When David Nachman, co-owner of Yakitori 39 in Teaneck, was seeking approval of the restaurant’s sign from the town, “the guy asked what yakitori was,” Nachman relates. “I said, ‘It’s chicken on a stick.’ He said, ‘Why not just call it that?’ I said, ‘Because McDonald’s isn’t called burger on a bun.’”
Classic yakitori essentially is chicken on a stick. But in the beak-to-tail style of true Japanese eating, chicken at Yakitori 39 is not just white and dark meat but gizzard, liver, heart, skin and house-made chicken meatball. Before going on the charcoal grill, the bamboo-skewered pieces are sprinkled with Okinawa salt, which chef Yoshikatsu Yamashita says gives a “more mineral, less saline” flavor than most salts. Customers can request the cooked skewers be swabbed with one of two traditional sauces (shio or tare). Tare-sauced skewers are briefly returned to the grill. This produces a marvelous caramelized sear, especially succulent on fatty cuts like pork belly and chicken skin.
Yamashita, 40, who studied French as well as Japanese cooking, also offers skewers of D’Artagnan duck breast, pork belly and bone-in lamb chops. He smokes the duck breast over applewood before grilling, a meaningful extra step. In all, about three dozen edibles are served as yakitori. The chicken is free-range, from Goffle Road Poultry Farm in Wyckoff, up Route 17 from Nachman’s immigration-law practice in Teaneck. Also destined for skewers are fish and other seafood from True World Foods in Elizabeth and produce such as green shishito peppers, asparagus and mushrooms.
Yamashita makes all his sauces, even soy sauce, from scratch. It’s one of the elements that make his yakitori rewarding. Another is that Okinawa salt. But most important is the particular charry flavor imparted by imported binchotan charcoal, which barely flames or smokes but creates intense heat.
“Binchotan is illegal to use in Manhattan, but permitted in Teaneck,” asserted Yakitori 39 co-owner David Sindell, also an immigration lawyer. “This is the place to get authentic, binchotan-cooked yakitori.” Virtually everything here is authentic, down to the calligraphy scrolls painted by Sindell’s mother-in-law, Kazuko Tanaka, near Kyoto.
No sushi is served, but a fusion-style yellowtail carpaccio, sliced thick with diced scallions and a drizzle of truffle oil, was excellent. Pork shumai (a type of dumpling) were delicate and delicious. Shrimp tempura and salt-and-pepper fried calamari were more moist and tender than the octopus and shrimp yakitori.
When it comes to chicken wings, the city of Nagoya is the Buffalo of Japan. Yamashita slathers deep-fried Nagoya wings with the diner’s choice of sweet and vinegary “original” sauce or “spicy sauce.” I’m no wing nut, but the wings in original sauce went quickly.
Yamashita serves the smoked duck breast on mixed greens with avocado in a distinctively tasty Japanese ginger-carrot dressing fortified with sesame paste.
Yakitori 39 also serves ramen. In Japan, the quest for ramen superiority focuses on the dashi, or broth, as well as the noodles. “Ramen is Japan’s comfort food,” Yamashita told me through his interpreter. “Every Japanese chef wants to master it.” He favors a pork-bone broth from his native Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island. It’s served with thinner-than-standard noodles from Sun Noodle in Teterboro. The result is revelatory.
Yamashita’s desserts look French, but their flavor is restrained, disappointingly decorous. Crème brûlée had a perfectly torched lid, but was served refrigerator cold. Ice cream was vanilla. Yamashita doesn’t serve red bean or green tea ice cream. That may or may not have something to do with his exposure to French cooking. In any case, the reasons to visit Yakitori 39 are thoroughly Japanese.Click here to leave a comment