Yakitori are the tapas of Tokyo, a parade of neat little nibbles adding up to an endlessly engaging meal. When done right, as they certainly are at Hana Zen, each small bamboo skewer of grilled goodies is a miniature piece of culinary art, its central ingredient marinated, glazed, sauced, and/or garnished to brilliantly enhance its own specific nature. But despite their sushilike purity and focus, these tidbits haven't developed the cloak of formality that surrounds sushi -- they're sidewalk eats that evolved into bar snacks but never lost their street-smarts.
These days, there's a bright new neon sign over Hana Zen's door, but the restaurant has actually been here for five years, in its earlier incarnation as a franchise of the Nambantei of Tokyo yakitori chain. Some of its staffers bought the restaurant last spring, renamed it, and augmented the grill menu with tempura, noodles, and donburi (rice dishes).
They also expanded the restaurant to occupy the building's whole narrow second-floor mezzanine, incorporating a pre-existing sushi bar on the other side of a short entry stairway. The halves are now unified by a spiffy Japanese-modern decor of black wooden chairs, lustrous cherrywood tables, and very comfortable red banquettes. The long, narrow spaces keep the noise in check, and the windowed outer wall (looking out on a sushi bar and a ramen joint across the street) offers the illusion of spaciousness.
Bad pop music was playing loudly at the street entrance when we arrived, but as we mounted the stairs the sonic slop faded, replaced by a buzz of human energy. We were glad we'd made reservations -- by 7:30 p.m. on a Friday night, the place was so jammed that drop-ins faced a wait as long as two hours. Unlike most Japanese restaurants near Union Square, Hana Zen evidently draws a tourist-free, largely suitless dinner crowd -- a few families (both Asian and non-) and numerous vivacious twentysomething Japanese, Nisei, and Anglos, with singles and pairs mainly seated at the counters and groups occupying the tables.
The dinner menu runs a daunting eight pages, but your main destinations should be the "delicacies" and yakitori sections. Some of the delicacies are traditional Japanese treats -- for example, sashimi, pork stew, and chawan mushi, a delicate egg and shrimp custard -- but many are cultural exchanges like grilled asparagus with mayonnaise and flying fish roe, grilled oysters with bacon, and so on.
Our first delicacy was a cross-cultural enoki maki ($5.25), consisting of little grilled packages of tiny enoki mushrooms wrapped in prosciutto. They were a revelation -- smoky, velvety, and crunchy, a thrill to four of the five senses. Tempura fish cakes stuffed with cheese (chikuwa no isobeage, $4.25) were another stunner, tiny greaseless puffs of whitefish coated with airy panko, each cosseting a tiny gush of light, buttery melted cheese. Lending contrast to this Japanese version of chicken Kiev was a sharp-flavored dollop of shredded daikon radish.
Grilled black cod (gindaro no kasuzuke, $7) is cooked to order (a 15-minute wait). Also known as ablefish or butterfish, it's a deep-water species with mild, fatty flesh from the seas off Eureka. Its melting texture and near-sweet flavor were set off by a faintly sweet, lightly peppered sake paste glaze. Sharing the plate were a half-dozen okra-shaped emerald green grilled Japanese peppers, crisp and slightly bitter to play against the cod's sweetness. The Zen in the restaurant's name began to seem descriptive -- each of these dishes, and the regular yakitori that alternated with them at our dinner, was a little chance at satori, an epiphany on the nature of flavor.
The yakitori menu includes two pre-selected assortments. But they're for the timid -- we had a great meal just browsing on things we wanted to taste.
Most yakitori arrive as two small skewers that have done a short stretch on a 450-pound iron grill imported from Japan, stoked with very hot (500 degrees) Japanese charcoal. Although tori means "bird" (and yaki is "grill"), the term now embraces the whole length of the food chain from vegetables to quadrupeds. (Yakitori differ from teppan yaki in that teppan means "grilled at the table"; the difference between yakitori and dengaku, meanwhile, is that the latter delicacies are grilled between two joined skewers shaped like a nutcracker. Quiz on Monday.)
You get a plateful of lemon wedges and French sea salt to add at will, but we were too happy with the kitchen's work to edit it. Starting with invertebrates and moving toward higher life-forms, our yakitori included baby octopus skewers (iidako, $3) with swoony-tender body parts and tender-crunchy tentacles, all wonderfully smoky and touched with a subtle thin sauce. They enlightened me about why humans choose to eat octopus. Cuttlefish (ika maki, $3.50), which thoroughly defied our expectations of giant squid, consisted of soft white microfillets wrapped around clean green fine-chopped shiso leaves, herbal and a little peppery. Eel (unagi, $4.50) was splendid, arriving tender and boneless with an intriguing sweet soy and wine marinade.
Hana Zen features free-range chicken, but the poultry skewer that caught our attention was the gizzard (suna gimo, $2.75): Organ meats are prized in yakitori and besides, we like them; here, the tiny chunks were chewy and smoky. Duck breast fillet with scallions (aigomo, $4.50) had melting poultry tidbits sandwiched between green-and-white scallion midriffs. Quail eggs (uzura tamago, $3.50) were nicely seasoned and cooked solid but not dry.
Beef tongue ($3.75), its crisp exterior rubbed with black pepper, was so toothsome, it tasted almost like lamb, but the lamb itself (ramu yaki, $6.50) was rather tough and muttony, our least favorite dish here. Nor did we cotton to "nutritious" ginkgo nuts (ginnan, $3), which had the dusty flavor and squishy texture of that Dixie and Filipino favorite, boiled peanuts, and didn't make us appreciably smarter.
Patrons all around us, regardless of ethnicity, were eating sushi and tempura. We sampled the day's special Hana Zen roll ($4.50) of salmon and avocado, and the Monkey Roll ($9), made from a few of my favorite things: eel, avocado, sea urchin, and tobiko (flying fish roe). The urchin, always a stringent quality-test, was good, with minimal iodine flavor, but in both sushi varieties the rice was bland and softish, the avocado dominant, and the pickled ginger on the side anemic. A tempura appetizer ($5.50) was a little greasy -- like the sushi, of good-neighborhood-joint quality but a waste of appetite compared to the house specialties.
Our dessert, though, was an adorable special of "grilled ice cream" with raspberry sauce ($5), a baked Hokkaido of vanilla ice cream lightly coated in fluffy meringue, caramelized just enough to taste like Coney Island cotton candy. Regular choices are green tea ice cream and cheesecake.
The service reminded us of Cole Hardware: All servers wear radio earpieces, everything is computerized, everyone's gracious, and yet it's all slightly out of sync. As the restaurant filled up, our charming waiter abandoned us for about 10 minutes -- but as soon as we had to signal for service, the maitre d' (whose station was nearby) began to keep an eye on our needs. One of these needs was a second small bottle of the evening's special chilled sake, the unique, unfiltered, fizzy Nigori ($8) made by Takara in Berkeley -- a variety I've been searching for ever since tasting it at Lhasa Moon. The regular list comprises 19 Japanese and one American-made sake, plus brief but savvy selections of California bottlings and international beers.
As we left, the host warmly told us, "I'm really pleased you came -- you aren't afraid of yakitori. Most Americans just order sushi or tempura, things they think are safe." We were as surprised as we were tickled by the praise. As inventive as sushi, but actually less exotic to Western tastes, what is yakitori, after all, but a glorified version of the backyard barbecue that everybody loves?
Don't be afraid -- even if you think you're not up for satori-on-a-plate, you'll like this stuff.