I'm in love! With a chicken. (Well, stranger things have happened.) Actually, I'm enamored of a roasted chicken that was served at the American Cancer Benefit's California Spirit XXVI event last Sunday at the Pacific Design Center. It was a wonderful party that raised a lot of money for a great cause -- cancer research. So many good restaurants and spirit companies donated their time, dishes and products to help. Of course, I ate myself silly (what else is new?) But when all is said and done, I found myself parked time and again directly in front of a large station where Wolfgang Puck Bistro was offering up one dish -- roast chicken, from the massive rotisserie set up there. An old and dear friend, Matt Bencivenga was overseeing a number of chefs who were roasting and dismembering a dozen or more birds at a time on the rotating spit. Matt, who is executive chef and partner of Wolfgang Puck Catering (with the team from WP Worldwide of Exec Chefs Karl Matz and Kiitipong Rojanautai), told me that the chickens had been marinated for 24 hours in a blend of extra-virgin olive oil, rosemary, garlic, hot chilis, kosher salt and black pepper, then roasted for five hours on the lowest setting of the rotisserie.
Unloading Marinated Jidori Birds from Rotisserie; Roasted for Five Hours on Low!
I subscribe to a level of "chicken connoisseurship" that is almost unhealthy. I abhor the tasteless commercial frozen, waterlogged chickens found in most supermarkets, seeking out the best free-range and/or organic birds I can find, usually at Wolf's station in Gelson's or those at Whole Foods. I am always searching for that elusive, intense mystical flavor I first experienced eating Bresse chickens in France many, many years ago, followed by the black-skinned birds I have consumed in Chinese restaurants. I always say that the test of a great chef is how well he can roast a chicken. (I am an adventurous eater, and I have eaten chicken all over the world, even raw at sushi bars in Japan.)
Chef Matt Bencivenga (left) Supervises Serving of Jidori Birds
But as I said, I am very careful these days as to where I get it. The source of the chicken is vitally important to me, especially after reading all the books about the origins of our food. No longer do I buy a cooked chicken at any supermarket, but rather spend a few dollars more, usually at Whole Foods, 'cause they spell out where the birds were raised (air-dried, organically, with no antibiotics, hormones and such). I like my chicken on the juicy, rare side... a dangerous addiction these days I'm often told.
So when I grabbed a plate of Matt's chicken, asking for dark meat and some skin, I was not expecting to taste the ultimate chicken of my life. Yes, that's a bold, probably ridiculous statement... but I'll stick with it. The bird was juicy, and so flavorful I was overwhelmed. I picked up the leg and consumed it in big bites, then went back for another plate of wings and such. It just got better. I pulled Matt aside and asked him: Where did these chickens come from? "They're jidori chickens," he told me. We ordered 75 of them and picked them up yesterday morning. Which explained a lot... they were from Dennis Mao's Jidori Chicken Co. downtown. I knew a little about them, since I had recently reviewed the chicken restaurant that Dennis and Chef Mako had opened, Robata-Ya (2004 Sawtelle Blvd., three blocks north of Olympic Blvd., near the corner of La Grange (310-1418), which featured the jidori birds that Dennis raised and sold to exclusive restaurants and hotels around town. It was time for another visit with Dennis.
Dennis Mao is the "Jidori Chicken King"
Dennis Mao, a shy and charming youngish man known as the "The Chicken King," has become a new friend. In an e-mail to me recently, Dennis said: "It's been a long journey for me, from chicken delivery boy to restaurant owner. My friendship with Chef Mako sprouted 16 years ago when I delivered my first box of fresh chickens to the Chinois kitchen, where he was the chef. Quite a journey, indeed." Yes, and I'll take you on it herein, but first a further note about my passion for chicken.
Grill Chef at Robata-Ya Watching Jidori Chicken Skewers as they cook!
Until now, when my hunger for delicious chicken overwhelmed me, I would drive down to Central Avenue in Little Tokyo where a tiny Japanese yakitori restaurant serves nothing but skewers of chicken parts, and I mean all the parts, sheer nirvana, but it's a long trip. Now Dennis and Mako have enriched my culinary life with their new space on Sawtelle, where they offer some of the most delicious and, yes, unusual food in our city.
Robata-Ya is the Chicken/Seafood Restaurant on Sawtelle featuring Jidori Birds!
