Tebasaki, or deboned chicken wings, on the grill.
During the second of my 13 courses at Aki Kushiyaki, the server deposited a blue ceramic cup on the table. She didn’t explain it, but the intent was clear: My immediate future involved bites of meat on skewers. Lots of them. Afterward, those little bamboo sticks had to go somewhere.
Technically skewers only show up in about half of the bites that make up dinner at this new kushiyaki restaurant in Madison Valley. The real star might be the binchotan charcoal, unseen back in the kitchen but generating hours of consistently high heat without smoke. The meat coming off this grill sports that covetable seared exterior, but stays impressively juicy inside.
Andy Tsang was skeptical when he visited his first kushiyaki restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza district. His sister, who lives in Japan, had wrangled a hard-to-acquire reservation. But, all that money…for grilled meat on sticks? Why not just head to the nearest street food enclave for some yakitori?
After that meal, Tsang was such a convert, he returned to train in the kitchen. Back in Seattle, he co-owns Arashi Ramen, but now you’ll find him most nights in Aki’s glassed-in kitchen, orchestrating tender tsukune chicken meatballs, bites of A5 Miyazaki wagyu, and even the occasional scoop of ice cream over that high, clean heat. (Tsang stays coy about how the latter stays in scoop formation, but says the secret isn’t marshmallow.)
Kushiyaki restaurants are a relatively recent development in Japan, he says. The word translates, simply, to “grilled skewers.” In Tokyo dining vernacular, it’s a high-end restaurant that takes a sort of omakase approach to foodstuffs on sticks. I arrived at Aki prepared for meat sweats or at least the state of uncomfortable fullness generally associated with 13 rounds of grilled protein. But dinner here is a special occasion, a careful choreography of composed bites that center on chicken, with the occasional foray into duck or beef.
Grilling this way heightens each cut’s particular nuance. A drumstick-shaped chicken meatball offers a deeply different experience than the deboned wing. Tsang spends hours alone on the momo course, precision cutting petite bundles of thigh meat wrapped in skin. He puts three on a single skewer, ensuring weight is evenly balanced, “so when I grill, they will not roll around” and cook unevenly.
A nonstop grilled chicken ballet would fatigue even a devoted carnivore. Aki’s menu contains plenty of intermissions—a simple (but welcome) salad, a cool scoop of chicken liver pate with warm squares of toasted milk bread. I figured the snap pea course would be one of these interludes, but even vegetables come wrapped in tissue-thin pork belly. The grill preserves the pea pods’ inherent crunch, a pleasure seldom experienced encased in sizzling, seared pork, like an avant-garde sausage link.
“It’s going to be very hot and juicy inside,” my server warned when she presented the tomato course. They were wrapped in a sheet of pork belly too delicate to be called bacon. It was peak summer, with tomatoes all over Seattle’s menus, but none delivering that particular set of sensations.
These skewers were metal, thin as a wire. I deposited them in my blue cup. Its contents now totaled seven, each with a particular memory, like concert ticket stubs. By that point, a pristine piece of produce turned hot and meaty wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise—the wagyu, practically crackling on the outside, but still rare and tender within.
This style of kushiyaki dining is hard to come by in the U.S.—the concept so new, its signature charcoal so hard to find here. Tsang, unable to get actual binchotan outside Japan, uses a version from Vietnam; curls of it sit on the tables to hold chopsticks. He and co-owner Sonny Ho managed to infuse a bit of Ginza glitz into a new construction building on Madison. It’s a room that likes its wood dark and its liquor bottles copious; the whiskey and sake selection occupies individual, backlit compartments. Japanese restaurants in this vein prefer the rarified charms of wine, says Tsang, but in the U.S., sake feels more special.
Not that your choice of beverage matters—dinner here is an occasion, full stop. A tiny welcome sign bearing each diner’s name awaits on tabletops. The staff keeps a close eye to ensure precision timing for Tsang’s handiwork, monitoring from behind the handsome bar so that level of scrutiny feels unobtrusive. Aki keeps kushiyaki 101 monologue at the start of the meal limited for similar reasons: You don’t need a lengthy tutorial to appreciate each bite. Just a cup for all those skewers.