The air smells of burnt chicken fat. The server, who attends to this diner alone, stands four feet away, waiting for me to eat. The chef, who prepares my entire meal with no assistance, fans his charcoal behind the counter, wondering if I'm going to eat. The setting is the months-old reboot of Tori Shin, a stunner of a skewered meat spot in Midtown West. I can hear the din of the regular dining area, which is packed. But in this more exclusive area, curtained off like a first class airline cabin, I'm the sole guest. The bill of fare is a $140 tasting of chicken parts, surely the most expensive poultry omakase in New York, if not North America altogether. Chef Atsushi Kono has already fed me whole hearts from six pound birds, slices of loin as medium-rare as Minetta steak, and something called main artery, which looks like what would happen if Steven Seagal plunged his hands into the neck of a live rooster and ripped out its carotid, just because. All of these preparations are delicious. But now Atsushi has upped the ante. He places a skewer in front of me. "Knee bone," he says. Am I really supposed to eat the bone? He smiles. "You eat the bone."
The skewer contains four ostensibly edible knobs. They have not been braised, liquefied, or pulverized, nor have they been boiled into a clear consommé or a milky tonkotsu. They are simply spheres of bone covered by a gumdrop's worthy of charred meat. Soft on the outside and hard on the inside, they are inverted Tootsie Roll lollipops for carnivores. I do not want to eat them.
Knee gristle, as it's also known, is common enough at New York's cheaper yakitori-yas (grilled chicken joints). But it's somewhat unexpected when offered as part of pricier, multi-course meals like this one. Instead of caviar, we're serving kneecap tonight. Despite the city's ongoing craze for paleo broths and crispysardine skeletons, chicken bones haven't really earned a spot on hip Brooklyn menus alongside tripe, feet, and other in vogue off cuts.
Knee gristle is one of the final frontiers in honoring an animal that unwillingly sacrificed itself for our enjoyment.
I start to gnaw on the ossiferous treat. The bone goes SNAP between my molars, shattering like a under-licked gobstopper. Japanese menus sometimes refer to this delicacy as "soft" knee bone, but rest assured, it is not soft. "We like the crunch," the chef tells me. So do I. The bone has no flavor. It is pure texture. It is the adult equivalent of a child eating a plastic Happy Meal toy, minus all the digestive repercussions. It is one of the final frontiers in honoring an animal that unwillingly sacrificed itself for our enjoyment. It is, without question, one of the reasons why Tori Shin remains the city's best and most ambitious yakitori joint.
Remains is the operative word because Tori Shin has been going at it since 2007, when Atsushi (along with owner Shu Ikeda) set up shop on Manhattan's Upper East Side. It was a small poultry blip in a pre-crash New York overrun by pork belly, steakhouses, and pan-Asian stadium spots. I started visiting in 2012, not too long after Michelin awarded it a coveted star, and found that Tori Shin was unquestionably serving some of the city's finest (and most expensive) chicken tastings. Problem was, the cramped room felt as inviting as a dragon roll sushi shack. So in June, Atsushi relocated to West 53rd, transforming the ground floor of an apartment building into the more sedate fine dining establishment that Tori Shin always deserved to be, and giving this casual stretch of Hell's Kitchen, peppered with Korean and Japanese pubs, the high-end spot it has long needed.
Here's the quick tour: A sake bar up front serves sochu-heavy cocktails under golden lights. A small corridor, which runs parallel to the $140 tasting room, leads to the 15-seat chef's counter. This is where you do most of your eating. A rectangle of a window overlooks a "zen garden" out back; consider it a verdant counterpoint to the gloriously greasy chicken, served in hues of brown, khaki, ochre, and tar. One exception to that color scheme, however, is the tenderloin, grilled to such a creamy white it could seek camouflage in clam chowder. Take a bite. The interior is as rare as barely-cooked tuna. The flavor is faintly chicken-y, while the texture is as silky as kobe beef. Then a whisper of fresh wasabi cleanses the palate.
