There really is nothing simpler than meat and heat. Humans have been cooking animal parts over the open flame since prehistoric times, so why bother complicating things?
East London restaurant Jidori would certainly agree. The meat skewer—and by default, the charcoal grill—makes up the bulk of their menu, as they attempt to bring the centuries-old Japanese cuisine of yakitori to the capital.
As co-owner Brett Redman—also of nearby raw bar The Richmond and Elliot's Cafe at Borough Market—explains to me, traditional yakitori encompasses all parts of a chicken poked onto small wooden sticks and set over hot coals. So at Jidori, the bird features in most dishes.
"We use every single part of the chicken," he says. "The thighs, the wings, the liver, the heart, the breasts, the bum …"
Wait, the bum?
"Yep, we cut the bums off and grill them—they're called the 'Parson's Nose' on the menu and they're delicious."
Oh. Well, he did say all of the chicken.
"If there's gizzards or extra chicken skin kicking around, we'll make skewers out of them," Redman continues.
The best part of a Sunday roast in a whole skewer, just for my mouth? I pull my tongue back off the floor.
"Then bits of leg and wing go into making the tsukune," he adds. "We render the wing tips into fat for our tare sauce. The carcass we make into stock for our chicken broth dish. "
Short of the teeth, that's pretty much every inch of the bird used.
The tsukune—minced chicken on a skewer, served with tare and egg yolk—has become Jidori's signature dish and is what head chef Shunta Matsubara is cooking up today. I find him peering inside the metre-long alter for meat that sits behind the open bar of the venue: the hallowed Kamaasa Shoten grill. It was almost by chance that co-owner Natalie Lee-Joe stumbled across this 100-year-old piece of machinery when she was researching the best fire-starters in Japan.
"I ate a lot of yakitori out in Tokyo," she says. "From what's known as 'Piss Alley' in Shinjuku to some really high-end restaurants, I worked my way through so many skewers and when I was in a Michelin-starred restaurant, I was talking to the chefs there about grills and they had exactly the same one and they said it was the best."
She snapped it up.
Once the grill had been shipped over to the UK—and became the first one of its kind in the county—word got around.
"Another Japanese cook from London contacted me to say, 'Is it true? Do you guys really have a Kamaasa grill?'" Lee-Joe remembers. "Which was just crazy."
The grill sits in pride of place in the minimalist and airy restaurant. Matsubara lifts up the now nuclear-hot charcoal blocks before inspecting them, placing them back down, and fanning them.
"It's ready," he declares. As he picks up his knife "("Sugimoto—they're the only ones I use") and finely chops spring onion and shiso leaves before mixing into the seasoned minced chicken, Lee-Joe tells me: "We wanted to bring a sense of an izakaya to East London, but if you look at their menus, it can be quite scattered—tempura, sushi, yakitori. We realised we wanted to be focused on doing one thing and doing it really well, so yakitori made sense."
While it might seem like a bit of a left field decision for Redman to go from the sustainable, seasonal Elliot's Cafe, or the oyster-centred Richmond to a Tokyo-inspired restaurant, he explains that there is a bloodline running through all his eateries.
"The focus of what we're doing is the same: the quality of the ingredients, the way we cook on charcoal," he says. "When you talk to people about what Japanese food is, it's always the same—the purity of flavour, simplicity, and quality of produce on a day-to-day basis. We thought yakitori was something that was missing from London and there's no point trying to compete with a ramen place."
So, things on sticks has become Jidori's forte. The menu has a few other little izakaya-esque dishes to try before the main yakitori event. Stuff like cool sesame-marinated cucumber, the classic Koji-fried chicken served with nori salt and lemon, or the UK-Japan hybrid house special, katsu curry Scotch egg.
"When we were in Japan, we went all over to try lots of different dishes. Although it's not necessarily called yakitori in other places, they might focus more on seafood or pork, but we decided to focus on chicken, as it's very Tokyo to do that," Lee-Joe says "The atmosphere of the casual yakitori places in Shinjuku might have been better than fancy places, but the high-end ones use Jidori chickens which are totally premium and free range and you'll get served chicken sashimi in places like that as it's so good. That's why you can get raw chicken dishes."
Raw chicken is a bit of an odd one for Westerners to get their heads around—especially after childhoods spent being fear-mongered into believing that you'd catch Salmonella if you looked the wrong way at a McNugget—so it doesn't look like it'll be taking flight over to England anytime soon.
"There's no way we could ever serve it on the menu here," Redman says. "We can't even serve a bloody, medium-rare burger by law here, so there's no chance of ever serving chicken sashimi."
Perhaps a bit of a shame, as Lee-Joe says: "Once you get over the, 'Oh, it's raw' thing, it's actually really nice."
Apart from leaving one of Japan's finer delicacies for their folk, Jidori is about staying faithful to Japanese preparation: keep it simple.
"When I was talking to the chefs in a Michelin-starred restaurant, I realised they only use sake and salt on their skewers," says Lee-Joe. "But then I saw they had seven different types of salt that they use for different parts of the chicken, so they've got Okinawan salt, Dutch salt, and French salt. They had a different colour rubber band around each glass bowl so they know which is which."
Back on the grill and Matsubara is letting the heat do its thing to the chicken skewers, every so often fanning the coals a little, or turning the skewer so the outside of the meat begins to hit that caramelised sweet spot. While Matsubara is a deft touch fireside, Redman says it took awhile for himself to get to grips with the grill.
"The first two weeks when I was doing it by myself and playing around with it, I got quite a few burns across my hands," he remembers. "The trick is you've just got to bring it to you as close to you as possible. You also have to be very precise with the preparation of the meat so you're not spending the whole night holding on to a skewer of chicken."
The chicken is coated with tare, a sweet 'n' salty sauce made from soy, mirin and sake that Redman says is built to intensify the flavour over years.
"It develops a rich flavour that you can't replicate," he explains. "Some people hand it down from generation to generation, like Italian grandmothers with their sourdough starter or their pasta sauce recipe. It can't be taught. But we can't make it like that, so we grill the chicken scraps and add the fat in to incorporate that smokey flavour. If you taste the sauce at the beginning of the night, it's completely different at the end."
With the skewers now sizzling hot, it's time to mix some of the tare in with an egg yolk, making a sort of instant teriyaki Hollandaise. It's thick, rich, and with the best salty tang. I smear it all over the juicy chicken—no half measures here. It's delicious and easy to see why this dish flies off the grill at the restaurant.
Matsubara is already thinking about new twists he'd like to incorporate into the menu.
"I want to try some more unique styles of dishes—like making tare with goma, sesame seeds," he says.
Meanwhile, I'm working out how to get on Jidori's WhatsApp group so I can be the first to know when those chicken skin skewers are on special.