When home cooks are looking for a night away from the stove, criteria may differ for what kind of restaurant fits the bill. Perhaps somewhere with a stocked bar is a priority or one that serves a style of food not often cooked at home. For this home cook, I want a few things in a night free of washing pots and pans: dishes with ingredients that aren’t always easy for me to access, execution that is beyond my current skills or kitchen equipment, and a sense of place. I want to feel as if I’ve gone somewhere, even if that somewhere is physically only around the block from my apartment.
One restaurant that meets these desires simultaneously is Yakitori Totto, a narrow, upstairs Japanese restaurant on West 55th Street that is known for grilled skewers (in Japanese, yakitori means skewered grilled chicken). Ingredients on their menu, like shishito peppers, are not often found at my neighborhood grocery store. Grills are not permitted on the balcony of my small apartment in Harlem, and as a result, this form of cooking is completely absent from my dinner table. The delicate skins pleated around juicy pork dumplings are the result of years of practice I don’t have.
To reach Yakitori Totto, walk by the several other Japanese restaurants on this stretch of West 55th Street and climb a steep set of stairs. Open the heavy door with no window to release the scent of grilled meat. Inside, a host will let you know if there is a wait (go early or late if you want to sit immediately) but the restaurant takes phone numbers and will text when a table is ready. There are several small places nearby that are ideal for nursing a beer.
When the text finally comes, climb the stairs again. The best seats are at the L-shaped counter, where a dozen lucky customers face the grill, watching the masters at work. Servers call out to each other in Japanese and carry a surprising number of small plates at one time. The counter offers the most intimate seating, with couples cocooned into their own conversations, while tables in the small main dining room are tight on space and hearing the talk of your neighbors is inevitable.
The menu is a heavy book featuring a few photos on each page. The pages detail types of skewers—not just the meat, but the cut. In the chicken section alone, choices include wing, skin, thigh, liver, and gizzard. Another section details skewers with limited availability, including chicken oyster or heart. Servers are knowledgeable guides and can help narrow down options but with prices that start around $3 per skewer, it’s easy to over-order (the sweet, smoky smell of meat on the grill may be responsible for an increased feeling of hunger that can lead to haphazard over-ordering).
Flamed pickled mackerel on a bed of seaweed is a bold first bite; vinegar and the fatty fish are a bright combination. Small plates arrive as they’re ready, and roughly in the order outlined on the menu. Eat the gyoza, or homemade pork dumplings, the moment they hit the table. Pan fried on one side in sesame oil, the dumplings have a duo of personalities: a satisfying crunch on one side, steamed and soft on the other. A section of the menu that deserves extra attention is labeled “Totto Original,” where grilled shishito peppers with chicken stuffing are found. Three to an order never seems fair to my husband and I, so we opt for two orders.
Chicken thighs, short ribs, and pork marinated with mustard are on the table within seconds of being taken off the grill, often too hot to immediately raise to your lips. All of the meat is noticeably tender, and slides off the skewer without resistance. It’s easy to overlook the seafood section of the menu, but the scallops, barely seared and sweet, are a fresh counterpoint to the meat. Vegetable skewers, including tomato, asparagus, or eggplant, add color to the table. If carbs are required, the Negi Tori Don, grilled chicken and scallions over rice topped with a poached egg makes an ideal finale; choose the spicy version.
This slice of Tokyo near the corner of Central Park provides not only a parade of satisfying dishes, but the pleasure of returning to home with a full belly to a clean kitchen.