Traveling out to the Nakameguro district from central Tokyo is similar to a trip from midtown Manhattan to Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It’s not that far and there are many amusing and delicious reasons to go. Nakameguro is similar to parts of Brooklyn in that real estate prices remain reasonable and artists, designers, chefs and entrepreneurs have flocked there to establish high- and low-end shops and restaurants catering to the hip and trendy. It is now one of the more desirable places to live in Tokyo.
Smack in the middle of all things fabulously cool is the yakitori shop Kushiwakamaru, catering to neighborhood regulars as well as a rabid expat community since the mid-90s. It’s old-style Tokyo down to its most basic: honest food and brusque, efficient – yet accommodating – service. The management even allows smokers, which often gives the place a throwback feel. And because the restaurant is so popular with foreigners, the waiter will be happy to produce an English menu if asked.
While the word yakitori translates to “grilled chicken,” it can refer to any kind of grilled, skewered food, and at Kushiwakamaru, the menu is split up into various categories – chicken, pork, tofu, vegetables – all of which are cooked slowly over charcoal. Prices are per skewer. While the chef begins his grilling, customers start in on drinks, perhaps draught beer (available in reasonably small, regular and mega-pint sizes) or wine, mixed drinks or umeshu- (plum) or anzushu- (apricot) infused alcohol mixed with hot water. The waiter immediately brings a bowl of cooked peas for snacking. We also like to order asparagus wrapped in bacon, which cooks – and arrives – quickly.
The chef grills a few ordered skewers to be presented in small groupings, such as grilled eggplant topped with thin scallions, chicken meatballs, and white chicken meat with plum paste and shiso leaves on top. Chicken wings are moist, plump and salty, proudly arriving alone. There are Japanese peppers stuffed with cheese, then wrapped in pork. Salads are both beautiful and hearty. A raw vegetable salad comes with a simple dressing with complex flavors. Pork cheeks arrive later because they need more time to grill.
There are several kinds of mushrooms; shiitake and eringi lightly grilled are standouts. Individual garlic cloves are strung on a skewer like pearls. Ginkgo nuts glisten perfectly after some time spent over the coals. Shishito peppers call for refills on the beer or shochu (a distilled spirit made from rice, barley, buckwheat or sweet potatoes). Quail eggs feel soothing after chicken, pork or peppers.
Mentaiko (pollack roe) or ikura (salmon roe) round out the meal and bring it to the carbohydrate phase. Potatoes are slowly grilled, split and filled with slabs of butter. The skins are paper-thin and crispy delights. Onigiri (rice balls) are plentiful, plumped with either salmon, preserved plum or seaweed. Ochazuke, green tea over rice with a savory topping, is perfect at Kushiwakamaru.
There is the usual counter surrounding the charcoal grilling station and there are quite a few tables in a separate area. Unless one likes waiting, it’s advisable to try for a reservation or to arrive on the early side. While the service is brusque, it is never lacking, and drink orders are always easy to place and arrive promptly.
Yakitori is hearty food and the perfect excuse to enjoy a night out in Tokyo eating slowly, drinking with gusto and lingering over conversation while rubbing elbows with salary men out after work, locals meeting friends, ladies on a “girls’ night out” and all manner of hipsters and visiting foreigners. The restaurant is a two-minute walk from the Nakameguro train station. In warmer weather there is a lovely walk along the Meguro River around the corner, and during cherry blossom season the river passage becomes a pink paradise.
Editor’s note: We had skewered meat on the mind after the most recent dispatch from Queens about souvlaki and thought it would be a good time to rerun this 2015 piece from Tokyo.