Kushigin (串吟): yakitori and kushi-age with a flair

Over the past five years, Akihabara has transformed itself from a mecca of electronics into a wonderland for the manga/anime enthusiast.  During the course of the transformation, it has been given a new face, one more welcoming to the average tourist, and more importantly in another sense, more welcoming to the average young Japanese looking for an entertaining night out drinking and dining.

The renovation of Akihabara station and the development of the area around it led to the rise of a cluster of new and stylish dining options just outside the gates of the station, leadimg salarymen and OLs from the area to stay for a drink and a bite to eat after work rather than heading to other parts of town.  This new popularity led in turn to even more izakaya and retaurants opening their doors in Akihabara.

Strolling along the street on the way from the station one sultry early evening, I happened to notice a small open-fronted tachi nomi (standing bar) next door to the Washington Hotel and almost under the Yamanote line tracks.  Along with the smoke rising from the hibachi, the sound of clinking glasses, low buzz of conversation with the occasional burst of laughter, and distinctive smell of charcoal grilled chicken drifted my way.

The name, Kushigin, only added to the attraction.  “Kushi” means skewer, and in addtion to chicken skewers – yakitori – Kushigin also sported kushi-age (deep fried morsels of meat, vegetables, and seafood on skewers), one of my favorites.  Fresh yakitori grilled to order under the watchful eye of the shop’s master.  Frosty beer in chilled mugs.  Warm cries of “irasshaimase!” rising from the staff as customers stepped into the restaurant.  The murmur of people and cars passing by, and faintly, the chirping of cicadas in the background.  Everything that makes summer evenings in Tokyo magic; my choice for dinner was a forgone conclusion – Kushigin.

Stepping up to the counter and ordering a beer, one thing was immediately apparent.  This was not your average tachi nomi.  Most are plain, no frills affairs that offer good but unimaginative fare at reasonable prices with a predominately male (often older) clientele.  Not so Kushigin.

A stylishly rustic interior with wooden beams and sake and shochu bottles lining the wall provided a warm and welcoming atmosphere.  Next to me at the polished wood counter was a young couple engaged in lively conversation.  At a table across from the counter, a group of three women stood and talked about the day at work.  Behind them, another couple nibbled on chilled cucumber sticks topped with miso.  Thought had obviously – and successfully – been put into designing an interior that would appeal to a clientele interested in more than just cheap eats and cold beer.

The menu, handwritten in a stylish and distinctive font, revealed an equally well-thought out and imaginative twist on the usual tachi nomi standards.  Rather than simply offering grilled liver skewers, Kushigin presents top grade liver grilled to perfection – a bit on the rare side, reminiscent of liver sashimi, and like liver sashimi, served topped with sesame oil and some finely grated garlic.

I moved on to one of my kushi-age favorites: cheese.  Any variation of this kushi is most welcome, but what I was presented with was simply in a new class.  Two small fried triangles cheese were skewered and fried to a golden brown, capped with a small dollop of pesto and some mayonaise – heavenly!

The sasami (tender chicken breast) is not simply available in the ordinary tare (sauce) or shio (salt) varieties, but instead one can choose from wasabi, yuzu-kosho (citron-pepper), ume shisho (plum sauce with beefsteak leaf), and mentaiko (spicy cod roe).  The ume shiso is delicious, the tartness of the plum offset by the the salted chicken and the minty brightness of the beefsteak leaf.

The next course consisted of tsukune (ground chicken) and bacon wrapped tomato.  While both were excellent, the bacon on the bacon-tomato skewer was a bit too thinly cut for my preference.  Nevertheless, the combination is a perfect match.

To accompany my beverages, I ordered niniku maruyaki(grilled whole garlic) and some deep fried octopus, which can be a bit tough and chewy if not fried well.  There were no worries on that account – the delicate batter was just enough to be crispy without overwhelming the flavor of the octopus, which was tender and juicy.

The garlic was a surpise, though.  I had been expecting two or three cloves skewered and grilled whole, but what I received was an entire head of garlic – all six cloves grilled whole in the skin and served with salt and red miso for dipping!  Peeling off the charred papery skin was a bit of a task and if you have sensitive fingers, it’ll take a while, but it is definitely worth it.  The cloves were large, plump and tender from their steaming.  Topped with a bit of miso, the tang of the warm garlic was well complimented by the miso’s saltiness, both of which invited a refreshing swig of icy beer.

I finished the evening with a ume highball (a whiskey soda with a splash of plum wine; an unusual but tasty combination – highly recommended) and one more cheese skewer accompanied by a yaki onigiri (soy sauce roasted rice ball).  The onigiri was roasted just enough to have a pleasant crunch when bitten into, but still moist and tender on the inside – a very satisfying conclusion to a very satisfying meal.

Prices are a bit higher than one finds at the usual tachi nomi: yakitori and kushi-age ranges from ¥120 to ¥180 per skewer (the exception is the liver, which is a bargain and must-order at ¥100 per skewer).  While this can seem a bit pricier, especially when compared some other establishments, the quality of the ingredients, presentation, and especially the fresh and unique variations on the usual definitely make the prices worth it.  Snacks, sides, and nibbles range from ¥280 – ¥380, good prices for excellent food.

The staff here are attentive and friendly, creating an atmosphere that makes coming to Kushigin even alone no problem.  While no English is spoken, and there are no menus in English, standing at the counter and ordering whatever is on the hibachi that looks good will serve you in good stead.

Kushigin (串吟): Chiyoda-ku, Kanda Sakumacho 1-8-4 1F, ph: 050-5798-6702.  One minute from JR Akihabara Station Central Exit.

Here is a link to promo video for Kushigin.  Although it is in Japanese, it will give you a good idea of waits for you when you go: http://bstbs.gnavi.co.jp/mode/sp/?id=gc5h900