Sushi, sashimi, ramen and tempura are all well established in the average gourmet’s Japanese food vocabulary, but robatayaki, where small portions of meat, fish or vegetables are slow-grilled to perfection on smoking charcoal, remains sadly under appreciated abroad. This is a shame, because there is arguably no more social or enjoyable way to eat. After all, it’s basically an upmarket version of cooking around the campfire!
The story goes that fishermen in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, wanted to cook some of their catch on the shore as soon as they landed, but had no way of starting a fire. Instead, they put red-hot charcoal in a solid, wooden box at the start of the day, took it with them, and at the end of the day the charcoal would still be hot enough to cook the fish. They’d cook on an oar from the boat, which is why some robatayaki places still dish out food on a long wooden oar as a tribute to those hungry Hokkaido fishermen.
The joy of robatayaki is in the performance. The chefs in charge of the grill keep up a steady stream of banter and activity, and they will undoubtedly get you involved sooner or later. Ordering is simple as fresh produce is laid out in front of your eyes; simply point to an appetizing morsel, and the chef will whisk it away on his oar to the grill. When it’s done, the same oar will be used to pass the food back to you; be it melt-in-the-mouth cubes of medium-rare Kobe beef, lightly seasoned portions of fresh shiitake mushrooms, or barely-seared tuna that was swimming in the Pacific Ocean until that very morning. These are some of the classic robatayaki dishes, but chefs will always be happy to assist with other requests, even if that means using some imaginative sign language!
So, enjoy the performance, wash the food down with a few beers or delicious, crisp sake from a narrow-necked clay flask, and you will truly be enjoying one of the quintessential Japan food experiences. These are some of the best places to try robatayaki.
Inakaya (Roppongi, Tokyo)
This is the classic ‘robatayaki as performance’ restaurant. The chefs entertain and feed customers simultaneously, using specially produced compressed oak charcoal that gives every dish a divine sweet smokiness. Not cheap at around 15,000 yen ($150) for two with drinks, but worth every penny for the exceptional experience.
Musashi (Shinbashi, Tokyo)
Musashi is Inakaya’s down to earth cousin. You don’t get as much of a performance, but the food is fresh and tasty, and with a fixed price of 290 yen per item you’ll be hard pressed to spend more than 6,000 yen ($60) to feed and water two people handsomely.
Mizukake Chaya (Namba, Osaka)
Mizukake Chaya combines the best of both worlds. The chef’s performance is enhanced by his gregarious Osaka accent, and even the fresh prawn and oysters come in at the fixed price of 300 yen ($3) per dish. If you can get a seat by the counter, you’ll be in for one of the best evenings a Japanese food lover could ask for.