Tuesday, September 06, 2005

St. Mark's Place, New York, NY - Yakitori Taisho

When you walk down the steps and enter through the doors of Yakitori Taisho, you're instantly zipped halfway across the world to Tokyo (where, incidentally, there is a sister establishment to the New York niche). From the bubblegum J-pop and J-rock bouncing around the narrow wooden bar-and-stool setup, to the hip, long-haired Japanese customers that look like they're straight out the edgy anime of hallucinogenic-laced, computer network buzzing Lain, I was instantly charmed. It's been a few years since I've been to Japan, and my memories have faded all too quickly despite the cramped notes that I scattered on broken leaves of paper along the way.

And all within an instant of stepping into the grilled smoky hideaway of Yakitori Taisho, it all came rushing back. That sense of comforting home-coming. The serene bell-like feminine voice that was the disembodied soul of the shinkansen. The grassy tip-toeing waves of swaying bamboo giants gently caressing one another. The uneven clip...clopclip... clop.. of wooden sandals that left me more unstable than 5-inch stilettos. The exquisite silken creaminess of matte-white mochi unparalleled in quality. The jewel-blue and neon-pink tones of heavily mascara-ringed eyes, and translucent paleness of washi-paneled walls and doors. Japan was a sensory heaven for me, and being reunited with it, even for less than an hour, made me smile in contentment.

Here, I was mesmerized by the quick flicks of the grill master pictured below. Make sure that he's in charge of cooking when you go, not one of the heat-fearing assistants that timidly yank at the skewer tips, jump back at the flame, and are prone to over-carbonize the meat. When the simple beauty of food comes from the perfect crispness of fat fried into a delicate shell and light smokiness tinging the sweet overtones of subtlely-marinated meat, a few seconds too little or much on the grill makes all the difference. Thus, the importance of having an expert eye (and heat-hardened hands!) at the stove.

His hands blurred with his quick actions in which he dipped, twisted, and flipped skewers with the delicacy of one playing the xylophones.

There's something magical about grilled foods, with the lovely interplay of textures and perfectly-warmed insides. Just as baked potatoes were comfort food for early 20th-century Laura Ingalls Wilder in her log cabin, salmon yaki onigiri (literally, "cook(ed) rice ball") had me purring in silent satisfaction. It was simply rice pressed around flaked salmon, and oh-so-lightly salted (optional). The crunchy outer golden-brown thick shell yielded to steamy, toothy short-grain rice and delicate bits of salmon. Two of these would make a lovely picnic lunch, desirable in either the summer or winter.

The menu features a wealth of meats, all carefully strung along skewers. We only intended to make this a snack stop, so we limited our selection to a trio of chicken gizzards, female smelt, and chicken skin. They came piled upon raw cabbage chunks, and drizzled with a dash of teriyaki sauce. The gizzards and chicken skin were both marinated in a sheen of teriyaki (typically, mirin, soy sauce, and sugar), and the juicy toothiness of the gizzards were fun to roll around in my mouth. The smelt were bulging with peach-creamy tiny balls of treasure; the sand-sized eggs were a lovely, crunchy counterpart to the white, flaky meat and crisp skin.

The shining star of the show, however, was the chicken skin skewer. WOW. This is food orgasm on a stick. Google image search for this, and you'll find a small collection of other Yakitori Taisho fans who also swear by this amazing little beauty. I put it in my 'crisp decadence to die for' category, along with creme brulee and roast piglet (much more ethereal and tender than the usual roast pig). The fat tucked into the skin renders into succulent oil that blisters the skin into fried heaven which can only be compared to fried pork skins the same way that high-grade maguro or toro (fatty tuna) sashimi compares to canned tuna. The skewer doesn't taste like any other chicken dish I've had. It crunched easily and delightfully noisily between my teeth, releasing its savory oils and clean, sweet mirin-soy flavors in a warm wave. Every bite was heavenly, despite Thomas Keller's (of French Laundry) philosophy that anything more than three bites is superfluous to the taste buds. I wished it could last forever, but all too soon, it was just a very sweet memory.

A memory to be treasured with those of my travels in Japan, and the beginnings of "Two Foodies" in New York.

Yakitori Taisho
5 St. Marks Place (between 2nd and 3rd)
New York, NY 10003


Blogger designwallah said...

A very good article that brought back great memories of a wonderful meal we had there in Dec 2004. Well written and well photographed.



4:21 PM  

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