To culinary uninformed ears, going to a chicken restaurant sounds more like a euphemism for a cheap date at KFC. Transfer this to Japan and you can’t help but envisage chicken-costumed waiters in a barnyard themed cafe serving chicken-flavor ice cream or some other wacky novelty dish. Luckily, the friendly staff at Tori-baka Ichidai, an izakaya specializing in yakitori (grilled chicken), dress normally, offering up a range of seriously tasty gourmet dishes in a traditional yet upmarket setting that will have you clucking in approval all the way home.
Centrally located in glitzy Ginza, Tori-baka stands out from the crowd of izakaya that inundate the area, occupying a tourist-friendly middle ground somewhere between the smoke-filled stands under the railway tracks and the expensive skyscraper restaurants. It’s an authentic yet accessible restaurant, and the gracious owners are keen to show yakitori novices the wonders of chicken cuisine, providing both a menu and booking service in English.
The philosophy at Tori-baka is simple; yakitori should be a complete experience, where ingredients are carefully sourced, expertly prepared and consciously savored from start to finish. The passionate chefs are hoping to change diners’ concept of chicken, raising the humble bird to a kind of wagyu status by showcasing its versatility and depth of flavor across an innovative menu. Highlights include the tender chicken thigh skewers (with the skin left on for moistness), flavorful liver skewers and the seasoned chicken leg confit with red wine sauce. There’s also non-chicken dishes like fresh konnyaku and raw vegetables, all artfully presented to top level #Instagram status. Wash it down in true izakaya style with premier sake poured into a traditional “masu” wooden box.
Dishes are made with selected chickens from different areas across Japan, according to seasonal freshness and taste (it’s pretty much guaranteed that these chickens lived a better quality of life than the people actually eating it) while skewers are cooked over kishu binchotan charcoal – a handcrafted, high grade charcoal that allows the taste of the yakitori, grilled one by one, to really come through. Above the charcoal grill, strips of chicken breast are hung to be smoked while the yakitori cooks.
There are three floors, each with a different concept but designed to a fusion theme where Japanese tradition meets modern, cosmopolitan dining. It’s sleek and atmospheric; lots of dark wood and classical art work, accented with colorful contemporary tableware. On the top floor, you’ll find the private rooms whose sliding doors, low tables and tatami are ideal for a work or personal party. The second floor caters to couples, with large shared tables and low-hanging dimmed lighting. The best seat in the house though is on the first floor, from where you can watch the chefs work their skewer magic from one of the up close and personal counter seats.
Tori-baka has been recruiting chicken converts since 2010, with its meticulous attention to detail all the way from farm to table reflected in the restaurant’s name – Tori-baka can be read as ‘chicken devotee’. Sign up to the chicken fan club at the original and only store in Ginza-itchome; it’s a 2 minute walk from Ginza subway station, on a side street behind the Printemps department store. Look for the wood-fronted townhouse and tall lantern printed with a red chicken, the sign above reads とりばか in hiragana.
Opening hours: Dinner, 17:00 – 4:00 (Mon to Fri), from 15:00 – 4:00 (Sat) and 15:00 – 23:00 (Sun and Hol)
Cost: Average dinner with drinks, ¥5000 – ¥8000
Access: Subway Ginza station, exit A13, 2-minute walk