Friday, February 23, 2024

Torien (New York, NY)

Torien Restaurant
292 Elizabeth St, New York, NY 10012
Fri 02/23/2024, 08:55p-11:30p

Torien Exterior

As you might know, I'm quite the fan of yakitori, and would go as far as to say that it's my favorite way to enjoy chicken. Given this penchant, I made it a priority to visit Torien (鳥えん) on my latest NYC side trip from DC. Founded by Chef Yoshiteru Ikegawa in 2020, the spot is oft considered the best yakitori restaurant in the US (and it's the only Michelin-starred one), so I definitely had high hopes for the place.

About the Chefs: The story begins with Ikegawa Yoshiteru (池川義輝), also known as Ikegawa Oyakata (池川親方, or "Master Ikegawa"). He grew up in Edogawa, Tokyo, and first got bitten by the yakitori bug during his elementary school years, at both streetside yakitori-ya and the izakayas that his father used to bring him to. In college, he worked at a friend's parents' yakitori shop in Shizuoka, and it was at this point that he decided that he wanted to pursue a career in the craft. However, before delving further in, Ikegawa got a salaryman job, which funded hundreds of yakitori research meals. At age 27, he came across Toriyoshi (鳥よし) in Nakameguro, under the command of Yoshito Inomata (猪股善人), and was entranced. He was able to get a job there performing menial tasks, and was only able to actually grill after four years.

In 2007, after he was sufficiently trained, he opened Torishiki (鳥しき) in Shinagawa, near Meguro Station. The place was well received (it's notoriously difficult to secure a reservation), and achieved a Michelin star in 2010, which it has retained ever since. The success of the restaurant allowed Chef Ikegawa to launch numerous "Tori"-prefixed eateries, many in concert with LDH Kitchen: Torikaze, Toriyaki Ohana, Toriyoshi, Toritsuki, Torikado, Aobadai Torisora, Nakameguro Torimachi, Torioka, Torikaze in Shanghai, and of course, Torien in NYC. These were consolidated under the Torishiki Ichimon banner in 2023.

For Torien, Ikegawa-san's partner is Shōwa Hospitality, a San Diego-based operator founded by Julian Hakim, Aram Baloyan, and Edo Kobayashi that's also responsible for Sushi Tama in LA. The restaurant debuted in early January 2020 with Yoshiteru Maekawa (ex-Torioka) running the day-to-day, though Ikegawa was also on hand to get things up and running. Sadly, the pandemic struck shortly after the opening, and the restaurant resorted to selling soboro boxes and whatnot to-go, as well as offering yakitori-at-home experiences. Maekawa-san also returned to Japan during this period, and ended up launching his own yakitori-ya called Hamagurizaka Maekawa (蛤坂まえかわ) in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture.

He was replaced in November 2020 by Atsushi Ganaha (ex-O Ya), and Torien eventually reopened for indoor dining in March 2021. Then, in May 2022, Ganaha-san was supplanted by Hideo An Yasuda (a.k.a. Hideo Yasuda), who trained for three years at both Torishiki and Torioka before taking over here. Under his watch, Torien was awarded a Michelin star in October 2022, which it has successfully defended since then. Meanwhile, Yasuda-san's second-in-command is Rodrigo Acosta, and serving me tonight was Matsu-san, who spent considerable time cooking in San Diego, including at Himitsu, a Showa-owned property in La Jolla.

Torien Interior
Situated in NoHo near its boundary with Nolita and Bowery, Torien occupies the former digs of Siggy's Good Food, and Rice before that. The restaurant is pretty much just a 16-seater counter overlooking the kitchen, and pictured above is the view from the corner seat nearest to the entrance.

Torien Introduction Torien Chicken Parts & Binchotan Torien Menu Torien Beverage List: Sakes by the Carafe, Wines by the Glass Torien Beverage List: Seasonal Sake, Beer, Liqueur, Fortified Wine Torien Beverage List: Tea, Juice
Tonight's 13-course omakase-style tasting menu was priced at $185, up from $150 when the first place opened. We also see the restaurant's beverage selection and an information card with a bit of background and a list of chicken parts. Click for larger versions

Torien Sake List: Junmai, Junmai Ginjo/Ginjo Torien Sake List: Junmai Ginjo/Ginjo, Nigori, Nama Torien Sake List: Junmai Daiginjo/Daiginjo Torien Sake List: Junmai Daiginjo/Daiginjo Torien Sake List: Rare & Reserve Sake
Torien Wine List: Bubbles Torien Wine List: White Torien Wine List: Japanese Inspired Wines Torien Wine List: Red Torien Wine List: Red Torien Wine List: Specialty Sake, Fortified Wine
And here's Torien's full sake list/wine list, which is pretty respectable. Corkage, meanwhile, is a hefty $100 per bottle. Click for larger versions.

Welcome Appetizer
1: Welcome Appetizer | Chicken Spring Roll
My meal began with a crisp-skinned harumaki loaded with deeply flavored, comforting shards of chicken, complemented by bamboo and shiitake, with a smear of potent karashi mustard perking things up.

