In December, I was lucky enough to visit one of the best chicken yakitori places in the world, and one that is very popular with both locals and fans of fine dining in Japan. The restaurant, Bird Land, is truly a force to be reckoned with. Most people in Europe would be surprised if a restaurant only served one type of meat and nothing else, but in Japan, this is common place. Bird Land specialises in yakitori, which is a specialist style of cooking where small pieces of chicken are skewered, then grilled on a grill typically made with binchotan wood. The wood burns for longer at a constant temperature, and more importantly, has almost no smoke, making it perfect for indoor grilling.
The restaurant is located in the business section near Tokyo Station, it is quiet and reasonably empty, especially if you go early! There are two Bird Land locales in Tokyo, but I would recommend this one as it definitely seemed quieter, making it perfect for a relaxed dinner for two.
We were the first to arrive, as you can see from the empty restaurant, but we were treated so well, with the chef and the waiter inviting us right in. The restaurant was spotless and pleasantly dark, making it look more like a drinking joint than a refined cuisine experience. However, this may not seem that unusual, as traditionally, yakitori was eaten as a yatai stall food, for drunk businessmen on their way back home late at night. The restaurant offers a small selection of typical Japanese beverages like the ‘whisky sour’, beer and a selection of juices, suiting all tastes.
The restaurant logo is very cute, and reminds you that this is also a place to have fun, just like a traditional yakitori-ya! We chose the course omakase menu with the oyako don (chicken and egg rice bowl) and dessert. There were roughly 15 dishes with the dessert, but there are options to pick and choose from the menu, so there is no obligation to go for the omakase (chef recommended) menu.
On to the food!
The first dish was a select cold appetiser, bringing you into the ‘chicken’ themed dinner. The chef’s here use multiple parts of the chicken that are not commonly eaten in Europe, simply because they are seen as inferior. This starter will change your mind on that, as the chicken stomach and intestines taste amazing as part of the refreshing, meaty pickled meats on the left, through to the paté, the green wilted Japanese spinach and the intestine jelly with tofu. The dishes were very light in flavour, focusing on the sweetness of the chicken to begin with.
This paté for the second plate was really amazing- smooth and buttery, with lightly toasted baguette rounds that paired well with the light flavours. More similar to a foie gras than the paté I have eaten in the past, it provided some morish luxury for the mouth with its texture and contrast with the bread.
The next couple of dishes may have come in slightly different sequence (I can’t quite recall the order now), but I will try to describe each properly, as they form some essential types of yakitori that are very common in most yakitori-ya’s.
This one below is an odd nut that is rarely seen I think even outside of Japan- the famous gingko nut. It has a very sweet, soft/hard centre, and the grilling from the skewer technique gives it an added smokiness and shell to the outside of the bead-like nuts. It feels like a good snack between the pieces of meat, as its small and slightly sharp in flavour, making it perfect to ‘cleanse’ the palette with.
This yakitori with chicken is one of the lightest, most delicate pieces of chicken served. It had absolutely no fat and was only lightly cooked chicken breast and the green parts of spring onion, layered over and over for an even distribution of flavour. This piece was almost too delicate for me, as I always like chicken parts to have some fat (fat= flavour), but it was almost refreshing after the paté, so a welcome addition all the same. The breast pieces are all slightly pink inside, so don’t worry about the colour showing through!
This piece was highlighting the chicken breast section as well, but also bringing out the sweetness of the chicken with a small hit of freshly grated wasabi. Unlike the mouth-numbing horseradish concoction you get in some sushi bars, fresh wasabi only has a small hit of heat, with a slightly herbal and delicate flavour that complements the taste of most meats. This was perfect!
This next piece is the most even of mixing meat and skin, with the fat from the skin melting into the meatier pieces. Delicately seasoned (yes, delicate is always a word I use with this type of seasoning) with a mix of sansho pepper and sudachi zest, it had some light heat from the spice that really worked so well with the fatty, juicy pieces of chicken and crunchy, shiny skin. Yakitori can be served with either tare (sauce) or shio (salt), so decide on which flavour you prefer. I tend to stick with tare as Japanese fine-milled salt is quite strong.
