Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Quiet Dinner with Roasted Chicken Skewers and the Old-School Yakitori Chef of Torimatsu

When asking the South Bay foodies and Japanese ex-pats about Yakitori (traditionally, Roasted Chicken Skewers over Binchotan (White Charcoal)), the name "Torimatsu" inevitably comes up. It's so well-known among certain segments that I recently asked a friend from Tokyo (who's visited the South Bay) if they heard of Torimatsu, and I laughed as my 'dachi attempted some American slang in reply to my question: "That's old school!" :) I've heard about Torimatsu for years but never got around to visiting until recently.

This Torimatsu is the first (and only) American branch based on the original shop in Shinbashi, Tokyo, Japan. As we sat down, we were greeted by the friendly staff and Chef Shoji Ishikawa, a quiet, soft-spoken Yakitori master, who trained at the Shinbashi location before heading over to this location. Ishikawa-san has been with this Torimatsu since day 1, over 15 years ago(!), and he takes care of the entire restaurant's orders, an impressive feat.

The interior design is simple and clean, with a nice wooden bar in front of the Yakitori Grill where Ishikawa-san performs all his cooking throughout the evening. Beyond that, there are a few small tables on either side of the L-shaped bar. The other thing that stood out immediately was the quiet ambiance; this is a quiet, traditional-style Yakitori bar, a stark contrast to the boisterous dynamo that is Shin Sen Gumi Yakitori. (^_~)

Their menu has a good list of classic offerings from a Yakitori restaurant, as well as some interesting side dishes, such as Toriwasa (Rare(!) Chicken Breast with Soy Sauce, Wasabi), and Sasami Ponzu (Rare Chicken Breast in Ponzu Sauce, Grated Radish). Since this was our first time, I didn't want to gamble on trying Rare Chicken just yet. :) We placed our order and watched Ishikawa-san construct our dinner.

It's nice that Torimatsu has the Shichimi (7 different spices) and Sansho Pepper in large, wooden containers. (Note: If you're new to Yakitori, feel free to season your various skewers with either the Shichimi or Sansho seasonings.) It was slightly disappointing that they didn't have any Yuzu Kosho (a delightful sauce of Yuzu and various Peppers).

Surprisingly, the very first item that came out (within minutes) was our Tori Zosui (Rice with Chicken Soup). I guess I had taken the amazing, made-from-scratch Zosui from Izakaya Bincho for granted (FYI: Tomo-san takes about ~30+ minutes to make the amazing Chicken Soup / Porridge dish from scratch). Clearly this was made ahead of time and kept warm / ready for any customer's orders (which is actually the norm in many places).

The Chicken Broth itself was nicely-made: A clean Chicken flavor throughout, but nothing standout. I've been spoiled by the wonderful version at Izakaya Bincho; if it wasn't for that version, this would've rated better.

The first skewer that arrived was the Aigamo (Duck). Aigamo at local Yakitori restaurants is pretty rare, so we were looking forward to this skewer the most. At first glance, it looked almost like the standard Negima (Chicken Thigh with Green Onions) skewer. Oddly, after taking a bite, it actually tasted more like Chicken than we had hoped. It was pretty good, but was missing the inherent Duck meat taste we were looking for. Still, it was moist and a nice change from the usual skewer offerings at most places.

The next skewer was Nankotsu ("Soft Bone" on the menu. Essentially Chicken Cartilage). In So Cal, Nankotsu is usually found made from the Cartilage from the Knee / Leg area, but imagine my surprise when we found out they served Yagen Nankotsu (Cartilage from the Chicken Breast)! The only place prior to this that I had found it at was at Yakitori Bincho.

Unfortunately, Torimatsu's version fell far short of the amazing version at Yakitori Bincho: Firstly, there was far too much meat and very little actual Cartilage. It was about ~75% Chicken Meat, and only 25% Cartilage with each order. :( Secondly, the actual Nankotsu was undercooked, being really chewy and rubbery instead of the delightful crunchiness found in Bincho's version.

Continuing on, Renkon Nikuzume (Stuffed Lotus) arrived next. It's supposed to be Lotus Root stuffed with Ground Chicken Meat, but when the dish arrived, it looked like simple pieces of Lotus Root, plain. Looking closer, we saw that Ishikawa-san had put the Chicken inside the tiny seed cavities of the Lotus Root (not very much space). As a result, the Renkon Nikuzume really tasted more like plain slices of Lotus Root grilled, with no Ground Chicken flavor at all. Disappointing.

