Takahashi in Gotanda - semi-famous yakitori place to avoid
A long time Tokyo resident friend of mine is a yakitori obsessive. He has a spreadsheet of what looks like literally hundreds of yakitori places scattered around all Tokyo wards which he has visited, reflecting his years of dedication to the humble chicken skewer. A truly authorative resource on all things chicken, with detailed comments on the quality of the chicken itself, the chef's salting and barbecuing techniques, the relevant shop's sake selection (and, increasingly, wine) and so on. So whenever this master of chicken calls upon me to join him for a meal of yakitori, it is not possible to say 'no'.
He suggested Takahashi in Gotanda as he had never been. I read a very positive review of the place in the Japan Times online (yes, yes, I should know better) which also explained that the chef used to own an upscale French restaurant in Setagaya-ku and took his love of wine with him. (unfortunately, as it turned out, he seems to have left his wine expertise in Setagaya-ku).
Although I generally much prefer beer and sake with yakitori, wine and yakitori can be paired to great effect as well, and it seems that there is now quite a batch of yakitori chefs who like to match wines and yakitori. The often-mentioned Fuku is an example of that, and the sadly now defunct Yakitori Vin et Poussin was a stunning example of how well wine and chicken can be matched (the owner is now a sommelier at Benoit).
Takahashi rather annoyingly has two fixed sittings, 5pm - 8pm and 8:15pm - closing. Since most customers will struggle to leave work by 5pm, the first sitting can become rather short if you get a 6:30 booking. Fortunately, I had a day off yesterday so was able to kick off at 5pm. We ordered most skewers on the menu and were treated to a series of disappointments (with one or two highlights).
We started off with one or two starters that reflected the chef's past as owner-chef of a French restaurant - a terrine with bread toasted over his grill. The terrine was very, very average. Not really restaurant quality to my mind, more like something solid but unspectacular you get in the supermarket.
In contrast, the tomato salad was stunning. The sweetest little fruit tomatoes I have had for a very long time - memorable and outstanding.
The quality of the chicken was also excellent. Sadly the same could not be said about execution (though admittedly the seasoning was subtle and balanced). The chicken skin attached to the chicken pieces on our negima skewer was soft and soggy, not beautifully crisp as I had hoped, and the leek was underdone. It is lovely when the leek retains a crisp texture, but this one tasted like it had barely come near the grill.
A skewer of chicken skin was, again, completely soft and soggy, and the tebasaki were easily the worst chicken wings I have had in a yakitori place. Ever. Neither my friend nor I ate the second wing on our skewer. The meat was dry - completely devoid of any juiciness whatsoever - and we were left wondering how anyone who does this for a living could take a high quality ingredient and ruin it like that.
The bonjiri was quite decent, but nothing special compared to many other yakitori places where it costs half the price. The skin on the bonjiri was, again, sub-par.
The chicken tataki was very good indeed. Wonderfully grilled surface, succulent, juicy raw meat and a rather nice ponzu-based dressing with thinly sliced onions. Very good stuff.
The sasami with wasabi was OK, again nothing special and for my taste overly well-done. This should have been rare but it was medium - though that may have been my fault as I perhaps should have specified this in advance instead of assuming that they would serve it rare. On the other hand, if they provided really great service they might have asked, just like at Yakitori Vin et Poussin where they always recommended it be served medium rare but made sure they asked everyone how they liked their sasami grilled.
Bizarrely, the highlight of the evening was a lamb thigh skewer. I ordered it because I had never had lamb at a yakitori place and was not sure what to expect. I am normally fairly conservative at yakitori restaurants and on the meat front usually limit myself to chicken, almost never ordering beef or other meats when available. But I was curious about the lamb and I have to say it was absolutely stunning. Medium rare, succulent, fragrant, juicy and subtly seasoned. Quite outstanding.
We had a few other things that now escape me - not memorable enough to remember the next day.
For a place that prides itself on its wine list and wine related expertise, their offerings were seriously limited (and overpriced), and the expertise was lacking. The reds were served too cold (with the exception of the red Burgundies, which were spot-on) which really takes away from your drinking pleasure (imagine getting served warm lager; same thing), is incredibly basic and could so easily be avoided. The selection was small and seemed only partially thought through. Too heavy on Burgundy, little variety. They also had sake, but only one, which was average.
The atmosphere was also lacking. It was quite stiff and impersonal, largely because there was very little interaction between the chef and the customers and the server was rather cold in his approach. Nothing like the relaxed, easy-going atmosphere of so many of your neighbourhood yakitori joints.
What the place lacked in atmosphere and wow-factor on the food front it made up for with the prices: WOW! Quite expensive for a yakitori restaurant, I think we paid 24,000 yen although on the drinks front we only had the cheapest bottle of wine on the menu (6,000 yen), plus several by-the-glass wines and one sake.
The truly ridiculous thing is that the place has a Michelin star. The guide has I think really devalued its brand by giving out stars liberally to yakitori places and izakayas and a tonkatsu place. It is a ridiculous thing to have done, given what the Michelin guide used to stand for, but fine: if that is what they feel the need to do, they should at least award their stars to places that are the best in their category. I would be amazed if that one was even close to being the best in Gotanda.
I have it on normally reliable authority that one of the people running the Michelin guide in Tokyo is mates with the owner of Takahashi and got the inspectors to visit the place on that basis. I don't know if it's true, but it certainly felt that something other than the quality of the yakitori was rewarded in the guide.
Anyway, do yourselves a favour and avoid this place. Not that it's bad - it's a solid yakitori place with a few outstandingly good items - but given the abundance of great (and much cheaper) yakitori places in Tokyo I don't see any rational reason to visit Takahashi.