One night last June, I found myself eating chicken skewers on the second-story terrace of a downtown hotel, wondering about the fire code.
I was sitting at a counter inside a makeshift hut banged together out of unfinished lumber and partly sheltered by a corrugated-metal roof. Skewered chicken parts, from such everyday cuts as wings and breasts to less common bits like tendons and neck skin, were browning over a pair of tabletop boxes filled with burning sticks of binchotan charcoal.
When the embers waned, the chef, Atsushi Kono, piled up fresh charcoal and beat the air with a hand-held bamboo fan, driving oxygen into the fire. Within a minute, flames would be jumping up toward the plywood ceiling. I thought, “What a fantastic idea for a restaurant.” Then, “This can’t possibly last.”
I was both right and wrong. The experiment in open-fire, open-air yakitori cooking, which went by the name Chikarashi Isso at 50 Bowery, came to an end the next month. But Mr. Kono and some business partners have built a new indoor restaurant in a ground-floor space down the block, in a secluded passageway running from the Bowery to Elizabeth Street in Chinatown.
He now tends his skewers from behind a slab of green marble on which he will occasionally lay a burning cedar board, under a gleaming brass hood that sucks up any errant sparks. This grilling cockpit is surrounded on three sides by a pale wooden counter that seems to float in a halo of light in the center of a shadowy dining room with charcoal-black walls.
I have to admit that in my meals at Kono, I missed the pop-up’s gentle breezes and view of the Manhattan Bridge. On the other hand, I never worried that the city’s fire protection inspector would shut the place down before I had a chance to sink my spoon into the Okinawan black-sugar crème brûlée.
What the two iterations have in common is Mr. Kono, the city’s most accomplished yakitori chef and, by extension, one of its greatest chicken cooks. For more than a decade his craftsmanship was on display at Torishin, most vividly in its second location, on West 53rd Street, where his deputies grilled à la carte skewers in the split-level dining room while he assembled sensitive omakase menus at an eight-seat counter tucked behind a curtain.
These days he has competition from Torien, the two-year-old yakitori bar in NoHo. The chefs there were still fine-tuning their work when I reviewed it last year, though. Mr. Kono figured out some time ago how to get the results he wants night after night.
At Kono the only meal available is an omakase dinner, for $165. The proceedings begin with a flurry of small appetizers: perhaps a smoky piece of dashi-drenched eggplant with lobes of sea urchin draped over it, or a pair of chilled cherry tomatoes marinated in white wine.
But chicken is never far from the scene. A few bronze curls of skin are almost certain to appear early on, fried to the consistency of Fritos. There will probably be a cup of straw-colored consommé, tasting of roasted bones and green onions.
The monaka course will, in all likelihood, stay in the rotation forever. Two mochi wafers are toasted over the coals and then filled with a preposterously rich pâté of chicken livers under a shaggy heap of shaved truffle. It is the most ethereal chopped liver sandwich in the city.
This is a brush with the otherworldly, after which dinner gets down to the more earthly business of muscle, fat, tendon, cartilage and skin. Between eight and 10 skewers arrive in this part of the meal, carved from all over the bird.
The exact cuts will be chosen by Mr. Kono, although you will be given the option of buying an extra course or two. Depending on the night, you may be offered a pair of coxcombs, a single chicken foot, speared ginkgo nuts, a king crab’s leg or a slab of Wagyu beef. Ask which one Mr. Kono recommends and you will be steered toward what my server called, “ovary, liver and fallopian tube.” This is a skewer with a scrunched-up length of oviduct next to a lobe of liver, with an unlaid egg dangling from the tip, like a bright yellow balloon on a stick. The egg is warm and liquid. The oviduct is slightly chewy, a bit like the grilled artery Mr. Kono also makes, but softer and richer.
There are at least two distinct kinds of pleasure in eating a variety of yakitori at the counter of a chef as skilled as Mr. Kono.
The obvious one is sensory: This is sweet, this is delicate, this is crunchy, this is very crunchy, this is like steak but smoother. (That would be the heart.) Running parallel to this is the aesthetic pleasure you get from the work of people with a fine-grained command of a craft, whether it’s cinematography or rap or glassblowing.
At Kono, through intelligent butchery and grilling, chicken is not one ingredient but many ingredients. Skewers of the inner thigh are seared over an intense heat until their edges are dark brown; the dark meat is fatty enough to stand the heat and stay juicy. The breast is kept farther from the flame, and its delicate, murmuring flavor reminds you why there are so many classic French recipes for suprême de volaille. As Mr. Kono’s longtime followers will remember vividly, he further protects this cut by wrapping it in a shiso leaf smeared with salted plum paste sweetened with honey, one of the few times he seasons chicken with anything more than salt and tare.
Accordion folds of neck skin are patiently brought to a golden crisp. The tail is cooked carefully, too, but this time the goal is to melt the fat inside. What you eat is something like a miniature chicken Kiev.
All these effects and others — even some that involve the occasional vegetable, such as the smoky potato wearing a slouching spoonful of osetra caviar on top like a beret — are produced with technology older than gunpowder. The charcoal burns between parallel bars of metal, which support the ends of the skewers; Mr. Kono and a sous-chef control the cooking temperature by banking the coals, then turning the bamboo sticks and moving them to warmer or cooler spots. The heat can be raised a notch or two by waving a fan.
The last skewer tends to be tsukune, chicken and duck minced with scallions. Mr. Kono makes a remarkable tsukune, charred outside but running with juices as soon as you open it up, like any good sausage. It comes with a sauce, in the form of a raw egg yolk.
By this point, you may feel you’ve had enough poultry for one night. Mr. Kono has other ideas. Lately he has been following the skewer courses with half a quail, grilled on the bone. After this comes a small cup of chilled noodles and, at last, crème brûlée under a pool of melted black sugar.
A friend whose passion for expensive restaurants sometimes outstrips his budget called me about Kono a while back. He recently inherited some money and has been spending it on restaurants he ordinarily couldn’t afford. Kono costs quite a bit less than some of the omakase sushi parlors he likes, but he was still unsure that chicken skewers could be worth $165. Couldn’t he just go to downtown Flushing, buy a few Xinjiang-style chicken skewers from a cart?
I told him that I loved those carts, too, but the two experiences couldn’t be compared. Kono is doing something completely different. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m pretty happy with those street skewers.”
A few weeks later, my phone started buzzing as he sent me photos from inside Kono. He’d gone after all.
He loved it, of course.
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