We order chicken a lot. It’s not that we have a particular fondness for the meat of this flightless bird, or that chicken is some kind of delicacy (it tends to be the third most common thing at neighborhood restaurants, behind reclaimed wood and playlists heavy on Arcade Fire). We order it because it’s a good clue as to whether a place is worth your time and money. We order chicken in the hope of having an experience like Toriko.
Toriko is the first US outpost of a yakitori mini-chain with more than a dozen locations in Japan. It serves two omakase menus ($65 and $85), both of which focus on grilled chicken skewers. If grilled chicken on sticks makes you think mostly of summer BBQs and lukewarm Dos Equis, know that this West Village spot feels less like your cousin’s backyard and more like a high-end sushi restaurant. The dining room mainly consists of a bright, wooden counter with about 20 seats overlooking an elevated grill, where a chef rotates skewers like he’s on a stage playing the xylophone. After each one is put on your plate, the chef watches you with a look that makes you feel like you should exaggerate a smile and head nod to assure him you’re enjoying every bite. But no exaggeration is necessary.
Both tasting menu options center on six chicken skewers that, from the first bite, will make you question how chicken can even taste this good. The skewers vary nightly, but you can expect things like soft and salty chicken neck, wasabi-topped tenderloin, and juicy chicken hearts. Then there’s the thigh meat, which has so much flavor that the idea of a neutron star the size of Manhattan having more mass than the sun will finally seem feasible to you. And if chicken oysters (pieces of dark meat located near the thigh) aren’t part of the night’s omakase, make sure to get some a la carte at the end of your meal - the meat is charred, juicy, and almost confusingly tender.
If the other courses at Toriko were as enjoyable as the yakitori, there’d be almost nothing to criticize. But they’re hit-or-miss. There are excellent appetizers, like a chicken bone broth that almost makes you want to get sick so you can request a bucket of it in bed - but also some less enjoyable dishes, like a savory egg custard that tastes like it’s been infused with too many pumps of movie theater butter. Considering the difference between the two menus is just the addition of a few non-chicken items, the $65 option is definitely the way to go. Even without the bites of wagyu and the bowl of ramen that are included in the more expensive menu, you still get plenty of food.
The best way to enjoy dinner here is to sit at the counter and drink something from the long, mostly-French wine list as you watch a chef apply fresh wasabi to still-smoking skewers with the attention of someone playing high-stakes Jenga. This dinner theater makes Toriko ideal for dates, but no matter who joins you, two things are for certain: you’re going to order chicken, and you’re going to be very happy you did.
A tray of five different appetizers is a strong way to start, especially considering all of these are very good. They range from a thick, not-too-salty chicken bone broth to a rich chicken liver mousse that has the texture of hummus.
This savory egg custard is infused with foie gras and topped with shaved truffle, so it’s pretty intense. But unlike most other things here, it’s not balanced with any other flavors, and it tastes overwhelmingly of butter.
When you sit down, the chef hands you a diagram of a chicken with 14 different parts marked and highlighted. The six chicken skewers you’ll receive as part of the omakase vary nightly, but no matter which ones you get, you’ll be happy. Tenderloin with fresh wasabi that clears your nose might be followed by juicy chicken hearts, then smoky breast meat topped with ginger, then a chicken meatball that crumbles as you bite into it. After the final skewer, you can order more a la carte, and while you probably won’t be hungry, you should get an extra order of chicken oysters. They’re the best skewer here, and that’s saying something.
For an extra $20, you get five more things, most notably a few bites of wagyu and either ramen or a rice bowl with chicken and egg. The wagyu is rich and tender, but the other dishes, like fried taro root that tastes like under-seasoned potatoes, are some of the least enjoyable things here. Save the $20, and if you’re still hungry after the standard omakase, order a few more skewers a la carte.