The Sunagimo (Chicken Giblets) arrived about the same time as the Lotus Root. I love Sunagimo, so I was hoping that Ishikawa-san would deliver with this dish: Fortunately it turned out to be moist, with a good chew and texture; better than Shin Sen Gumi's version, but short of Yakitori Bincho's version.

The next order was Tsukune ("Grated Chicken Balls"). This is a dish I hesitate to order locally since most of the time, the Ground Chicken Meatballs are dry and overcooked. Sadly, it was the case here as well: The Tsukune was really dry and mealy. Shin Sen Gumi's version was better if only because of the Tare Sauce that comes with it, and better execution (but it's still on the mealy side), but it's nothing compared to Tomo-san's legendary version at Yakitori Bincho, let alone the amazing version I had in Kyoto.

The classic dish of most Yakitori restaurants arrived next: Negi Niku (Chicken and Green Onion). Ishikawa-san redeemed himself with this dish :), it was well-cooked and moist, with a good balance of Chicken Thigh meat and Green Onion flavors in each bite.

Our waitress brought out a simple "Tori Suupu" (House-made Chicken Soup), which looked rather simple and plain, but taking a sip, nothing could be further from the truth: A beautiful broth, light and aromatic, this was my favorite dish of the evening (and it was free :).

The Tebasaki (Chicken Wing) was cooked just right, but sadly lacked any flavor, lacking even the expected light fragrance of Bincho-tan. My dining companion and I were both perplexed at this dish. With enough Sansho or Shichimi I suppose it doesn't matter, but it was still slightly disappointing.

Ishikawa-san's Yaki-Onigiri (Roasted Rice Ball) fared much better: A nicely roasted, slightly charred ball of Rice stuffed with Katsuobushi (Grated Bonito Flakes) excelled with a crisp exterior and soft interior contrast. Excellent.

The Okura (Okra) was competently roasted; solid, but nothing outstanding. Each bite gave way to a straightforward simple taste of the Okra.

The final dish of the evening was their Shiso Maki (Perilla with Chicken). A good Shiso Maki excels with an enticing herbal fragrance of the Shiso Leaf pervading each bite of the Chicken, but here, it came out like the Tebasaki: Plain and boring. The Chicken was really dry and mealy here as well.

The service was fair throughout the evening: With 2 waitresses taking care of the entire restaurant, it was a challenge at times to get refills for drinks, but no major issues. The Skewers range in price from $1.80 up to $3.80, with Small Dishes from $2.70 to $6. Our total was about ~$22 per person (including tax and tip).

Looking back at our visit to Torimatsu, its greatest strength is providing good, straightforward Yakitori in a quiet, relaxing setting. I was hoping for more great things from Ishikawa-san, but in the end, I find Shin Sen Gumi Robata-Yakitori (Fountain Valley) (and Gardena), and Yakitori Bincho to be more enjoyable for better-executed Yakitori and Kushiyaki (Roasted Skewers), and for livelier ambiance. But for a quiet, enjoyable evening for Yakitori, Torimatsu is worth considering if you're in the area.

Rating: 7.1 (out of 10.0)

1425 W. Artesia Blvd., #28
Gardena, CA 90248
Tel: (310) 538-5764

Hours: Mon - Fri, 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Closed Sundays.


Eileen said...

There are so many good Japanese restaurants in the South Bay area. It's a bit far from me so I rarely go there. After reading your posts, I really want to go visit on a weekend and just eat for the whole day there. I haven't had time to go down to Breed street yet. Hopefully bf will take me soon. ^^

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Eileen,

Yah, the South Bay definitely has some wonderful Japanese restaurants. Definitely a few gems worth going to. You can also visit the largest Mitsuwa Market in the L.A. area while you're there (on the corner of Western & Carson in Torrance). There's a few great Dessert shops in the area as well. (^_~)


ila said...

i've haven't tried any new yakitori places since bincho's demise... if i have a honkering, i only go to SSG gardena or hondaya. if i have the time, i go to SD to yakyu-dori (which you must try. or i will pester you until you do!)
but, but... i might go here just for the aigamo.

are you going to mitsuwa's regional sweets fair this weekend? you must, you must! at least try some momiji manjuu (MY regional sweet - hiroshima) =P

Exile Kiss said...

Hi ila,

Yah, if it's closer and more convenient for you, Shin Sen Gumi (Fountain Valley) and (Gardena) would be my picks over Torimatsu, depending on how loud you want it. :) I just enjoy their atmosphere more, and general execution.

Thanks for the heads up on the Mitsuwa festival this weekend! :) I'll see if I can go.

(And, hai, I have your rec for SD in mind (^_~). I'll see when I can go visit them and see how it compares. :) Thanks!

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