Bincho Yakitori has been on my radar and mental wish list to visit since it opened a few years ago but it’s taken the current love affair with Japan to give me the impetus to actually make it there. It is Inspired by Japanese izakayas, bars in which a menu of snack items such as grilled skewers of meat, fish and vegetables and other small dishes are served alongside an extensive range of booze – in this case, beers, sakes, wines and whiskies.
The atmosphere at Bincho Soho is both less raucous and less smoky than it usually is in the real deal izakayas in Japan but it’s comfortable and service is friendly.
In pride of place on the menu is the yakitori section – grilled skewers of chicken (and other poultry); tori means chicken or bird; yaki describes a fried or grilled cooking technique. Listed are various different cuts of chicken such as wings, breast, oysters and livers as well as tsukune (minced chicken meatballs) and quail eggs. Next come all the other grilled skewers of meat, fish and vegetables – these are called kushiyaki; kushi can mean either comb or skewer, which makes me smile because I visualise tiny tasty morsels stuck onto every finger of a comb, like hula hoops on my fingers… At Bincho the skewers look like tiny wooden swords… more of which later. There are rice dishes, sides and salads and a few yakimono – larger grilled items such as whole sardines, salmon steaks and jumbo prawns that are not cooked or served on skewers. A few sauces, desserts and ochazuke (savoury last dishes) complete the menu.
We arrived early for our 6 o’clock booking and were able to request seating at the counter, from where we could watch the chefs cooking at the imported Japanese grill. The restaurant takes its name from Binchō-tan, a unique white charcoal made from oak wood and prized by traditional Japanese grill chefs because it burns for a long period at an even temperature and gives off very little smoke.
Our drinks orders were swiftly taken and magic words were uttered: Chicken hearts. And Chicken skin. The first was on the specials menu; the second is one of the extra parts that are often available but in limited stock. Hell yes, to both please; an easy start to our choices.
The rest we ordered from the menu, quickly advised after reeling off several items to pause there and order more later. Which we did because we’re greedy bastards.
Note that all skewers are priced per skewer but require a minimum order of two. If you’re worried that will make it difficult for a lone diner to try much, you can always opt for The Seven Samurai – seven single skewers of chicken and spring onion, pork belly, salmon, chicken wings, asparagus, a tiger prawn and shiitake mushrooms. Like I said, the skewers certainly look like swords..
It wasn’t long before plates started to arrive.
Chicken Hearts (£2 per skewer) were exactly as expected, a generous 5 per skewer and beautifully hearty, meaty and bouncy.
Thick pieces of Chicken Skin (£2 per skewer) , threaded onto skewers in scrunched folds, were grilled until crunchy and soft at once – utterly incredible – but, as I learned with my second order of the same, they are best served and eaten immediately, as that crunch fades away within minutes.
As any cook knows, Sori (chicken oysters, £2.30 per skewer) are the very best meat on the bird – two plump round morsels of dark meat located at the base of the thighs and the cook’s perk in many households. Here, two were served per skewer, with a little piece of skin stretched over each. Delicious.
Tomatobacon (cherry tomatoes wrapped in bacon, £1.55 per skewer) went down particularly well with Pete. For those who think they don’t sound very Japanese, they’re definitely common on kushiyaki menus in Japan and popular too!
Shishito Japanese peppers (£2.35 per skewer) were also generous, with 4 to the skewer, and provided a welcome vegetal note against all the protein. They’re much like the small green peppers you often find in Spanish places.
A Yuba Salad (£5.65) of spinach leaves was enjoyable but not what I was expecting. I’d hoped for more obvious yuba content, but the tiny smoked pellets of bean curd skin might just as well have been more bacon. A good point is that the salad had been properly tossed before serving and the dressing evenly coated all of it, rather than just the top few leaves, which is so often the case.
Nasu Miso Dengaku ((£3.95) was lovely, full of smoky sweetness, but a tiny portion for the price.
Uzurabacon (quail eggs wrapped in bacon, £1.80 per skewer) were good, though not as full of flavour as the tomatoes.
Tori Yaki Meshi (chicken and mushroom rice) was fabulous. Although the portion was a little on the small side for £4.95, it was full of large pieces of chicken, lots of mushroom and full of savoury umami.
Fat slices of Eringi (king oyster mushroom) were full of flavour, though £2 a skewer for just one slice per skewer felt cheeky.
From the Yakimono section of the menu, Sake Teriyaki (£5.75) was a large, thickly cut slice of tender salmon, beautifully cooked to give tender flesh and crispy crackly skin. The sauce was sweet and delicious, but not overly sickly.
After all the great savoury, I probably shouldn’t have bothered with dessert. The Layered Banana Cake (£5.75) served with green tea ice cream didn’t hit the spot. I did like that the cake wasn’t sickly sweet, but found it dense and bland. Pete took over and said it grew on him, though neither of us ate much of it. The ice cream was OK, but suffered in comparison with the superior quality of Shoryu‘s matcha ice cream – quality in, quality out and Shoryu clearly use superior ingredients here.
More successful were our tastings of sake; ordering the Kyoto Fushimizu at £7 for 150 ml and the Akashi-tai Dai-Ginjo, at £13.50 the most expensive on the menu, we appreciated being able to compare them.
Both were poured into the glasses and allowed to spill over into the bamboo wood cups. We were encouraged to smell and sip them from the wood, which is said to enhance both aromas and flavours.
To my surprise, despite being the second cheapest on the menu, the Kyoto Fushimizu was really smooth, with none of the raw alcohol roughness of some cheap sakes I’ve tried. Made with Kyoto spring water, the menu described it as flowery with a hint of mint. No mint for me, but I’d agree with the floral tag.
For me, the Akashi-tai Dai-Ginjo had a definite hint of aniseed to its flavour profile, which meant I didn’t enjoy it as much.
From our vantage point, it was fun to glance up from our chatter (agreeing that we’re retuning to Japan, rather appropriately, and talking about possible itineraries) and watch the grill chefs at work – a focused choreography of renewing charcoal, carefully placing new skewers, checking those already cooking and whipping them onto a plate at just the right moment. A sprinkle of salt and wedges of lemon were added by the chef guarding the pass before the waiting staff quickly sped the plates to eagerly waiting diners.
Of course, sitting by the pass meant being served our skewers hot and fresh.
We took our time and stayed a couple of hours, ordering quite a feast during that time, but Bincho would also suit those looking for somewhere for a quick bite, or light snack.
Our bill came to £97 and divided into a little under £60 for food, a little under £30 for drinks and a little over a tenner for service.