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[Eat It]: Toriyasu's Yakitori

There are three yakitori restaurants in my Shanghai: pocket-sized Fukuchan, family-run Aska, and undisputed king, Toriyasu. That's all. Three. And I'm quickly revising that to just two: this Toriyasu ...
2009-06-30 17:06:00
There are three yakitori restaurants in my Shanghai: pocket-sized Fukuchan, family-run Aska, and undisputed king, Toriyasu. That's all. Three. And I'm quickly revising that to just two: this Toriyasu and that Toriyasu.

Aska was my go-to for a couple of years. It's a narrow, five-table storefront owned by a sweet couple whose names I forget. When the Japanese husband relinquished control over the grill, what made it special -- the expert grilling -- was lost on the new cooks. Quality slid; I gave up. Fukuchan's impossibly small quarter-of-a-storefront, including the grill and the cook, and dark, smoky atmosphere held some attraction for a while, but it was merely good, never great. Gave up on that one, too. Me and yakitori -- it's been a while.

Toriyasu is my new benchmark. As of last week, me and yakitori are back in it, hot and heavy. It feels great. The headbanded guys running the narrow grill are better than Aska ever was, and though it's larger than Fukuchan by an order of ten (meaning 50 customers, not 5), it has all of its atmosphere and more. To my knowledge, there's not better yakitori in Shanghai. It's real simple. The cooks pay attention; the grilling is perfectly gauged. I'm just guessing here, but from a chicken's perspective, I'd imagine ending up at Toriyasu is a supremely noble and desirable fate, like donating your feathered body not just to science, but to pleasure as well. You'll be respected, first and foremost, and labored and doted over, carefully turned and intensely monitored and infused with the smoke of a charcoal grill. You'll look your best, and your skin will be perfectly crispy and slightly charred, your thighs will be just barely cooked and dressed in a sweetened soy-sauce reduction, and your tiny heart will be splayed open, tender as the moment you fell in love for the first time, and then you will end up on my table, next to my third glass of draft Kirin, and I will eat you. It will be a spectacular journey that ordinary citizens of the poultry kingdom could not begin to fathom. Such is the exalted brilliance of Toriyasu, and the perfectly pure expression of the chicken that they deliver, one skewer at a time, out in Zhongshan Park. It's a lot to face at dinner, and it's god damn beautiful.

It's tough to pick, but stuck with only choice of skewer, it'd be liver for me every time. It's a dangerous game and full of disappointment, the liver. It cooks quickly and is ruined easily, changing from an intense and creamy morsel to an unappetizing grey organ in seconds. Before Toriyasu, I thought its highest state of being was similar to a steak cooked to medium or medium-well, juicy pink in the center ringed by well-done meat. In the last week, Toriyasu has disabused me of that notion. They trim off the edges of the liver, the usually overcooked grey fringe, and barely cook the thicker parts. It's center-cut liver, and it's like discovering medium-rare for the first time. I can't imagine being disappointed by it here. For the liver averse, there are chicken thighs. Go for the chicken thighs. They come either simply seasoned with salt (yan), or brushed with that sweetened soy-sauce reduction (jiang).

There's more to Toriyasu than yakitori. For example, there is beer, the natural partner to yakitori. And there is atmosphere in its warm decor, ceiling covered in split bamboo, and the streamers on its walls that function as the Japanese menu. (There's a handwritten Chinese menu, as well, but no English.) The half-sized door makes you feel like you're ducking into a secret, parallel world of salarymen and chicken worship and people in the know. There is also a host of non-yakitori dishes, like ramen, pork belly, and a hard-boiled egg in a broth full of leeks, and cold tofu with a texture that bears more resemblance to thick yogurt than bean curd. They're both outstanding. And there are other excellent items that come from Toriyasu's grill: crispy, charred chicken wings stuffed with spicy cod roe; cherry tomatoes wrapped in thick slices of bacon; delicate cuttlefish with a slice of lemon and grated ginger. There are probably a grip of dishes this good. But I can't read Japanese. Toriyasu and I are still just fumbling through these first, passionate encounters in the dark, clumsily grabbing at whatever seems appropriate, usually after several beers, but I like where it's headed. We could be big, Toriyasu. Huge. Stellar. This could be it.

Toriyasu is a bit tricky to find, despite it being smack next to all the activity of Zhongshan Park. If you've taken the subway to the Zhongshan Park station, here's how you navigate: Take Exit 3, which will emerge in front of a New Balance shoe store. Head left. That'll put you on Changning Lu, where you make a right, heading west. Walk down Changning Lu for 100 meters or so and make a right at the first intersection, which should be Huichuan Lu. From there, it's a two minute walk north on Huichuan Lu. Look for the facade of slatted, horizontal wood and the midget-sized door. That's Toriyasu. If you're coming by cab, Changning Lu and Huichuan Lu might work. Might not. Huichuan Lu isn't too popular, but there a few good landmarks to get your bearings from. The first is the Renaissance Shanghai Zhongshan Park hotel (longzhimeng wanli jiudian), whose eastern edge abuts Huichuan Lu, on the north side of Changning Lu. It sits on the northwest corner of that intersection. (Its western edge is adjacent to the Cloud Nine shopping mall). The other landmark is a large Suning outlet, which is across Changning Lu, on the southeast corner of that intersection. If you're facing the Suning from across Changning Lu, Toriyasu is in exactly the opposite direction. Look for the slatted facade. I haven't been to the Hongqiao Toriyasu, but I've eaten at several other restaurants in Peace Plaza. (Bankura, an izakaya with a smaller branch on Changle Lu, is particularly good -- except for the yakitori.) It's a U-shaped mall on Shuicheng Lu, north of the intersection with Hongqiao Lu, and next to a similar-looking cluster of restaurants in L.A. Plaza.

Three other important tips: reservations are essential, they're open until 2am, and it's cash only.