Tori Shou: Eel and Chicken Heaven

Tori Shou: Eel and Chicken Heaven

Around five pm, each and every day, a line starts to form at Kami Itabashi’s Tori Shou.  At six, the restaurant opens and fills up quickly.  It remains packed until closing time. The restaurant specializes in yakitori and freshwater eel (unagi).  Tori Shou is not written about in food blogs or Yelp reviews; even when you look at Google Maps it only appears under the generic heading: “yakitori restaurant.”  Those lines are not made up of food tourists checking out hidden “outer borough” treats.  Tori Shou is strictly for the locals, and those locals are willing to line up for it — day-after-day, week-after-week, year-after-year.

From the outside, Tori Shou is not much to look at.  A street-side window selling chicken skewers to-go, stacked plastic crates, some faded curtains and a window view onto a counter that looks over-illuminated with fluorescents.  Somehow, the whole place transforms when you walk inside.  It is cleaner than one would imagine and it doesn’t seem run-down at all. The counter is actually nice, the lighting not too bad and a raised platform holds a number of low tables for groups.  (On the other hand, there is an upstairs that is open for over-flow crowds.  It has all the charm of an ICE holding pen.  Avoid it.) Families are here, babies being passed around to avoid the father’s cigarette while the older kids play on their phones; old married couples taking a break from eating at home; salary men just off work, ties loosened, briefcases on the floor.  Groups of old friends, — hair turned white and dressed in near-matching mesh vests — pour each other glasses of shouchu.  They make toasts and gently tease each other about that newly appeared, tiny roll of fat just peaking over their waistline. These are people who have worked hard in their lives.  They buy expensive wallets and discount sneakers and go to Tori Shou because everything is just a bit better than it should be.  Sashimi specials abound — Sanma, bonito, tuna and seasonal offerings like buri all beautifully presented.  Someone knows someone at the fish market here.  Baskets of fresh veggies sit on the counter — baby eggplants, new potatoes, fresh corn, just-picked okra.  Each one fodder for the daily special (eggplants, lightly scored then wok-fried, served with bonito flake and radish sprouts; potatoes with slivers of bacon and a miso-butter; corn grilled in its husk; okra lightly blanched and served with hijiki).

The wait-staff are all older women.  Behind the counter, a man with head of snow-white hair so well coiffed it might not be real, controls the kitchen. His face is unusually smooth, radiating calm as orders come flying in.  Two young men act as soux chefs, wash dishes and do whatever needs to be done.   Like their customers, they all work hard: glasses are re-filled, orders taken fast and the food is prepared immediately and with care.   The specials menu changes every day.  Tiny shrimp, crunchy and hot, bathed with lemon. Grilled sardines with grated radish and ponzu. Fried chicken gizzards served with strong mustard and mayo. Chicken wings stuffed with gyoza filling and then fried until crisp. Chicken sashimi (the best I have ever had).  And then there is the yakitori.  The restaurant only uses one kind of chicken, from one farm and it is a proper bird.  Juicy and flavorful.  They have unusual cuts here — real whole bird eating — the tail i.e. the bishop’s nose is crisp and fatty, avoiding the gumminess that can sometimes occur.  The wings are my favorite — 3 pieces threaded by two skewers, skin crunchy, dripping with clean, yellow rendered fat — the meat perfectly seasoned.  Liver, hearts, thighs, the crunchy cartilage, and whole drumstick and thigh grilled to perfection, dipped in sauce and served with a mound of silvered leeks.  A glass of draft Beer is always perfectly chilled.  The selection of sake is skillfully curated and cheap — the waitress over-filling a square wooden cup, serving it with a small dish of salt to draw out the drink’s spicy undertones.

 

Eel is revered in Japan and it is expensive.  In the summer, people eat it to combat the malaise of heat and humidity. The rest of the year people eat it because it is unique and delicious.  My wife’s grandfather lived past 100.  He ate eel every day and was bicycling in his 90s.  There are restaurants in Tokyo that have been cooking eel for centuries, serving it with a sauce that has been slowly simmering, in the same pot, without a break, for that entire time.  I met a guy whose family owns one such restaurant in Yokohama.  During the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, his great-great-great grandfather risked his life to rush back into the shop to rescue, not a child, not a pet, but that pot of eel sauce. Eating eel in one of those places is an all-over aesthetic experience — it is steamed, served in a variety of lacquer boxes and people reverentially sniff the escaping steam like a vintage Bordeaux.   For some reason, there are certain, more rough-hewn yakitori places that also serve eel — skewered and grilled, and at market price, still pricey.  Tori Shou is one of them.  My son, bless him, has expensive taste. He eats oysters by the dozen; plotzed the first time he tasted real truffles and dreams about caviar.  (I hope he gets the money-making gene that I missed!) Of course, he loves eel.  The first time we went to Tori Shou, I was worried about the cost of eel. I only had a certain amount of cash in my pocket, so I made him order the cheapest option — just the grilled eel on a plate. He pleaded for the rice bowl set or something, and in a panic over not really understanding the menu, I got stingy and refused.  As I said, the wait staff are all older women.  They are past the stage of laying on the hospitality so thick. You get the sense with them that maybe the customer is not always right.  When the eel was brought to the table, our waitress had a moment of empathetic clairvoyance and, in a very indirect and dignified way, upgraded the order with extra sauce and rice.  It was a remarkable dish, three thick fillets of eel — the flesh light, clean, moist and eely in some indefinable way.  That long-cooked, passed-down-from-generations sauce was rich, but absolutely balanced —  far from the sticky, cloying syrup that coats the cheap muddy, grainy Chinese-raised eels that dominate the US market.  At around thirty dollars, it felt like a bargain.

Once a month, at least, Tori Shou calls to me.  Maybe it is a week where I have just cooked too much and can’t even figure out what to make.  Or maybe it is a week where my nerves have been frayed, and my apartment and Japan itself feel just a little too small and cramped and I need something to remind me why I am here, so far from home.  And then, Tori Shou provides the answer: the joy of the perfect chicken wing. The look of almost erotic anticipation on my son’s face as the eel approaches. I am granted a moment of pure indulgence for myself and my family.   My savings and my dignity intact.

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