1 July 2010

Bird Land, Tokyo - Restaurant Review

I'm lost again. Tokyo has to be one of the most challenging places to get around - there are no street names here, just block numbers and buildings numbered in the order they were built. Quirky to say the least, and very frustrating when I'm trying to find a restaurant and about to go hypoglycaemic. At least I'm in good company as on numerous occasions I saw lots of Tokyoites just as hopelessly lost as me. Eventually, thanks to the iPhone's trusty map feature, we find our destination in the basement of what looks like an apartment building in the upscale Ginza area of Tokyo. The restaurant in question is Bird Land, and despite the strange name is one of the hottest tickets around at the moment. It is widely considered to be the gold standard of yakitori restaurants and just gained its first Michelin-star in the latest version of the Tokyo guide (although it can be argued that Michelin stars are somewhat redundant for Japanese food in Japan).


We arrived to a packed restaurant at around 7pm and with no reservation managed to get a couple of seats at the large u-shaped bar area, facing a large central grill where the main event was being prepared. I gather that Birdland only takes same-day reservations from noon and it's super popular, so we were quite lucky to be seated so quickly. Amazingly for Tokyo their website takes reservations online in English.

Yakitori is a simple type of Japanese food which basically consists of grilled chicken on a skewer. Sounds pretty tame, maybe a tad boring, no? I suppose it's the Japanese equivalent of a kebab joint with booze, where salarymen spend the evening after work drinking rotgut sake and eating grilled chicken. However, here at Bird Land, the art of yakitori is taken to another level entirely and the attention to detail is simply phenomenal. The restaurant is owned and run by Toshihiro Wada. He first set up shop over 20 years ago in the back alleys of Tokyo's Asagaya area and quickly gained a name for himself as one of the best yakitori chefs around. In 2002 he moved to the site of the current restaurant, which is surprisingly light and airy given is underground locale. At one end of the large wooden bar are smaller tables for diners. The whole atmosphere feels very relaxed and intimate. The clientele included salarymen having a bite to eat after work and couples on dates.

Master Toshihiro Wada at the grill
The chicken that Wada-san uses here is something really special. They are free-range Okukuji shamo (gamecocks), reared in the mountains of northwest Ibaraki prefecture. Their meat is soft, aromatic and stunningly fresh. So fresh in fact that you can eat it raw, and it is a common starter here at Bird Land where its called shamo sashimi and is served with wasabi and a sweetish shoyu sauce. The yakitori skewers are grilled over Bincho charcoal from the Kii Peninsula, which is highly rated for the even, constant heat it generates.

There are two omakase (chef's) menus costing JPY 6,000 and 8,000 (£45-60) but we opted to go a la carte and tried a selection of things, galline and otherwise. First up I tried grilled chicken fillet which was served simply with salt and freshly grated wasabi. The chicken was lightly charred and dotted with small blobs of wasabi. Alarmingly it was cooked rare but, so far in Japan I've learnt to put my prejudices to one side and assume they know best. It was monumentally good.

They also had a few dishes that combined traditional Japanese yakitori with European flavours. A dish of grilled chicken with basil and chervil was wonderfully fresh and light, and seemed new and strange after having only Japanese food during my week-long visit. Shiitake mushrooms were wonderful and smokey - how can something as simple as a grilled mushroom be so amazing? I also tried some fresh, creamy tofu which was drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt and a grind of black pepper with a couple of sage leaves on the side. I could have been in Campania in Italy eating fresh buffalo mozzarella. Pure genius. Tsukune was next and this consisted of minced chicken shaped into thumb sized sausages, brushed with a slick of a savoury taro sauce. Again, these were cooked medium rare. Finally chicken thigh meat which was cut into cubes and grilled, skin on. The meat being super tender and juicy and the skin was as crisp as pork crackling, snapping pleasingly between your teeth like a thin sheet of caramel. This was all washed down with some cold, crisp Suntory beer. The restaurant also had an impressive wine list which added to the whole Japanese/European vibe.

Other dishes which we didn't try included sunagimo (chicken gizzards), chicken hearts, skin, and pâté. We also witnessed some chefs grilling cubes of caciocavallo cheese so the outside melted slightly leaving the interior warm and gooey.

Grilled shiitake mushrooms

Fresh tofu with olive oil and sage

Grilling cubes of Caciocavallo cheese 

Total cost per person came to around JPY 5,500 (£41) which seems like a bargain in Tokyo. I was totally amazed by Bird Land. The sheer reverence for quality of ingredients and precision of cooking is outstanding. The real genius of Toshihiro Wada is in brining a more modern gourmet approach to what is a very traditional Japanese food and in combining European flavours with yakitori to create something truly special.

Food:          9 / 10
Service:       8 / 10
Ambiance:   8 / 10

Tsukamoto Sozan Bld B1F
4-2-15 Ginza
Tokyo, Japan