The term “shokunin (職人)” is often translated to craftsman, but most Japanese understand it as being completely dedicated to one’s occupation. This term gains popularity outside out Japan partly due to Jiro Dreams of Sushi when Ono Jirō harped on the spirit of a shokunin. This doesn’t limit to highly successful sushi masters — chefs of all trades devote their undivided attention on honing their crafts day in and day out. Part of the joy of eating in Japan is the chance to observe up-close these shokunins in action.
Of the countless options to choose from, I picked Yakitori Imai. A one-man operation in Sendagi prior to late 2016, this yakitori joint is now located on a quiet side street in Jingumae, an area with some promising restaurants opening over the past few years. The crew has ballooned to around half a dozen. The dining area is sleekly renovated with 30 seats that run along three sides of a large open kitchen.
Upon entry we were greeted by chef Takashi Imai, who was standing in the very middle busy grilling meat and directing traffic. We were seated at a corner in front of the vegetable-grilling station and next to the washroom. Even though we could almost touch the stoves, the effective air ventilation prevented any smell from reaching the customer’s section.
The price was very affordable — a set menu with six skewers and several side dishes was a mere ¥4,500. I have noticed wine drinking has become mainstream in Tokyo — even at a yakitori joint where beer traditionally rules, more than half of the customers ordered wine. We were the only one who had sake, perhaps the surest sign of being tourists.
Leading off was creamy chicken liver pâté on bread, followed by a bowl of chicken broth and two pieces of lightly seared chicken breast. The meat was raw in the middle with a slightly slimy texture and was eaten with wasabi.
More livers arrived in the form of skewer. Just when I thought I already had my weekly share of innards, this skewer blew me out of the water. It felt like biting into the richest cheesecake — there was only sweetness and none of the slimy tissue often found in liver.
After a spoonful of tofu to clean our palate the meat arrived slowly but steadily; first it was momo (thigh), tender and juicy; negima (chicken leg with scallion) was a little dry; tsukune (meatball) was tough and chewy, not quite the texture I was expecting; nankotsu (cartilage) was crunchy; mune (breast) was the best since the thigh, juicy and not overdone. Last but not least was the corncob, slightly burnt on the surface which brought out all the sweetness of the kernels.
Not quite satisfied, I ordered two more skewers. Everyone’s favourite skewer, the sori (oyster) was the night’s second best after the liver.
Kawa (skin) fared worse. The whole point of ordering skin is to indulge in its crispiness, instead I had to chew on the blubbery fat under the flabby skin. The skewer was clearly unevenly cooked.
The food was unexpectedly hit or miss, but for ¥6,000 a person including several drinks Yakitori Imai offers decent value. Perhaps the food was more consistent when chef Imai oversaw the entire operation back at the old place. Beyond the food we enjoyed watching the action — both from the constantly-moving crew and the full-house of customers drinking and eating the night away.
Address: 2-29-4 Sendagi, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo
Opening hours: 17 – 23:00; Tuesday – Saturday