Grated Daikon
A mound of daikon-oroshi was provided to serve as a sort of palate cleanser between courses.

Shichimi Togarashi, Sansho, Soy Dashi
Condiments include shichimi togarashi (intended for courses served with lemon), sansho pepper (intended for the thigh and meatball), and soy dashi (intended for the radish above).

2: Thigh
The kashiwa was pretty stupendous thanks to the chicken's soft, slick, satisfying texture and subtly sweet taste, accented by touches of smoke and the zing of sansho. An early favorite.

3: Hearts
Compared to most chicken hearts I've had, the hatsu here was extra snappy and extra earthy, with an austerity of sorts that really opened up with a squirt of lemon, and even more so with a dash of shichimi.

Ryujin 'Dragon God' Nama Junmai Daiginjo / Gunma
To drink, I was in the mood for some namazake, so I opted for a bottle of the Ryujin 'Dragon God' Nama Junmai Daiginjo / Gunma [$155]. The sake featured a fresh, inviting nose of melon, tropical fruit, and grassy warmth that was both decidedly sweet and subdued at the same time. On the palate, I found the nihonshu soft and round, but with a trademark "nama" liveliness supported by fruity, nearly candied elements.

Chicken Oyster
4: Chicken Oyster | with Fresh Wasabi from Shizuoka
Soriresu (from the French sot-l'y-laisse) is a cut that I always look forward to, and it didn't fail me tonight. It had that semi-chewy, semi-slick texture I was looking for, and I loved how the bird was accented by both bits of crispy-smoky skin and the heat of wasabi.

5: Broccoli
The broccoli was also a winner thanks to its gratifying bite and mix of smoky and peppery flavors.

6: Shoulder | with Whole Grain Mustard
The kata was something that I'd only had at Tokyo's Toriki previously, so it was a treat to see it on the menu tonight. I loved the tender-yet-chewy nature of the cut, and how all the crunchy, smoky bits integrated, but my favorite thing here was actually that mustard, which offered up both heat and a smidge of sweetness. A highlight for sure.

Skewer Break
7: Skewer Break | Yukon Potato, Brown Butter
Serving as a sort of respite from all the chicken was this stout chunk of potato, which was also cooked over the binchotan grill. The jagaimo was absolutely delish, arriving wonderfully buttery and hearty, yet enlivened by pinpricks of salt and the brightness of chive. The tastiest tater I've had in a while.

8: Knee
I believe that this was my first time having hiza, which is a damn shame, since it was also another favorite. I loved the interplay of smoky and sweet here, as well as all the crispy charred bits. The salty heat of the yuzukosho was of course much appreciated, but even better was the zing from the Tokyo negi, which really took the chicken to the next level.

9: Meatball
The tsukune showed off a delightfully gritty, rustic consistency with some bits of cartilage thrown into the mix for textural contrast. It had just the right balance of sweetness and smoke, while the prickly sansho served as the perfect accent piece.

Brussels Sprouts
10: Brussels Sprouts
Brussels had that firm, crunchy consistency I was looking for, while the smoke from the grill really did a great job setting off the sprouts' inherent bitterness.

11: Wings
The tebasaki was probably the most straightforwardly satisfying course of the night, arriving deeply savory and smoky, with a lovely texture to boot. Scrumptious alone, with lemon, or with shichimi. You really can't go wrong with this.

Wing Skin
Supplement: Wing Skin [$10.00]
At this point, I was given the option of adding on up to three extra skewers, and of course I added on all three. Skin taken from the chicken wing (I believe they called it sakikawa) was another treat due to its blissful marriage of char, crispy bits, and fat.

Supplement: Arteries [$10.00]
The hatsumoto is actually Matsu-san's favorite yakitori cut, and I can see why. The offal just had this fantastic chew to it, and its base of sweetness really sang when juxtaposed against all the char going on.

Supplement: Tail [$10.00]
Regular readers will know that bonjiri's typically my favorite skewer, and that was arguably the case tonight. I was enamored by its intense, in-your-face amalgamation of smoke, savor, and fat, and was smitten by the cut's contrast in textures, too.

Tori Ramen
12: Tori Ramen
Our final savory brought a bowl of chicken ramen, which was yet another standout. The noodles were as springy and chewy as I wanted, and I was impressed by how robustly the smoke from the grill pervaded the dish, all while the bite of the onions served as the perfect accompaniment.

Closing out the meal was a hot, homey, roasty cup of hojicha.

13: Dessert | Lemon Brûlée
Served in an actual lemon, my crème brûlée featured a properly smoky, crunchy, caramelized top, while the custard was imbued with the sourness of the citrus.

I came into Torien with high expectations, and I was not let down one bit. Matsu-san's deft manipulation of the binchotan grill was on proud display tonight, and he was able to show off each cut of chicken in its best light, highlighting each morsel's unique charms and paying respect to the bird. In fact, the meal was pretty much flawless, and I'd easily call it the best yakitori experience I've encountered in the US. I'm hoping that we can eventually have something at this level in Los Angeles.


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