitori meal are usually the innards. The 砂肝 gizzards were cooked perfectly, retaining the crunch and salted properly.
My favourite innard is the レバー liver and it is really difficult to make them perfectly. They used the tare and you can taste the caramelisation.
A part that is usually thrown away, ぼんじり bonjiri is just a cute little piece of fats and skins just above the chicken’s “your know where”.
And last but not least, もも thigh with negi.
比内地鶏竜田揚げ Hina chicken karaage
What do you get when you deep fry one of the best dark meat in the world? The best fried chicken of course!
比内地鶏竜田揚げ Hina chicken karaage uses the hinouchi chicken, coated with Japanese kaarage mix and deep fried to produce one of the juiciest, most tender fried chicken one would taste choked full of chicken flavours.
水郷赤鶏 ”鳥すき焼き” chicken sukiyaki
Enough of hinaijidori, we now switched to a slightly different type of chicken breed – Suigo red chicken 水郷赤鶏, also known as Rhode Island Red. Suigo red chicken is raised in Chiba and Ibaraki prefectures. The chicken has certain amount of fats and is suitable for sukiyaki. They used a special sukiyaki sauce to cook the chicken thighs on a cast iron pan, caramelising the sauce along the way.
And paired with the “best eggs in Japan” from the same bred, these organic eggs are laid by free-range hens and have naturally brown shell and a bright orange yolk. Kind of surreal to see the same bird dipped in the egg yolk.
Non Chicken Courses
Kyo-yuba 京ゆば (湯葉) is one of the most popular ingredients of traditional Japanese cuisine such as Shojin-cuisine or Kaiseki cuisine. Yuba is a thin layer of soy bean curd that appears on the surface of soy milk when they are boiled. It’s highly nutritious food, specially the protein content of fresh Yuba is four times of Tofu, or same as a slice of beef filet steak.
とろみ湯葉刺 Toromi yuba bites is a glazed yuba sashimi eaten with shoyu – it is a special way of eating yuba, the first time I have tried this cooking method. Soya milk has been thickened slightly with a thickening agent and mixed with the yuba. The entire yuba ball is chilled and eaten like a sashimi.
Next course, the shiitake mushroom. What I liked was the finishing touch of scoring the mushroom and returning it to the grill for a quick searing so the flavour was enhanced yet the mushroom did not lose any of the moisture.
Located on the 6th floor of Akasaka Alto Building (same building as Shabugen), a mere one minute on food from the Akasaka Mitsune Station, it is in an excellent location. The store has a small counter and a private room. Choose the counter seats if you enjoy observing the cooks in action right in front of your eyes but get ready to leave with a nice smoky smell. Private rooms that can accommodate small groups up to 20 people are ideal for various banquets.
Originally from Kumamoto Prefecture, after graduating from culinary school, Chef and Owner Naragino Seiji trained by working at Yokohama’s Kadoya Main Restaurant and Nakano’s Sawasen. He is now in his twelfth year as the head cook at Akasaka Zanmai. With “Simple is best” as his creed, he makes food that draws out the ingredients’ natural flavours.
Akasaka Zanmai 赤坂 ざんまい
Akasaka 38, Minato-ku, Tokyo 1 Akasaka Alto Building 6F
Tel : 03 5549 4718
Date Visited : Sep 2019
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