Serious Eats: Hakata-Style Yakitori at Tokyo’s Hachibei

hachi_8_600_6104Tokyo is loaded with yakitori restaurants, most notably in Yakitori Alley near Shinjuku Station where the smoke-filled, sake and beer-stained holes-in-the-wall rumble with each passing train. Make your way to upscale Roppongi Hills, though, and you’ll find an altogether different yakitori experience.

Hachibei serves Hakata-style yakitori in a classy setting. Yakitori literally means grilled chicken, with any and all parts of the bird served up on skewers. That’s delicious, but you’ll find relatively little offal at Hachibei, and a lot more than chicken, as Hakata-style means variety on the skewer—with different flavoring as well.

Spritzing with high-quality sake and sprinkling with salt is what sets Hachibei’s yakitori apart from the outset. In addition to chicken, you’ll find items like pork belly, pig’s foot, beef tongue, and a variety of vegetables slipped on skewers and ready for high-heat charcoal grilling. The menu also includes appetizers, sashimi (including basashi—horse meat from Kyushu), boiled dishes, rice and noodles, and a specialty dessert.

Chef/owner Katsunori Yashima is the son of a butcher. Growing up in a small town in Kyushu, he quickly learned about meat and how to cook it. While many think of yakitori as lower-class food, Yashima seeks to elevate the cuisine, and has proudly expanded the Hachibei family of restaurants from Hakata and Fukuoka on Kyushu to Tokyo. He’s actually considered a pioneer in pairing yakitori with wine, and you’ll find a formidable wine cellar in the Roppongi Hills restaurant.

Katsunori Yashima “fanning the flames” in preparing a yakitori order. Yashima wouldn’t say if he’s a pyromaniac, but he did mention that he’s a former volunteer fireman, and that being a yakitoriya-san means “doing battle with fire.”

Katsunori Yashima “fanning the flames” in preparing a yakitori order. Yashima wouldn’t say if he’s a pyromaniac, but he did mention that he’s a former volunteer fireman, and that being a yakitoriya-san means “doing battle with fire.”

Sit at the counter and you’ll see the wide array of yakitori skewers ready for grilling. The meat always looks incredibly fresh. Don’t hesitate to ask about any of the items, as inevitably you’ll find things you might not recognize.

Sit at the counter and you’ll see the wide array of yakitori skewers ready for grilling. The meat always looks incredibly fresh. Don’t hesitate to ask about any of the items, as inevitably you’ll find things you might not recognize.

Along with the edamame, notice that you get a serving of cabbage. Sprinkled with a little ponzu, this is a hallmark of Hakata-style yakitori, as the cabbage helps cleanse the palate between bites of meat.

Along with the edamame, notice that you get a serving of cabbage. Sprinkled with a little ponzu, this is a hallmark of Hakata-style yakitori, as the cabbage helps cleanse the palate between bites of meat.

Yashima first spritzes the skewers with ginjo-shu sake, as it adds umami to boost flavor, and then sprinkles the skewers with salt. He says that being a good yakitoriya-san takes training, including three years of learning to skewer, and three years of getting the right salt balance. Sprinkling it is an art. With an open kitchen, Yashima says, “People expect to see a show.”

Yashima first spritzes the skewers with ginjo-shu sake, as it adds umami to boost flavor, and then sprinkles the skewers with salt. He says that being a good yakitoriya-san takes training, including three years of learning to skewer, and three years of getting the right salt balance. Sprinkling it is an art. With an open kitchen, Yashima says, “People expect to see a show.”

Negima on the left, and butabara on the right. Ma means “between,” with this skewer featuring negi (Japanese leek) between pieces of chicken thigh—a great flavor combination. Butabara is deliciously fatty pork belly.

Negima on the left, and butabara on the right. Ma means “between,” with this skewer featuring negi (Japanese leek) between pieces of chicken thigh—a great flavor combination. Butabara is deliciously fatty pork belly.

Behind you'll see endomame kushiage, which is a deep-fried green pea croquette. In the front is seseri, or chicken neck, which has chewy texture and is good in the ponzu sauce.

