Sunday, June 17, 2012

Umaimon-Yaki at Kyoto's Pontocho

On our first night in Kyoto, tired from the travel from Boston, and a little disoriented, we found our current state of confusion only overcome by an instinctive need to eat delicious things.  Lucky for us, in Japan, there seem to be delicious things to eat on every corner, especially in the city of Kyoto.
We decided to walk away from Kiyomizudera, which has a number of food stalls, but most close quite early after the temple closes and the tourists retreat to the main part of town. So we strolled over to Pontocho, a unique area of Kyoto close to Gion, with Geisha and Maiko strolling around with clients, and all sorts of little restaurants to try. Passing different soba, sushi, and ramen shops, we finally happened upon a cute little alleyway, glowing with lanterns.
The window overlooking a
charcoal grill that beckoned me
to the restaurant Umaimon-Yaki
It only took a few steps before I noticed something awesome. Just below my eye level, a narrow little glass window spanned about two feet long. And through the looking glass, I saw a man turning different skewers of chicken over a charcoal grill with speed and precision. A step closer, and truth be told, the smell of the delicious fat dripping over the Japanese charcoal wafted through the door of the restaurant and began to take hold, not letting go. The Bigger Half, unawares of the little window I had spotted, was halfway down the street on the hunt for delicious things. I called him back and pointed, a fraction of a second later he gave me the nod, and in we went.
One of the bros, hard at work
The name of the restaurant is Umaimon-Yaki. When walking into the restaurant, we were greeted by boisterous shouts of "Irashaaaii!" and took two seats at the counter, where a handful of hipster-looking bros were grilling up wares that looked absolutely delicious. The smell of charcoal sent one into a sort of yakitori-craving madness, and I dug deep into my repertoire of Japanese food stuffs, trying to order what I knew would be a must have. The bros were happy to oblige, suggesting different items that they thought we shouldn't miss out on, and when we mentioned something they didn't have (ex. they were out of liver for the day), they had something equally interesting to recommend. Also, each of our orders came with one skewer sauced, and one simply salted, so that we could try every item both ways. Awesome staff.
An appetizer of vegetables
As is custom at a lot of izakaya and yakitori joints, you are given a little mandatory appetizer. In this case, we had a few raw vegetables: cabbage, peppers, eggplant, cucumber and things, with a slightly salty and spicy miso sauce to dip. It was a refreshing way to start the meal, and always nice to force a few vegetables in... as this meal is largely devoid of any other vegetables.
Neck meat, bonchiri, and heart -
simply salted
We started out with three skewers each: neck meat (not sure of exact translation - this was a suggestion from the cooks), chicken tail (bonchiri), and heart (hatsu). One set of skewers, as I had mentioned, was simply salted, while the other set was soaked in sauce (tare), grilled, and then given another dose of the sauce. 
Neck meat, bonchiri, and heart -
with the restaurant's signature
sauce and a sprinkle of sesame
The neck meat was a complete surprise, and something we hadn't tried before. It was tender, juicy, and succulent, with the texture of slippery dark meat, but perhaps a more delicate flavor. Such a treat with that delicious sauce. The bonchiri was the best I've ever had. The tails were a good deal smaller than orders that I've enjoyed in the States, and as a result, they grilled up crisiper on the outsider, and the fatty portion on the inside would melt away, giving way to the flavor of perhaps your favorite piece of chicken skin. Finally, the hearts were rich and minerally, smaller than chicken hearts that I've had in the US. In preparation, they also differed a bit. Chicken hearts are constantly in danger of being overcooked, revealing a rubbery and tough texture. The cooks at Umaimon had delicately butterflied these organs so that they could be lightly grilled, and retain a juicy and tender texture.
Negima with sauce - check out
the awesome char on the onions 
Negima - this time with
just salt and pepper
Next came the traditional chicken and "leek" (I don't think they're actually leeks, but more like Asian onions with somewhat slender bulbs) skewers. You'll see something like this on just about every yakitori menu, usually called negima, and they're always a hit, even for picky eaters. Our two skewers came, again, one with sauce, and one simply with salt. The onions were charred nicely, giving you a trifecta of seared, sweet, and still zesty onion flavors. Between each piece of onion were different bites of chicken meat, some white meat, some dark meat. Each chunk was seared perfectly with the inner meat remaining just a touch pink, ensuring that the chicken itself was beyond juicy. The quality of the chicken that they use at this little restaurant was outstanding and unlike the bland factory farm meat produced at home, the poultry flavors of the yakitori were quite forward and pronounced.
Unbelievable tsukune with sauce
and a single egg yolk for dipping
Tsukune with simple salt-
so delicious and savory
Tsukune, the Bigger Half's favorite, was next in line. These elongated Japanese chicken meatballs arrived on their skewers, again, perfectly seared to a fine outer char. The main difference is that while the salt variety came only with a few shakes of salt and pepper, the sauced skewer had a sprinkle of sesame seeds, and a single raw egg yolk presented on the side. The egg yolk is the traditional dip for the sauced version of tsukune, and it puts a perfectly grilled chicken meatball over the edge in terms of creamy richness. These tender meatballs, infused with the smell of charcoal, and then a dip of the egg yolk, may have been my favorite item of the night.
Tori-wasa (chicken sashimi)
Well, we had to go for it. Tori-wasa. Basically chicken sashimi, only given a light sear on the outside of the meat via blow torch, but remaining completely raw in the middle. Obviously this had to be tried for three reasons. A) This is NOT available in the States. B) We had already tried a number of items at this restaurant and had confidence in the freshness of their product. C) I'm a f*cking bad ass. And it was a big time payoff. The chicken was a touch chewy, but still sort of melted in ones mouth; think of the texture of a wonderful piece of prosciutto that has maybe been cut a little too thick. It was sweet, and with a bit of spring onions and horseradish, plus a dip into a simple soy sauce, you have a flavor combination that I think everyone should experience: sweet, cold meat, balanced by a little blast of spice from the wasabi, and then the crunch of onions and a salty sauce.
Uzura - Grilled quail eggs
Our final order of the evening was a product of seeing skewer after skewer of this item leave the grill. We finally had to ask what the little round things were that people seemed to order again and again. The chef pointed out that they were quail eggs or uzura. These little quail eggs looked to have been prepared in the style of nitamago prior to cooking - that is a quick boil, peel, and then marinated in soy, mirin, and sugar for a while. The eggs are then lined up on a skewer, given a little bath in the sauce, grilled to give a bit of color and smokey aroma, and sprinkled with spring onions. They were unbelievably delicious. I don't know how this could be achieved, but after cooking, the eggs still had a nice creamy yolk which burst into ones mouth with the first bite. The salty egg whites and sweetened soy sauce, plus the smokey flavor? Man, I was in heaven. Definitely order these.
If you decide to go,
here is a little map of
the area where you can
find Umaimon-Yaki
That rounded out our evening of food stuffs at Umaimon-yaki. Not only was it a delicious evening, and a little bit of a boozy evening (definitely order beer... lots and lots and lots of beer... this is simple, perfect lager beer food), but it was a great first dinner in Japan. Nice and casual, cool little restaurant, narrow little street, and a window showing a grill that we very nearly missed. Look for the window in Pontocho, or at the very least, please make sure you add yakitori to your list of must-do's when coming to Japan.

Pontocho, Kyoto

No comments:

Post a Comment