"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tori Shin – March 12, 2011

Is cooking an art or an expertise? If it is the latter, then one can become better at it by practice and experience; however, if it is the former, then no amount of practice and experience will not be sufficient because an art requires a stroke of ingenuity, does it not?

Sometimes the line between art and expertise is blurry and art often encompasses expertise, which is natural since art is intrinsically a human act. One clear difference between art and expertise can be said that one can become an artist instantly, while one cannot be an expert without a certain passage of time. In Japanese, 芸術 (gei-jutsu) signifies art and 巧 (takumi) expertise. Gei, the first letter of the word, gei-jutsu, means a something that a person is able to do well and usually perform in front of an audience – e.g. dance, kabuki (one type of traditional Japanese theater), musical instruments – as in gei-sha (originally meaning a performer). Takumi, on the other hand, refers to a skillfulness that connotes a long time of hard study and practice. Alternatively, takumi can be written as (匠), which was used to mean a professional in the field of primarily carpentry, masonry and smithy. Since gei also requires an apprenticeship, it follows that all forms of “art” are “skills” in Japanese. Similarly, apprenticeships also existed in Europe – e.g. Da Vince apprenticed in the workshop of Verrocchio. Therefore, it is perhaps simply the word, “art” and the profession, “artist” that have been magnified and intensified, often out of proportion, by our relatively newly found liberation or consolidated rights in the last two hundred years: Casting off humility and perspective, art sometimes serves as a convenient excuse for debauchery and delusion.

While I can certainly envision cooking as an art, however, yakitori seems to be more a form of takumi.

The Ambassador Program lunch started with a pouring of Sakura Emaki (桜絵巻), a sweet and fruity spring sake, made of black rice.

Sasami Ume Shiso – Breast with preserved plum and shiso

The chef attempted to coax some life into the dry and tasteless breast meat by the use of salty and sour plum paste and aromatic Japanese herb, shiso; furthermore, as he did with all other skewers, he brushed it with konbu (a type of seaweed)-infused sake for additional flavor and also as a tenderizer. Thus worked over, while the meat became as moist as it could have been, the lack of flavor proved hard to mask.

Tsukune – Chicken meat balls

Deviating from the conventional purist approach of tsukune, Tori Shin added minced onion and cartilage to the ground chicken: the onion provided sweetness and the cartilage a unique crunch. Dipped in sweet tare (soy sauce-based sauce with sugar and mirin) – you can choose to have your yakitori in shio (salt) or tare– and grilled over the charcoal, the firm little balls were delicious by themselves, but the sansho (Japanese pepper) and shichimi*(a mixture of Japanese spices) enhanced the flavors even more.
*Imported from Hara Ryo-Kaku (原了郭), a renowned shinise (literally, an old store) in Kyoto since 1703.

Bonchiri – Chicken butt

Yes, chicken has a butt – some people euphemistically refer to it as a “tail” – and it is just as fatty and desirable as the human butt. Tori Shin’s cut of chicken butt had a little more muscle to it – yes, hard to imagine but there is muscle (to wiggle the tail) under the fat, even under ours – so that their bonchiri was slightly chewier and more substantial than the usual fat-only version. One of my favorite parts of chicken was marred, regrettably, by profuse shake of the salt. I think there should be a stand-alone cooking theory class on moderation and restraint in all culinary schools.

Shishito – Japanese green peppers

Usually sandwiched between chicken thighs, the solo shishito was brushed with tare. The combination of tangy tare and the fire from the peppers would have been nice, had the peppers not been drowned and drenched in sauce. Since my fear had now been confirmed, I requested the chef to proceed lightly from then on with the salt and sauce.

Kashiwa – A combination of chicken thighs and breast

This skewer is best at presenting the flavor of the chicken. Tori Shin uses organic chickens from Pennsylvania, which, to my chagrin, is as bland as other American chickens. It is time like this that I remember the maxim, annunciated in Pennsylvania by a self-proclaimed foodie, as a matter of fact, that “I like chicken because it does not taste like anything.” Within its limited ability, the simply (and lightly now) salted kashiwa shone.

Negima – Chicken breast with scallion

Negima – literally meaning “between the scallions - uses the white part of the scallion.** The charred scallions were savory and sweet, which matched the sweet tare and made up for the lack of flavor of the chicken breast.
**Usually the bigger and thicker variety called Tokyo negi.

Gin-nan - Ginko nuts

Ginko nuts have a thin skin underneath the shell. The chef first grilled the nuts briefly to remove the skin then grilled again with salt. This West-Coast variety was more elongated than the Japanese one and more watery; thus, the typical bitter savor was missing.


The liver was grilled to perfection – light and melting – while the sweet tare complemented the delicacy of the liver. The combination of bitter char, caramelized tare and the creamy foie called for a second and a third round.

Sunagimo – Gizzard

Crunchy, juicy and surprisingly bursting with flavor, the gizzard bits were a delightful change of pace.

Teba – Chicken wing

As a general rule, the more bones, the more tender the flesh: The wing is a part to which this rule applies. Simply salted, the fatty skin sealed in the moisture of the already tender meat. As an additional bonus, the bone with the charred skin and ligaments had a deep satisfying flavor.

Harami – Diaphragm

A rare treat, the chewy diaphragm tasted somehow fattier than it should be.

Moromi – Breast with moromi miso
The use of mellow and rich moromi miso (miso with fermented barley) was clever to camouflage the otherwise deficient breast meat.

Kawa – Skin

It is hard to uniformly grill the fatty skin, without burning, to such crispiness – i.e. Peking duck. The excess fat of the skin dripped away, leaving only the inviting aroma. The salt brought out the sweetness of the skin and also intensified the richness.

Tori Shin
Address: 1193 1st Avenue New York, NY 10065
Phone: (212) 988-8408


  1. this looks delicious. My favorite is the kawa. I think cooking, like almost anything else in life, whether it be writing, painting, skating, and even legal practice, is both art and skill. Keep up the good work!

  2. Such great detail! Thanks for sharing. I only wish I had ordered the liver, since it was clearly your favorite!

  3. I agree: Both art and skill are required.