Behind you’ll see endomame kushiage, which is a deep-fried green pea croquette. In the front is seseri, or chicken neck, which has chewy texture and is good in the ponzu sauce.

A closer look at the endomame kushiage. It has an earthy pea flavor, boosted by a dip in the salt.

A closer look at the endomame kushiage. It has an earthy pea flavor, boosted by a dip in the salt.

In the back is a skewer of meaty eringi mushroom with asparagus and butter. In the front is tsukune. This chicken meatball is delicious when dipped in the spicy karashi (Japanese mustard) that accompanies it.

In the back is a skewer of meaty eringi mushroom with asparagus and butter. In the front is tsukune. This chicken meatball is delicious when dipped in the spicy karashi (Japanese mustard) that accompanies it.

This beautiful jar of lightly pickled vegetables is almost too beautiful to eat. Soaking in dashi stock, the cucumber, radish, daikon, miyoga, and shiso are a nice counterpoint to the grilled meats.

This beautiful jar of lightly pickled vegetables is almost too beautiful to eat. Soaking in dashi stock, the cucumber, radish, daikon, miyoga, and shiso are a nice counterpoint to the grilled meats.

This chawanmushi is like a silky smooth dessert for dinner. The savory egg custard is made with asari clam dashi, with tomato, cheese, and truffle.

This chawanmushi is like a silky smooth dessert for dinner. The savory egg custard is made with asari clam dashi, with tomato, cheese, and truffle.

Surrounding the quail egg on the left is enoki-maki, which is enoki mushroom rolled in bacon. On the right is tebashio. These chicken wings are perfectly seasoned with salt (shio) and served skin-and-all.

Surrounding the quail egg on the left is enoki-maki, which is enoki mushroom rolled in bacon. On the right is tebashio. These chicken wings are perfectly seasoned with salt (shio) and served skin-and-all.

The bincho charcoal reaches a temperature of about 1000 degrees Celsius. Fanning helps control the intensity of the heat, and this cooking technique makes the inside and outside of foods cook evenly.

The bincho charcoal reaches a temperature of about 1000 degrees Celsius. Fanning helps control the intensity of the heat, and this cooking technique makes the inside and outside of foods cook evenly.

On the left is gyutan. This beef tongue melts in the mouth, flavored by both tare seasoning and karashi. In contrast, the similarly seasoned sagari (skirt steak) on the right is chewier, with each bite extracting rich flavor.

On the left is gyutan. This beef tongue melts in the mouth, flavored by both tare seasoning and karashi. In contrast, the similarly seasoned sagari (skirt steak) on the right is chewier, with each bite extracting rich flavor.

This sukiyaki kushi is one of the best bites on the menu. The beef is tender and smoky, and there’s a piece of negi adding its leek-like flavor. As if that’s not enough, you get to dip into the fresh, raw egg yolk.

This sukiyaki kushi is one of the best bites on the menu. The beef is tender and smoky, and there’s a piece of negi adding its leek-like flavor. As if that’s not enough, you get to dip into the fresh, raw egg yolk.

Hachibei’s goma (sesame) pudding is a great way to end a yakitori meal. It’s sprinkled with kinako (soybean) powder and drizzled with kuromitsu (literally “black honey”) which is like molasses and adds a welcome bitter flavor to the affair. In the back is a citrus sherbet.

Hachibei’s goma (sesame) pudding is a great way to end a yakitori meal. It’s sprinkled with kinako (soybean) powder and drizzled with kuromitsu (literally “black honey”) which is like molasses and adds a welcome bitter flavor to the affair. In the back is a citrus sherbet.

Hachibei offers comfortable seating, with dinner and a show at the counter. There’s a “wine cellar” and a small private dining area in the rear of the restaurant.

Hachibei offers comfortable seating, with dinner and a show at the counter. There’s a “wine cellar” and a small private dining area in the rear of the restaurant.

Hachibei

Roppongi Hills Mori Tower West Walk 5F
6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku,Tokyo (map)
03-3478-3669; hachibei.com/en

(Originally published at Serious Eats on June 6, 2012.)