The smell of food being cooked over hot coals drives me wild. Combine this with the clean, lively flavours of Japanese cuisine and I'm in heaven. Yakitori bars offer both and on a fairly regular basis I can be found propped up at one or other of my favourite central city yakitori bars hastily sliding tasty morsels from skewer after skewer, waiting for the traffic to die down enough for me to enjoy my drive home. On this night I'm not just looking to fill in time. I'm meeting a friend for a more substantial meal at Taisho Yakitori Bar on Jervois Rd.
In Japan, traditional yakitori bars stick to the sticks so to speak, serving only skewered chicken cuts, grilled to perfection over binchotan coals, and nothing else. There, if you want sushi, you go to the sushi house. Or if it's a noodle or rice dish you're craving then that's a separate joint altogether. Here in NZ we break the rules and most of our yakitori bars, Taisho included, offer a selection of other popular dishes as well as the skewers so that we can make a full meal of it, as opposed to the in-between-work-and-home snack that yakitori is favoured for in Japan.
A gigantic red paper lantern floats, suspended, in the middle of the small dining room of Taisho and further back, behind a glass wall, the master of the coals (Taisho means "commander") works patiently and meticulously turning and shuffling the neat rows of skewers. These two features supply the interest factor as far as the dining room goes and any ambience is created by the diners - a constant parade of friendly and colourful locals on the night we dined.
The menu offers around 30 types of skewers of chicken, meats, seafood and vegetables. Then there are other popular dishes from the kitchen like fried soft shell crab, karaage, okonomiyaki (savoury pancake) and takoyaki (octopus balls) as well as sushi, rice and noodles. We ordered a selection, ate some, then, gauging our hunger, ordered some more so in the end we had a jumble of dishes, served not quite in the order they were intended I'm sure, but we couldn't have cared less.
All of the chicken skewers were fantastic. Succulent thighs threaded with spring onion and dipped in teriyaki sauce and herbed salt, chicken wings all golden and crispy and creamy chicken meatballs. Our only disappointing skewer was the scallop wrapped in pork - a measly, dried-out scallop overwhelmed by too much undercooked, grey pork.
Never mind, a neat row of seven hand-made dumplings came along and these were filled with a delightful mix of pork, pepper and ginger seasoning that bounced around our mouths, encased in a tender pleated dough wrapper.
Other highlights were the takoyaki - soft balls of octopus pieces mixed in batter, then fried until golden on the outside and creamy on the inside and topped with waving flakes of fishy bonito - and the agedashi tofu which was subtle and cleansing with its sweet dashi broth.
The next wave of dishes included a salmon don, eggplant dish and grilled sweet corn but all were rather average. It annoys me when you order something so obviously in-season (in this case, corn cobs) and what you receive is completely standard. Our grilled corn consisted of, at most, a third of a cob, split lengthwise, barely grilled, squelchy (making me wonder if it had seen a freezer in its recent history) and, priced at $4.50, it seemed out of whack with the seasons.
It was around this time I noticed that neighbouring tables were enjoying a feast of skewers, sushi, soft shell crab, salads and karaage from the set menu and I had to wonder if I'd go that way next time. It somehow seemed more cohesive than our own haphazard approach.
We finished with pots of green tea and noted that while Taisho didn't blow our minds or even surprise us much, it's not the sort of place you go to for that. It's a typical local eatery that's approachable and easy to drop into after work. There's no agonising over the menu, trying to decipher what the descriptions will actually transpire to on the plate or wondering whether you can afford to order side dishes as well as drinks. There's no stuffiness on the part of the staff and a pleasant ambience is created by the flow of locals exchanging greetings and enjoying a quiet bite before drifting off into the night. We left feeling well-nourished indeed.
From the menu: Edamame $6, sweet corn $4.50, salmon don $12, yakitori - chicken thigh with spring onion $5.50, crispy chicken wing $6, scallops wrapped in bacon $6.50, takoyaki (octopus balls) $7, agedashi tofu $7, gyoza $10, eggplant $5
Drinks: Fully licensed
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