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Only Japan could come up with and then execute something as simple yet complicated and sophisticated as Toritama, an experiential celebration of the world’s favourite protein: chicken.
As an expat, my experience of grilling meat boils down largely to the hasty unpacking of a rusty barbecue when the infamous British climate relents and grants a short window of fine weather for al-fresco dining. Such excitement tends to lead to plentiful drinking, charred or raw food and widespread sunburn.
Things couldn’t be more different at Toritama, where I was well and truly schooled in the ways of grilling over the course of a very enjoyable, protein-rich few hours. This is a temple to grilled chicken, and presiding over all is grill master Matsumoto-san.
First of all, a quick insight into Toritama. Opened in September 2014, the Hong Kong team are committed to replicating the elevated standards of the Tokyo mother ship, not least when it comes to ingredient sourcing and delivering a multisensory customer experience. A vast, complementary shochu, sake and whisky menu, including some exclusive labels, adds to the overall immersion into authentic casual Japanese dining.
Toritama specialises in yakitori – grilled chicken – which alone would not elevate it above the dozens of other capable such joints across the city. However, the menu, as iconic if not more so that the simple lantern-illuminated logo outside the restaurant, offers something not seen elsewhere – choice – over 28 chicken parts, actually, and that’s in addition to a very decent supporting cast of side dishes and rice options.
I quickly relinquished control to Matsumoto-san, opting for the omakase menu option of 12 skewers ($638/person), with accompanying salad, soup and rice peripherals (all delicious, by the way). But I was here for the chicken, as were the other customers who quickly started to fill up the remaining seats around me, dressed smartly and just clocked off from work. “Many are regulars, coming at least once a week, and have been for years,” I was told by a staff member.
Now, let’s get into the ingredients. The vegetables are flown in fresh each day from Japan. This is a key quality factor in the Toritama model (now also in Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia) and is surely partly responsible for cementing this loyal patronage. I’m advised by one member of staff that the ginnan (ginkgo nuts) are currently in green season (they were yellow up until recently).
So, to the chicken. Freshness in Asia is of huge importance, as anyone who has lived (or even visited) here will know. Local sourcing maximises freshness, so Toritama gets their chook from Yuen Long, and the birds grilled up each evening are just a few hours from their last pecks. The morning’s slaughtered birds are sent daily directly to the restaurant, where they are broken down into a multitude of cuts.
My blinkered view that yakitori mise en place consists mostly of skewering endless pieces of meat is certainly part of the daily routine at Toritama, but it is just that – merely a part of it. The true skills manifest themselves in the butchery, although the threading on skewers is also critical to ensure even cooking across the kushi (skewers). A great example would surely be the tougarashi (calf muscle), which appear expertly trimmed and identical in size as I receive them, sizzling on the skewer.
Thinking more on this, there’s a huge amount of skill and knowledge needed, and I quickly realise why Matsumoto-san has been in the industry for 15 years, himself once an apprentice to a yakitori master.
“I learned a great deal from him. Although he has passed away, his words of wisdom – grill with heart – remain me with me every day I cook. The teachings and memory of my master continue to motivate me to prepare and serve the best yakitori I possibly can.” – Matsumoto-san
Knife skills are paramount. Only one calf muscle skewer can be made from one chicken, but for some more sought-after cuts, such as kokoro nokori (aorta), saezuri (oesophagus) and otafuku (sweetbread), six birds are required to sufficiently populate a skewer. Nothing is wasted in such very precise butchery.
Halfway into the omakase experience, I tried to pick up the rhythm, fruitlessly, of Matsumoto-san’s craft. It was a mesmerising display of motor skills, almost sleight of hand, as he twisted, dipped, flipped and segregated the orders atop the fierce heat of the grill. I couldn’t find any specific routine though, and just trying to remember where the orders are destined is the stuff of migraines.
But there is some logic, explained by Hermanus van Dyk, whose stage with Toritama in Japan led to him manage the expansion into Hong Kong nearly seven years ago, fuelled by a passion to replicate the authenticity of the Shirokane Tokyo experience abroad. There are further yakitori secrets that only those dedicated to the craft will gain access to, but here’s a handful of great intel that blew me away, which will amaze your co-diners.
