Serving a 10-course tasting menu for $50, Tori Shin is surely one of New York’s most affordable restaurants. Paradoxically, this Upper East Side Japanese spot also is among the most expensive.
How’s that? The $50 sampler includes no truffles, no langoustines, no caviar. Guests sit at a cramped counter in a tiny room smelling of aromatic charcoal. They’re served a few small vegetable plates and seven “three bite” skewers of chicken, some of them cooked to a deliciously pink medium rare. (Don’t worry, it’s safe. A city health inspector dropped by during one visit. Suffice it to say Tori Shin is still open).
Such is the minimalism practiced at New York’s only Michelin-starred yakitori bar, a tasty temple dedicated to chicken-on-a-stick. In the U.S., its ho-hum ubiquity shouts wedding buffet or cocktail reception. But the Japanese adore it. Here, I’ll side with the Japanese, at least when it’s made with such devotion to quality.
Chicken oysters are a must. They’re a part of the bird you’ve doubtless never sampled, because cooks like to save them for themselves; there are only two per chicken.
A chef cuts the round knob of meat from a pocket of the backbone near each thigh and grills them over mild, subtle bincho-tan charcoal. The gently crisped skin gives way to a sphere of meat that’s only slightly firmer than a scallop. The flavor is concentrated, salty, luscious.
Call it “Kobe” chicken and order a la carte instead of the Wagyu beef ($18), a forgettable Australian product with none of the melt-in-the-mouth marbling that one expects.
It’s common these days to fawn over fowl as chicken becomes one of the pricier items on menus. Momofuku Noodle Bar’s fried birds cost $100 and book up to a month out. Then there’s the foie gras and truffle stuffed chicken at The NoMad, an absurdly delicious dish that serves two for $79.
On a price-per-ounce basis, Tori Shin’s $50 chicken tasting for one might be the most expensive of them all.
The ideal meal at Tori begins with foie gras. And by foie gras I mean chicken liver. Not your grandmother’s chicken liver, though.
Dollops of liver dissolve in the mouth like a savory panna cotta, with none of the usual sharp tang. It’s less about the flavor, which is neutral, and more about the texture, which is slippery and sublime.
Heighten the experience with a glass of Harada junmai ginjo ($19). The rounded texture and mouth-filling flavor of the rice wine provide the perfect complement.
Kidneys are sweet and tender. The meat is delicately bound by sinew that melts in the mouth. Indeed, Tori Shin is a good place to bring friends with an aversion to offal, because the flavors are all entry-level and not as gamey as organ meat more typically can be.
Hearts are only vaguely more distinct than a good chicken thigh, while gizzards, often tough and stringy, chew with a delicate snap. Tamer diners can take comfort that almost every meal includes juicy skewers of breast meat.
Repeat visitors can have a bit more fun by ordering from the page of “special skewers,” which details a variety of chicken parts that even advanced eaters might not recognize as edible, such as the soft bone or knee gristle. If a chef offers you the “main artery,” accept without condition, as it will be your rare opportunity to taste what will essentially be chicken- flavored rubber bands. It’s pretty rad, once you get used to it.
My most adventurous endeavor was a tasting of three different chicken skins: crispy skin; obscenely silky belly skin; and somewhat blubbery neck skin.
Chicken meatballs seem tame enough. They’re not. The salty spheres pack a curious crunch. What is it? Cartilage. If your dining companions ask for an explanation, lie and say it’s crushed nuts. Another bonus: One of your three vegetable plates might include soft eggplant with gossamer sheaths of bonito flakes. This is a vegetable course for carnivores.
There’s also a $55 tasting option, which includes fewer skewers, a cup of chicken broth, and a chicken rice dish; it’s a burdensome amount of food. Stick with the $50 offering and be firm about no duck (because it’s mediocre) and no pork belly (because it’s blubbery). Chicken is king here.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Set menus at $50, $55. A la carte also available.
Sound Level: Sometimes boisterous but usually around 75.
Date Place: Can get a little warm inside, so yes.
Special Feature: Excellent grilled cod roe appetizer ($10).
Inside Tip: The $20 omakase lunch is a bargain.
Back on My Own Dime: From time to time, yes.
Tori Shin is at 1193 First Avenue. Information: +1-212-988- 8408 or http://torishinny.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Craig Seligman on books and Upper East Side galleries.
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