A chefs counter meal is cheaper than a meal in the private chicken room, but it's still not cheap. Option one is $65 for ten skewers. Option two is $70 for eight skewers plus small plates, one of which might be rice with scrambled eggs, a wintry end-of-meal preparation that's accompanied by chicken broth as rich as Thanksgiving gravy. Dessert is simple: mango or shiso sorbet. Option three is a la carte.
For such an edgy (and expensive) little restaurant, it's impressive to see every seat filled at 10 pm on a weeknight, a sign that chicken, long the snoozer entree on many dinner menus, is continuing to have an "it moment." That phenomenon is bolstered as much by our city's fried chicken and rotisserie renaissance as it is by our era of sky-high beef prices. An entry level tasting for two at Tori Shin, after all, will cost less than a large format tomahawk steak at American Cut. That New York can sustain such a restaurant is testament to our increasing tolerance for elevating foods that don't have a deep history of being elevated. Ten years ago, who would've thought there'd be an experimental Mexican spot like Empellon Cocina selling a $165 tasting? Who'd have guessed that Midtown would host a $200 tempura joint like Matsui.
While you might be tempted to order a la carte here you shouldn't.
The prix fixe format, of course, isn't the traditional way to consume chicken skewers; the a la carte experience prevails both here and in Tokyo. Tori Shin is offering something different. The omakase experience is an excuse to sample parts of the chicken you otherwise wouldn't. It allows chefs to pace out the meal, serving each skewer one at a time (instead of all at once), just like a proper sushi maestro doles out nigiri piece-by-piece, a practice that ensures each morsel is consumed at the proper temperature, with nothing else on the plate to distract the palate. So while you might be tempted to order a la carte here, you shouldn't.
Tori Shin sources its jidori-breed birds from an Amish farm in Pennsylvania and butchers the chickens in house. The flavors are clean and natural, without the intense poultry funk that modern American chefs tend to prefer. Here are some of the other muscles and organs you might sample:
Whole heart: Juicy, medium rare, and nearly as big as a mouse. Sports a level of unctuousness on par with a good skirt steak.
Liver: Creamy and soft, like a panna cotta made out of meat. This is liver for beginners, without the bilious funk one might find in this organ elsewhere.
Main artery: Like fatty, charred rubber bands, sweetened by a teriyaki-style sauce. Righteous.
Harami (rib): A wee bit of meat connected to the diaphragm, boasting a clean, snappy texture.
Neck: As chewy as the main artery, but bonier and meatier, with pliant flesh that reeks of black truffles.
Gizzard: Chicken-flavored styrofoam, a boon for those like me who always imagined that packaging materials might be edible and delectable one day.
Oyster: The filet mignon of poultry. Nearly every prix-fixe meal at Tori Shin ends with these delicacies, only two of which can be found on the dorsal side of any chicken. Also known as the sot-l'y-laisse, the oysters are tender and succulent, covered by a layer of dense skin that rivals duck breast in its fattiness.
Those who opt for the longer, $140 meal will enjoy a quieter, longer meal, with more skewers. The posh tasting might also involve small plates like yuba skin with salmon roe, greaseless eel tempura, coarse chicken pate with vegetable gelee, grilled iberico pork or wagyu beef, and what might be one of the city's most compelling noodle soups, a yuzu shio ramen that packs crystal clear flavors of citrus, salt, and concentrated chicken broth. The broth could merit an expensive restaurant of its own, and given the city's obsession with ramen, it just might one day. Whenever chicken is involved, Tori Shin gets it right.
Cost: Tastings at $65, $70, $140. A la carte skewers available at $4-$10.
Sample dishes: Soft knee bone, chicken wing, chicken gizzard, chicken oyster, duck with yuzukosho, hot rice in broth with spiced cod roe, yuzu shio ramen, shiso sorbet.
What to drink: Sake or shochu, with many selections under $20 by the glass. Consult the online list, which offers detailed descriptions of nearly every pour.
Bonus tip: Because the $140 service involves a separate room and dedicated chef, be sure to reserve at least one day in advance.