The next yakitori skewer was just chicken thigh, without any of the sansho and sudachi seasoning from before, bringing out the taste of the slightly darker meat within the thigh. The skin on this piece was truly amazing, as it made a perfect contrast to the meaty, juicy interior of the thigh.
Since the meal may seem a little repetitive with just chicken, the restaurant does offer other dishes in its yakitori omakase menu. This was very unexpected (who says you can mix chicken with mozzarella?), but lovely, with cracked black pepper and smooth olive oil for seasoning. This clears the palette very well, as the cheese is not very fatty and breaks up the course of chicken with the taste of olive oil and a fresh light taste.
Back to the amazing, juicy chicken! This piece of thigh was cooked whole, so all the juices were kept inside, with the light touch of burnt skin enveloping the thigh piece. It was seasoned lightly with salt to cut through the fat of the chicken and it was very warm, making it a perfectly whole chicken taste. The sudachi was used throughout the course, but the fresh juice explodes in your mouth, making for some of the best citrus seasoning for meat I have found in Japan or back home.
The salad broke up the taste of the chicken again, with a flavourful vinaigrette with balsamic vinegar and olive oil and a fresh variety of leaves piled high on the plate. There is definitely some kind of an Italian theme with the balsamic and the mozzarella earlier, so I was hoping for more Japanese- Italian dishes for the next couple of dishes.
The next (much larger) pieces of chicken were served almost like a roasted duck confit, with the skin crisped up completely, and the larger piece of thigh cut up into two more bite-size pieces. The meat was gently seasoned with tare from soy sauce and mirin, and was wonderfully succulent.
This next side dish was even more surprising than the mozzarella- we were presented with packages of tin foil that you could smell even before you opened it, emitting delicate puffs of scent as we opened it. This was cabbage with salt and truffle oil, steamed in a package of tin foil that ended up with the cabbage in its own juices and some of the oil. This was amazing, with the cabbage turning out very meaty, sliced into pieces almost resembling a cabbage gyros.
I can’t quite remember what type of cheese we were given next, but after the (euphoric) truffled cabbage having melted cheese on a stick seemed like the only reasonable course of progression. The cheese had sizzled on the grill and had been brought over very swiftly, with the grilled edges still sizzling when it arrived before us. I mean, it is still grilled cheese, but it had a great balance between smooth, pleasantly stringy and salty, making it such a comfort-food skewer.
Now for the piece-de-resistance! The oyako-don (mother and egg chicken bowl) was very flavourful, with the mirin and soy sauce broth from the egg and chicken mixture soaking into the hot rice underneath the chicken piece omelette. The rice bowl was served with a very light chicken broth, with almost no oil and refreshing cucumber and daikon pickles. This was such a good broth I wanted to take it home in a cup… No chance of that I am afraid.
Winding down towards the end of the course (and the end of my whisky sour), we were shown with a choice of dessert: either apple granita with pieces of Fuji apple or a delicious crème caramel. Thank god I came with company or I wouldn’t have been able to try both of these desserts… The crème caramel was my favourite, with the custardy inside melting perfectly with the burnt caramel sauce.
Our chefs came out towards the end of the meal asking how we found the meal, which really was a lovely addition to the experience! Luckily because we came in during the week the whole experience was very quiet and intimate, with just us and the chefs and a couple of other guests in the restaurant.
The meal was incredible: all of the chicken pieces were perfectly cooked, and the additions of mozzarella and truffled cabbage really brought a lot of diversity to the flavours. I think the sudachi was one of the most effective seasonings I have had for chicken in a while… The lovely crisp skin of the chicken and the sauces from the chicken need accenting from the citrus, and the sudachi tastes somewhere between lime and yuzu, making it both tart and fragrant.
If you are looking for a bit of a finer dining experience that still retains the intimacy and comfort food from the roasted chicken, the definitely give Bird Land a try when you are in Tokyo!