One of three seasonings will be used depending on the cut of meat. Salt is generously rained down on fattier meat, while house-aged soy sauce is used for other cut, sitting in a diminutive earthenware pot beside the legendary tare. Tare is a simple dipping sauce of mirin, soy sauce and chicken bones, but it goes far beyond that. Inside is 90 years of tare heritage, born in Tokyo and brought to Hong Kong, a mix that has matured and developed over the years into something that far exceeds its humble constituent parts. The tare is regularly skimmed but otherwise left to bask by the warmth of the grill, in dipping distance from the grill master, ageing majestically and symbiotically.
Diners can further season their cooked skewers with a choice of shichimi togarashi (a seven-spice mix), salt or sansho (green pepper), the latter recommended by Matsumoto-san to sprinkle on my personal favourite, leba (liver).
Matsumoto-san will review your chosen skewers and work out the optimised order for service, taking into consideration the meat type (white or dark), fattiness and texture, ensuring maximum variety on your yakitori journey. This is probably why I couldn’t keep up with the blur of hands amidst the flames. Meatball tsukune tends to be up first as it is fast cooking and isn’t too fatty, so it’s a good candidate to open the proceedings, but after that, it’s less easy to fathom to the untrained eye. Tweaks to grill position and managing the cooking time, in real time, are also part of the skill set so that each guest receives the next skewer at the appropriate moment.
The highlights for me (there are many) would be the iron richness of the maruhatsu (whole heart), the tebasaki (wing), which is served expat friendly with just a single bone and sinew free like a fatty, warm lollipop, and the puroboroone chiizu (provolone cheese), which is melted and coerced with what looks like a miniature garden tool into a manageable flat and addictively crisp nibble.
Grilled meat, fungi and vegetables love sake. The umami decadence of certain bottles work so well with the rich minerality of some cuts like heart and liver. At the other end of the spectrum, a more delicate approach is needed to complement the lighter, cleaner skewers of less fatty cuts like calf muscle. And then there’s the woody earthiness of shiitake mushroom that’s just crying out for the unbridled wildness of a Yamahai sake.
Well, good news, folks – Toritama’s sake menu is blessed with a broad range of choice from multiple prefectures and a wide range of price points, taking advantage whenever possible of seasonal releases.
This being Hong Kong, there are some iconic sake choices to splurge on, and the menu curated by Hermanus and Matsumoto-san, in conjunction with chef/owner Shiro Izawa, favours the more highly polished end of the sake spectrum.
I was flattered to enjoy a glass of off-menu Juyondai, an unpasteurised (namazake) and unfiltered (genshu) Junmai Ginjo, from Matsumoto-san’s personal stash. It’s an explosion of floral aromas and tropical fruits like papaya, untamed and full of life, with a long, enduring finish.
But of particular note is Hokusetsu Toritama ($70/glass or $980/bottle), a Junmai “pure rice” sake, made exclusively for the restaurant and served izakaya style from a towering, 1.8-litre isshobin bottle with a bold, memorable label. Its deep and full flavours came at the perfect time to meld with the liver skewer.
But – let’s be honest – great sake works well alone too, and I was happy to sip the rest of the choko (cup) long after despatching the skewer.
The two hours flew by in a heady mix of smoke, flames, sake and more, interspersed with plenty of educational insights and a chance to practise my shameful grasp of Japanese.
I was relieved to see that the walk back to Central is downhill, full as I was, and I love the fact that Toritama Hong Kong is a bit like Tokyo’s, tucked away from the main Lan Kwai Fong drag and very reasonably priced as a result.
Toritama is a place for those in the know, but just be sure to book in early because there are plenty who know.
This write-up is based on a complimentary media tasting provided in exchange for an honest review and no monetary compensation. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s.
About the author:
A certified sake sommelier, Will Jarvis is the owner and founder of Sake Matters, consulting for a variety of clients in Hong Kong and around the world. He has over 20 years’ experience working in the F&B industry in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, is a trained chef and holds a diploma in hospitality. For more information, please visit www.sakematters.com.
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