Hina Yakitori: Skewered by Tradition

An uncompromising Japan-trained chef dives deep into the chicken pond.


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Yakitori skewers are made from French-bred poulet rouge chickens each evening at Hina Yakitori.

Lance Yamamoto

Public perception is a funny thing. A Korean restaurant chain specializing in all things chicken, fried and grilled, can open across the street from a KFC, as was the case with Von's Chicken earlier this year in Oakland's Temescal district, and no one bats an eye. But a chicken-centric Japanese yakitori eatery opens up down the street, and people wring their hands over the narrow appeal of the menu.

To be sure, Von's (which is quite good, by the way) and Hina Yakitori are two very different dining experiences at two different price ranges. But really, what's the difference between digging into a pile of fried chicken and enjoying impeccably grilled chicken thigh oyster, a refreshing daikon salad with poached egg and crispy chicken skin, or a comforting rice porridge topped by delicately poached chicken breast? If anything, the creativity, finesse, and variety of this distinct, new yakitori's menu makes it by far the more rewarding and enriching dining experience. Besides, Hina does fried chicken, too, and it's damn good.

You'd be forgiven if you didn't notice the restaurant's launch this spring. Since taking over the Telegraph Avenue location less than two years ago, owner Jonathan Moon has shuffled concepts like a Vegas blackjack dealer. First, he opened Kushido, a more broadly focused and mostly well-received yakitori restaurant, which he abruptly scuttled in favor of a planned pan-Asian eatery. Modu never lasted beyond the test-kitchen phase before Moon unceremoniously ditched it for Hina. For his part, Moon realizes how all the flip-flopping appears—especially when combined with the similarly scattered approach to his property across the street, now Blackwater Station, originally Grange Hall—to the outside.

"Everybody thinks I'm an idiot," he readily admitted to me on the eve of Hina's debut in March. "This is how stupid I am. I own two restaurants and [Hina] will be my fifth opening in the same locations in two years."

Still, Moon couldn't help but sound optimistic that the third time would be the charm for this particular location. After all, he finally got his man. That would be Tommy Cleary, the executive chef that Moon had been pursuing ever since he decided to open up a yakitori restaurant in Oakland.

It's easy to see why Moon was chasing him. Cleary's culinary CV—in addition to kitchen time at Oakland Japanese spots B-Dama and Ippuku, he apprenticed for a year at Tori+Salon in Tokyo under acclaimed yakitori master chef Kazuo Nakayama—makes him perhaps the most qualified in the entire East Bay to man Hina's Japanese charcoal–fired grill. You can witness that experience in his easy, confident, polished movements behind the grill as he paces back and forth inspecting ticket orders, plating dishes, and monitoring, flipping, and rearranging skewers.

When the place is jumping, it's work that requires near constant motion and intense concentration. The fact that Cleary pulls it off seamlessly is evidenced in the first bite of those pristine skewers. And sure, the wings are delicious, tender and moist, lightly salted and infused with the smoky essence of the slow-burning Japanese-made binchotan charcoal. But you're really missing the point of the place if you stop there. Each night, Cleary breaks down 15 or so whole, French-bred poulet rouge chickens. It's most often used in relation to pork, beef, or lamb, but what Cleary is doing is the definition of whole-animal butchery: Nothing is wasted, all the chicken components dispersed throughout Hina's eclectic menu.

The best example of that is in the yakitori skewers, which consist of cuts that you're not going to find at KFC (or at least not listed on the menu). Those include the aptly named, meltingly tender sori maki thigh oyster, hiza knee cartilage with its distinctive crunchy texture, all manner of innards including reba liver, hatsu heart, and sunagimo gizzard, and even just straight-up kawa, or chicken skin, which is just as decadent, fatty, and delicious as you'd imagine. Probably my personal favorite was the sesseri neck, which came off as a greatest hits of tasty chicken flavors, combining fatty skin, a bit of crunchy cartilage, and juicy, dark meat.

If you've ever tried to eat this part of the chicken, you'd know how difficult it is to separate the meat from the notched neck bone, and can perhaps appreciate the kind of work that Cleary puts in butchering each poultry cut into easily edible skewers. It's something he does entirely on his own—there are no sous chefs or apprentices at Hina doing his prep work—meaning 15-hour days are the norm.

That kind of hyper-focused work ethic is something Cleary learned during his year apprenticing (for free) at Tori+Salon in Tokyo. In Japan, he says, the attention to detail both in terms of food and service approaches near masochistic levels. Indeed, if you ever catch the chef during a quiet spell in service, ask him to relate a few stories about his time there, which in his retelling seemed about as close to a Marines Corps boot camp as you can get without enlisting. But it was a trial by fire that Cleary, 45, says was invaluable in his culinary education, which he started later in life after failing to find a way to make a living in the hollowed out music industry.

The South Bay native is half Japanese on his mom's side, and after rebelling against it growing up, he says he fell in love with the beautiful, obsessive simplicity that is the hallmark of traditional Japanese cuisine, from ramen to sushi to yakitori. It's a passion that translates onto Hina's menu, and not just in the wonderful grilled chicken, served unadorned with just a light salting and a tiny lime wedge for seasoning. Skewered vegetables, including shiitake mushrooms, mini tomatoes, zucchini, and fingerling potatoes, are served in a similarly straightforward manner, emphasizing the natural flavor of each ingredient.

The rest of the menu, meanwhile, is an exercise in creativity, a showcase of just what deliciousness a talented chef can squeeze out of 15 chickens (and a whole lot of eggs). The delicately shaved daikon salad is flavored with smoky and crisp chicken skin and a refreshing, savory lemon-soy dressing, the whole thing bound together by a poached egg. I also loved the tomato sanbaizu, an unusual dish consisting of finely chopped tomato marinated in a sweet vinegar sauce and topped with briny seaweed flakes. Sweet-and-savory tomato salad? Weird, I know, but it worked, and it wasn't the first time a dish challenged my palate in a good way. (The excellent shime rice dishes are the place to go for something a bit more comforting and filling.)

I expected the hiyashi wonton to be warm. Instead, it was served cold, in an intense, mouth-puckeringly sour ponzu sauce. I was expecting the fried chicken to be the typical salty-crunchy American version, but Cleary's tori nanban consists of crispy chicken breast coated with sweet vinegar and covered by a tartar sauce spiked with chopped egg. The results were something like a Japanese-style hybrid between fish-and-chips and an egg salad sandwich. I ended up quite liking both, but as with many dishes on the menu, they're cerebral and uncompromising in their conception.

In other words, Cleary isn't interested in playing to the crowd at Hina. He's serving food that he's interested in, that he learned to make in Japan the hard way. Whether that translates into success is another question. The concept and flavors don't lend themselves to easy explanation, which will make gaining traction in a highly competitive Oakland restaurant environment that much more difficult.

Personally, though, I found the food to be wholly distinct and exciting, like nothing else being offered in Oakland and perhaps the entire East Bay. This is a heck of a lot more than just fried chicken. And that's a good thing.

 

Editor's Note: This story appears in the July edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

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