One night last June, I found myself on the second-floor terrace of a downtown hotel eating chicken sekker, wondering about the fire code.
I was sitting at a counter inside a makeshift shack crammed with unfinished wood and partially sheltered by a corrugated metal roof. Sliced chicken parts, from everyday cuts like wings and breasts to less common bits like tendons and neck skin, were browning over a pair of tabletop boxes filled with burning sticks of banchoton charcoal.
When the embers died down, the chef, Atsushi Kono, piled on fresh charcoal and fanned the air with a hand-held bamboo fan to blow oxygen into the fire. Within a minute, flames would be leaping toward the plywood ceiling. I thought, “What a wonderful idea for a restaurant.” Then, “It can’t possibly last long.”
I was both right and wrong. The open-fire, open-air yakitori cooking experience known as Chikarashi Isso at 50 Bowery is closing next month. But Mr. Kono and some business partners have built a new indoor restaurant on the ground floor down the block in a secluded passageway from the Bowery to Elizabeth Street in Chinatown.
Now he wields his skewers from behind a slab of green marble on which he occasionally lays a burning cedar plank, under a gleaming brass hood that sucks up any stray sparks. This grilling cockpit is surrounded on three sides by a pale wooden counter that appears to float in a halo of light in the center of a shadowy dining room with charcoal black walls.
I have to admit this in my food. who, I missed the pop-up breeze and the view of the Manhattan Bridge. On the other hand, I never cared about the city Fire Protection Inspector I’ll shut this place down before I even have a chance to sink my spoon into the Okinawan black sugar crème brulee.
What both iterations have in common is Mr. Kono, the city’s most successful yakitori chef and, by extension, one of its greatest chicken chefs. For more than a decade, his work was on display at Torshen’s, his second location, on West 53rd Street, where his deputies grilled a la carte skewers in the split-level dining room when That he assembled the sensational omakase menu into eight. The seat counter tucked behind the curtain.
These days it competes with the two-year-old yakitori bar Turin in NoHo. When I reviewed it last year, the chefs there were still fine-tuning their work. Mr. Kono thought a while back how he could get the results he wanted overnight.
The only meal available in Kono is an omakase dinner for $165. Proceedings begin with a flurry of small appetizers: perhaps a smoky slice of smoky eggplant topped with lobes of sea urchin, or a pair of cherry tomatoes poached in white wine.
But the chicken never leaves the scene. A few bronzed curls of skin are almost certain to appear soon, bent to the consistency of Fritos. Perhaps a cup of straw-colored consommé, roasted bones and green onions would be to be savored.
The Monaca course will, in all likelihood, be in circulation forever. Two mochi wafers are toasted over coals and then filled with an unusually rich chicken liver pâté beneath a pile of shaved truffle. This is the most unusual chopped liver sandwich in town.
It’s a brush with the other world, after which dinner descends on the more earthy business of muscle, fat, tendon, cartilage and skin. This portion of the meal includes between eight and ten skewers, which are carved around the bird.
The exact deductions will be chosen by Mr. Kono, although you will be given the option to purchase an additional course or two. Depending on the night, you might be served a pair of coxcombs, a chicken foot, speared ginkgo nuts, a king crab leg or a slab of wagyu beef. Ask what Mr. Kono recommends and you’ll be led to what my server calls, “ovaries, liver and fallopian tubes.” It is a skewer that runs the length of the fallopian tube with a lobe of the liver with a hatched egg dangling from it, like a bright yellow balloon on a stick. The egg is warm and runny. The eggplant is slightly chewy, a bit like the grilled venison Mr. Kono also makes, but soft and rich.
At the counter of a skilled chef like Mr. Kono, there are at least two different kinds of pleasure in eating a variety of yakitori.
There’s a clear sense: it’s sweet, it’s delicate, it’s crunchy, it’s too crunchy, it’s like steak but smoother. (That would be the heart.) Running parallel to this is the aesthetic pleasure you get from the work of people whose work you command a skill, whether it’s cinematography or rap or glassblowing.
At Kono, through intelligent butchering and grilling, chicken is not one ingredient but many. The inner thigh skewers are seared over high heat until their edges turn dark brown. The dark meat has enough fat to withstand the heat and stay juicy. The breast is kept off the flame, and its delicate, bubbling flavor reminds you why so many classic French recipes call for it. suprême de volaille. As longtime followers of Mr. Kono will vividly recall, he further protects the cut by wrapping it in a shiso leaf wrapped in a honey-sweetened salted plum paste, one of the few times he Season the chicken with anything other than salt and pepper.
The accordion folds of neck skin are patiently polished to a golden crisp. The tail is also carefully cooked, but this time the aim is to render the fat inside. What you eat is like a small chicken kefir.
All of these effects and others — even some that include the occasional vegetable, like smoked potatoes topped with a beret-like spoonful of oyster caviar — are produced with technology older than gunpowder. Charcoal burns between parallel metal bars, which support the ends of the skewers. Mr. Kono and a sous chef control the cooking temperature by bracing the coals, then twisting the bamboo sticks and moving them to hot or cold spots. The heat can be turned up a notch or two by cranking the fan.
The final skewers are minced pork, chicken and duck with scallions. Mr. Kono makes a wonderful sukone, which is charred on the outside but oozing with juices as soon as you open it, like a good sausage. It comes with a sauce, in the form of raw egg yolk.
By this time, you may feel like you’ve eaten enough poultry for one night. Mr. Kono has other ideas. Lately he’s been following the saker courses with half a quail, grilled on the bone. Next comes a small cup of cold noodles and finally crème brûlée under a pool of melted black sugar.
A friend whose penchant for expensive restaurants sometimes exceeds his budget called me a while back about Kono. He recently inherited some money and is spending it on restaurants that he couldn’t normally afford. Kono’s prices are much lower than some of the omakase sushi parlors he likes, but he still wasn’t convinced that the $165 price tag for chicken sekkers could be. Couldn’t he just go to downtown Flushing, buy some Xinjiang-style chicken skewers from a cart?
I told him I liked those cars too, but the two experiences couldn’t be compared. Kono is doing something completely different. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m very happy with these street spikes.”
A few weeks later, my phone started ringing as he sent me pictures from inside Kono. He was gone after all.
He certainly loved her.
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