Food Rating: 4.5/5
Service Level: 3.5/5
Review: Based on Dinner Menu.
Price Range: $- $$$
Location: 251, W 55th Street
Do you know that taste buds detect chemicals dissolved in saliva from food in the mouth and send sensory signals to the gustatory center of the brain? An average person has around 10,000 taste buds in their mouth and I promise you that being a native of the original curry land and being rather average as a person, all my 10,000 buds signal to my brain that “things on a grill have no thrill”. I am usually not so high about barbecue genre of food coz why would I have my chicken dry if it can be dipped in a curry & converted to a chicken tikka masala? The answer to this perennial question came in the form of Yakitori Totto (Y.T), a Japanese restaurant in NYC.
|On the grill|
I was introduced to Y.T by a husband-wife duo- M&P who are not only my trusted friends but also allies in testing the NYC food bazar. My first dinner at Y.T was on a lovely mayday. No, that was not a typo. It was indeed a lovely day in May and I had not selected a birthday dinner place for Dear husband (DH) so mayday situation it totally was, till M&P rescued me.
Perched atop another Japanese restaurant on 55th street between Broadway and 8th, Y.T is one of those rare restaurants I have been to in NYC that make its customers do a pre-dinner walkup workout. Now be careful and don’t walk into the ground floor restaurant which is almost always empty and the staff looks rather disappointed every time a customer gives a promising glance towards it before walking up to the 2nd floor where Y.T is located. Once on the 2nd floor, the buzz and ring to the atmosphere is a rather happy one.
The place is super tight on space, super popular and super-fast moving, so don’t complain about (i) someone rubbing their ass against your food while trying to get into their seat, (ii) sitting for an hour staring directly into the back of those eating at the ‘open kitchen area’ (yes, you are literally sitting behind those eating so try not to fall into their plate while you wait) and (iii) the servers are not rude but they are in a hurry. They have quick feet and are sympathetic towards those waiting.
The best seats in the restaurant are facing the open kitchen and it’s totally fun to see the solo chef at work. He works on the food he is making like an artist playing Jal-Tarang (Don’t look so blank- just google the damn word).
|Chef at work|
If you have been reading my posts then you would know that my food reviews are incomplete without a bit of history and background.
|Fushima Inari Taisha|
Let me back up a little bit. Upon being told about the magic of Yakitori Totto by M&P, my first dilemma was - “what in the world is Yakitori?” I had never ever heard of the word before. I turned to Professor Google for help and quickly figured that Yakitori is Japanese version of skewered grilled food. What’s now a Japanese street style cuisine originated in and around 1604 when farmers suffering from ruined rice crops were visiting the shrine of ‘Fushima Inari Taisha’ in Kyoto to pray for prosperous harvest. While on the road they cooked and ate small birds which the farmers considered as a nuisance as they blamed the birds for ruining their crops. Eating roasted birds on the go, was quick and easy and provided much happiness to their vengeful hearts. The wave picked soon after and in the modern day Japan, Yakitori is available in most informal settings in small restaurants and on food stands. The equivalent of this style is called “thelle-walla food” in India.
Yakitori consists of juicy bite sized pieces of chicken (equal honor is given to all parts of the chicken) and other meats including pork, beef, seafood and vegetables neatly mounted on thin bamboo sticks and cooked either with salt or sauce as per request. I prefer – "with sauce". I am told on enquiring that the special sauce is known as the Tare sauce and is a concoction of sake, soy sauce and sugar. While I am not 100% familiar with what goes inside that sauce, what I can confirm more than 100% is that it adds and invokes a mouth dripping heavenly taste to the otherwise boring piece of chicken’s tasteless body.
Now that you know a bit of history, geography and stylography of Yakitori, the way I always like to think of food, let me familiarize you with the menu.
Without wasting your time on the salads and appetizers (I will touch upon this later), skip very quickly to the page which enlists Yakitori items. Now don’t start at the top. Start at the bottom of the page where it talks about the Specials. Before your server disappears, enquire quickly about the items which are no longer available from the specials. Chances are 4 out of 5 will not be available. Specials go out quickly. Pray, notice the small black board right behind where the makers of this lip-smacking food are preparing your meal. Yes, something is written in Japanese on the board and most of it is crossed out. – meaning? Those specials are over and out. The only way to grab one of those items is to arrive early and buy them out before anyone else does.
Out of the regular Yakitori menu, you absolutely have to try the Tsukune (chicken meatballs) with sauce. It’s my most favorite. (Mashed chicken is shaped into dumplings and covered with an outer layering of bread crumbs/ rice, seasoned with ground ginger root, salt and soy sauce.) I also highly recommend Chicken Oysters, these are soft and tender and melt in your mouth on arrival; Enoki Bacon is another favorite of mine, mushroom wrapped in a bacon with an outer layer of perfect crunch. Your tongue and teeth pierce through the soft outer crunch to reach the tender mushroom which explodes drenched in the flavor it picks from bacon and the tare sauce.
I liked the seafood yakitori lesser. I got the scallops and the shrimp and they both tasted bland. I recommend starting with chicken and vegetable items and graduate to red meat if you are a red meat eater. I personally think the chicken items are the best on the menu.
Two favorite recommendations from my DH are the Lamb Chops and Negi Pon (pork loin with scallion & ponzu).
Out of the non-yakitori items (rice and noodle section), I recommend the Rice Ball which comes with choice of Japanese plum, salmon, spicy roe or dried salted kelp. I like it with spicy roe and dried salted kelp.
From the appetizer section, the Croquet's filled with beef and vegetables are worth a try and Tori Dongo i.e. chicken meatballs wrapped in sticky rice is very interesting too, but I surprised myself most when I absolutely loved the Steamed Vegetable Salad on the menu. Remember we talked above tongue to brain signals, above? Salad usually emits numbing signals to my brain but at Yakitori the vegetables while steamed, retain a fresh crispy taste in them and the bagna cauda sauce (concoction of olive oil, garlic and anchovies) adds a superb flavor to it.