With a stockpile of meticulously dissected, organic, free-range Pennsylvania chicken cuts — lacquered in a five-year-old soy sauce mixture and tethered on skinny bamboo sticks awaiting the glowing coals of a 1,650 degrees binchotan charcoal-fueled grill — Atsushi “ATS” Kono is ready.
Since 2006, Kono has been grilling some of the juiciest, smoked-kissed birds in the city, from his early days as executive chef of Torishin, when the restaurant earned a Michelin star and a three-star New York Times review, to last summer’s rooftop Chikarashi Isso pop-up on the Bowery. And now, after earning respect as one of New York’s premiere yakitori craftsman, he finally has a place to call his own: Kono, the 14-seat dining counter he’s debuting with his wife Nozomi and the team behind nearby Nakaji (Jonathan and Ivy Chu, and Selwyn Chan) on Monday, April 25. It’s tucked away — in covert Japanese style — behind an unassuming blonde wood door down the Canal Arcade, located at 46 Bowery, between Canal and Bayard streets.
The restaurant is rooted in a seasonal, 16-course ($165) kappo-style dinner (a more casual type of chef’s choice dining in which a chef preps dishes in front of guests and often passes the plates directly to the customers). Kono upgrades the yakitori omakase with Western luxury ingredients like truffles and caviar. But he also employs a cooking technique that he describes as “Tokyo classic” when he fuels his grill with kishu binchotan, a pricey type of white oak charcoal that hails from Japan’s south-central Wakayama Prefecture and is prized for its high thermal power, long burn time, and its lack of odor. In other words, no detail is left unturned.
It took Kono two years to find the perfect source for his birds before he settled on Amish chickens that offer a “fresh, rich flavor and juicy texture.” The fatty, poultry skin has been a hit. In fact, one of Kono’s signature starters at last summer’s pop-up with Chikarashi Isso at the Hotel 50 Bowery was a small bowl of chicken skins grilled as crisp as potato chips. Paired with a glass of bubbles or sake, Kono considers it the perfect dish to kick off a dinner and plans to again serve this starter to commence his new omakase.
The Saitama, Japan-native also notes that a hallmark of his cooking style falls under the Japanese belief in no-waste cooking, or mottainai. “I use the entire chicken in my menu, including skins, organs, and bones,” says Kono, who adds that he fell in love with the popular Japanese street food thanks to “the char flavor that you get from grilling at a high temperature.”
While diners can expect Kono’s skewer menu to fluctuate daily, some signature bites beyond the chicken skin chips include his monaka (rice cracker sandwich) appetizer packed with chicken pate, black truffle, and a gold leaf garnish. Bites like these lead into a roughly 11-course yakitori series, which ranges from tail and soft bone to testicle and fallopian tube, and will also include seasonal vegetables. The meal concludes with mizutaki udon, thick and chewy wheat noodles in chicken broth with green onion, followed by dessert, such as Okinawan black sugar creme brulee. Customers will have the option to upgrade menus with supplementary courses like A5 wagyu, king crab, and iberico pork skewers. For beverages, expect sake, shochu, and beer, plus around 19 Japanese whisky options.
For those who dined at Kono’s popular pop-up last summer, the menu might sound familiar. But what most separates this experience from his past cooking is that Kono offers a more upscale, elegant environment.
In Japan, yakitori cookery ranges from unfussy outdoor grilling stands to Michelin-starred engagements. In fact, one of the country’s most respected and impossible-to-book counters is chef Yoshiteru Ikegawa’s Torishiki, a casual Tokyo counter that has consistently received one of the highest ranks out of any restaurant in any culinary genre in Japan from the country’s popular restaurant rating site, Tabelog.
And in 2020, Ikegawa expanded to New York with Torien, helping to develop Manhattan’s slowly growing genre of yakitori-focused restaurants that already included places like Torishin, and the older guard establishments like Yakitori Totto and Yakitori Taisho.
Within a 1,000-square-foot space that previously served as a pharmacy, Kono — along with Aki Miyazono and Kohei Tanaka of Blank Design — have transformed the cozy spot to focus on a central, sunken grill station decorated with green marble and a brass hood, plus a white oak U-shaped dining counter. The station’s lower level was conceived so that diners sit eye-level with Kono as he grills. Meanwhile, the restaurant’s walls are a gray-black hue to represent the smoking coals. In addition to the 14 bar seats, there’s also a semi-private alcove for larger groups of four to six.
While the art of yakitori cooking could be quickly overlooked as, simply put, grilled chicken, there’s good reason why one of the highest-rated restaurants in all of Japan is dedicated to this art. There’s serious skill needed to master the craft: From selecting the right type of poultry to proper butchering skills to perfecting one’s tare sauce to the mastery of binchotan manipulation and knowing precisely when a skewer is ready and how long to rest it. There’s a proper art in knowing how to “bring out umami from each part of the chicken,” which is Kono’s goal with every diner he serves.