Where the price for a full belly is an empty wallet
315 Shawmut Ave., Boston | 857-350-4450
The waitress looked befuddled, as if I’d asked for a live rooster and not a takeout container. “We don’t have those,” she said apologetically. Her response was understandable, since I was probably the first person at Yakitori Zai, a high-end Japanese grilled-chicken joint, to ever walk out with leftovers.
Opened in July by the team behind the cheerfully Americanized Snappy Sushi restaurants, Yakitori Zai aims for the opposite extreme by fetishizing authenticity. Chef Sho Inoue, a 26-year-old with 10 years of yakitori experience, is from Japan. Same with the binchotan, or white charcoal, which burns at a lower temperature and imparts a cleaner, less smoky flavor than those normally used in the States. And although the chicken is delivered daily from a farm in Connecticut, it’s a European black-feather breed that’s a close approximation of jidori, the heritage bird commonly served in Japan. All of this effort, however, didn’t temper my unease about spending a ludicrous amount of money for a minuscule skewer.
On my visits, I sat at the bar, where a glass panel provided a view of grillmasters at work. The house specialty comprised 20 cuts of chicken, all priced per 2-inch skewer. I enjoyed the momo negima ($6), thigh meat and Japanese scallion brushed with a reduction of soy, sugar, sake and house-made broth, one of the few chicken dishes that had a seasoning other than salt (albeit premium French sea salt). I also liked the bonjiri ($6), three fatty boned tails that took particularly well to a charcoal-roasting. The chefs kept their eyes constantly trained on their robata workstations, frequently turning bamboo skewers, adjusting the long rectangular grates, shuffling meats and vegetables from high- to low-heated zones, then back. Their choreography delivered consistent, perfectly cooked results timed to arrive hot, with white meat as juicy as the dark. At the end of the day, however, it was still grilled chicken. There was no epiphany, no transformative moment that crowned the humble hen as the next Kobe cow.
More creative were the non-poultry dishes, which didn’t have to shoulder a purist’s version of this genre of Japanese cooking. The kalbi ($8) came as three amazingly tender mahogany cubes of short rib brushed with a caramelized-soy glaze and dressed with slices of carrots and microgreens. The bacon-wrapped enoki ($7) were a heavenly combination of pork belly and a quarter-sized grouping of enoki, the fattiness of the cured meat complementing the juiciness of the mushrooms. A must-order dish was the whole squid ($17), which arrived splayed like a purple-and-white orchid. The flavor was delicate and ethereal, especially when dipped in the accompanying mayonnaise with hot spices. Another excellent selection was the umami-rich hotate hamayaki ($9), or large local scallop, grilled in its shell and dressed in butter and soy sauce with a slice of lemon on top. After the meager portions of poultry, the sizing of the seafood options was a welcome relief. Unfortunately, the hokke mackerel ($15), while filling, lacked flavor and could’ve benefited from a sauce or seasoning.
Non-yakitori items on the menu, from “the small fares” and “rice and noodles” sections, can supplement your meal with a dose of carbs. The karaage ($12), served with grated daikon and ponzu, plated delicious chunks of fried chicken coated with flour and Japanese sticky rice for a substantial crunch. The yaki onigiri ($4), or rice ball, was simple but addictive, with a bowl’s worth of compressed rice grilled until crispy over binchotan and served with soy sauce.
Yakitori Zai exudes elegant simplicity. Its mustard walls, burnished wood and small patio help it cast a welcoming vibe on a mostly residential stretch of Shawmut Avenue. But despite its cozy neighborhood feel, it’s best to treat Yakitori Zai as a stop along the way to dinner, a place to get a drink of sake ($15-$48, 300 ml bottle), a couple of bites, then elsewhere for a more substantial meal. As it is now, portions are too skimpy and prices too high to elevate it from a novelty spot.
• Momo negima
• Enoki mushrooms
• Whole squid
Hours: Tue.-Thu., 5-10 pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 pm; Sun., 5-10 pm
Credit Cards: Yes
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Liquor: Beer and wine