Japanese food in America has evolved way beyond its parochial roots in the old country, where restaurants were traditionally small and narrowly focused on one or two dishes. Across the U.S., the sprawling, all-purpose Japanese eatery has become standard, offering a dazzling mix of sushi, soba, tempura, teriyaki, and tofu under one roof. Pedaling furiously in the opposite direction, Gotham has gradually filled out its collection of small Japanese specialty restaurants. We’ve had places preoccupied with pork cutlets (Katsuhama), Okinawan food (Suibi), tempura (BarFry), okonomiyaki (Otafuku), pig feet (Hakata Tonton), curry (Go!Go!Curry), udon (Udon East), home-style croquettes (Chiyono), fugu (Chikubu), eels (Kiraku), and soba (Honmura An), the last three now sadly defunct.
Recently leading the way in this micro-focusing has been the Yakitori Totto chain, which now numbers four restaurants. As the name implies, these robatayas (charcoal grills) thrust and parry with the miniature shish kebabs called yakitori, utilizing tasty organic chicken. The flagship, Yakitori Totto, shocked the city by serving chicken sashimi, but the menu was more far-flung, offering diverse small dishes in the tradition of the Japanese pubs called itzakayas.
The newest place, Soba Totto, is located just east of Grand Central in an area that’s been a hotbed of specialty Japanese restaurants. A narrow doorway leads to a sake bar and a warren of semi-private dining spaces, after which you emerge into a long room dominated by a yakitori bar, dramatically set against a wall of rugged black tile trimmed in red. The rest of the room is clad in stained wood, dark and elegant, and the sight of three yakitori chefs skewering morsels of chicken with military precision behind a hanging sheet of glass intended to forestall spatters is one of the great sights of midtown dining.
The list of skewers once again concentrates on organic chicken, including parts you probably never would have eaten. Nonkotsu ($3) is the creature’s sternum, an aerodynamic-looking bone that’s ganged up three to a stick like jet planes flying in formation, producing a soft crunch as you bite down. My first visit was on Valentine’s Day, and I found the chicken hearts ($2.50) irresistible—smoky, chewy, and looking like miniature human hearts. You can also get the gizzard, liver, tail, neck, and a small globular portion of the thigh called “chicken oyster,” in addition to the more conventional parts. Chicken meatball and chicken skin are the awesomest, the chicken skin cut in little coins and stacked vertically on the stick rather than pinned to it like a sail. All come lightly dusted with fine salt and cooked to sizzling over bamboo charcoal.
There are plenty of non-poultry skewers, too, featuring skirt steak, Berkshire pork, sticky-sweet eggplant, bacon-wrapped asparagus, etc. Other skewerless dishes seem selected to marry well with sakes. At the top of the pungency list is raw octopus ($7), which pulls up from its small clay bowl in tendrils. Almost outdoing the octopus is raw sea cucumber, a beast so repulsive that it might have been intended by God to frighten food writers. The texture is something like a flat, slimy jelly bean. But there are plenty of less challenging dishes: fresh tofu, gyoza, chawan mushi (egg custard filled with shrimp, chicken, and gingko nuts), and a lovely invalid’s rice porridge.
Besides yakitori, the co-specialty of the restaurant is soba, the buckwheat noodles that have constituted a Japanese fetish since their origin in the 1700s. You can have them cold with a dipping sauce ($11–$18), or deposited in a broth with other ingredients that include duck, pork, deep-fried tofu, or kakiage—a termpura’d puck of seafood and veggies. Pick the pork ($14), which features fragile swatches of meat that flit among the noodles like sparrows in the spring branches. The homemade noodles are tender and svelte, but not as nutty-tasting as those at Honmura An, where you could watch the soba being made in a little hut on the premises. The Japanese expats who throng Soba Totto seem to prefer their soba cold, even in wintertime.
Perhaps more interesting are the soba derivatives. There are soba chips—puffy little pillows with a dipping sauce that tastes like sour cream and chives—and soba dumplings. Other dishes deploy “soba seeds,” which are buckwheat groats. Tossed over vanilla ice cream ($6), they’re more satisfying than sprinkles. And don’t let their alternate identity disturb you: At Veselka and other Eastern European spots, soba seeds are known as kasha.