Oh, my, where to start? Probably with Dennis, since he is the source of the fabulous jidori chickens that most of the finest restaurants in Los Angeles serve up. Order a roast chicken at Spago, and it's a bird that was alive in the morning and delivered to the restaurant that very day. The same goes for Matsuhisa and Patina and a hundred other top eateries in California. If you want a fresh, not frozen bird raised in a free-range environment without any antibiotics, hormones or added water, you call Dennis at Mao Foods and he tries to fit you into his busy agenda. You've been seeing the words jidori chicken on a lot of local menus in recent years, and I gather that Dennis is the reason for this development. If you go to Dennis' website, JidoriChicken.com, subtitled "The Art of Freshness," you learn that "jidori" is a Japanese term translating as "chicken of the earth." It was a term the Mao family began using around 1991 to market chickens to the many talented Japanese chefs heading the kitchens of some of the best restaurants in the city. That's when he met Mako, who was making his mark with "Asian fusion" cooking demanding the freshest ingredients in the sushi tradition. From there it spread to all top chefs in Los Angeles from a variety of traditions.
Skewer of Jidori Chicken Wings at Robata-Ya
Dennis was unable to import Hinai-jidori chickens from Japan, so he created Mao Foods and contracted with small farms in the Central Valley to grow a similar all-natural, free-range chicken. According to his website, the birds get no hormones, steroids or meat by-products. When I referred to them as "the Kobe beef of chickens," he jested, "I don't massage them or feed them beer. It's just a really good-quality bird which gets to you -- the restaurant and diner -- in less than 24 hours." The difference between Dennis' birds and those of other producers is the time it takes to get from slaughter to table, and the condition in which it gets there. The jidori is never frozen and is overnighted to customers outside of L.A. Other chickens may be frozen to make the trip to a distribution center and then stores, a process that can takes weeks versus one day.
A cup of what I consider one of the world's greatest-tasting chicken soups!
From Jidori Chicken's website:
Our birds are raised cage-free, fed only all natural grains; we truck our birds live daily from the Central Valley to our facility in the heart of the city and then process them under strict guidelines with USDA inspection of every single bird. Most of our processing is done by hand at our boutique center; people simply do a better job than automated machines. Each box is carefully packed by hand in our ice pack, which prevents the temperature from rising before it reaches its destination. Our chicken arrives vacuum packed, super fresh and never frozen.
Mao calls his ethos "the alive this morning" ethic.
Which perhaps explains why, night after night of late, I have been sitting at a counter seat in this small, subtly charming restaurant, drinking sake and consuming vast quantities of skewered chicken, along with robata or sashimi, Kobe beef parts, and cup after cup of the best chicken soup ($3) ever experienced in the history of man. Sorry, grandmother, sorry Nate-N-Al's, these guys have taken chicken soup to a different ethereal level (get it with the succulent tsukune, a chicken meatball). I tried to get them to tell me how it's made, but all they would say is slowly simmered fresh chickens with lots of fat and bones and herbs and patience. (Like me, you will lie in bed after leaving here and taste the essence of pure chicken again and again before you sleep.)
But about those skewers. There's a fellow named Hiro Takahashi standing in the open kitchen manning the large grill box. I could see that it is gas-fired under the famed Japanese charcoal, bin-cho-tan. He is like a ballet master, carefully scrutinizing the skewers to make certain they are not overcooked, once or twice removing them for a quick dip in the bowl of soy sauce beside him, using tongs to move lumps of charcoal around keeping the fire even. There's a succulent little morsel on chickens called the "oyster," so order a skewer ($3) to start your journey. All chicken skewers cost from $2.25 to $3.50. Then ask for a breast, dabbed with fresh wasabi. I am more adventurous, confidently asking for skewers of: neck, cartilage, hearts, skin, meatball, liver and thigh, always ending with the delicious chicken wings, very hot but you'll gnaw away on them and smile. At your place are two different pepper shakers; use them sparingly.
Chef will offer up a skewer of shishito peppers ($2.25), mildly hot and incredible, as well as a dozen vegetables -- remember the potato with black caviar ($3.50). He always has a few ears of corn on the grill, dabbed with teriyaki sauce and spices, which he will cut into smaller pieces if you so desire. But this is just the tip of the delicious iceberg. Skewers of US Kobe: skirt ($2.50), short rib ($3.50), so fabulous, and tongue ($2.25), Kurobata Pork (all about $3): pork belly, intestine (don't knock it until you try it!), bacon-wrapped white asparagus. Robata or sashimi choices, from the Tahiti fresh, sweet shrimp ($4.75), to smelt, baby Mediterranean sardine and octopus. A dozen Kushikatsu offerings: scallop with sea urchin ($5.50), pork with sweet onion ($2.50), even a special veal sausage ($3.25).
But there are several dozen more fabulous selections: have you ever tasted ankimo ($7), steamed monkfish liver with ponzu sauce, the foie-gras of the sea? Mako insisted I taste the Scottish langoustine ($15), served sushi style. I spotted a bowl of black mussels steamed with garlic and sake ($4.50) and, ordering it, scarfed up every drop of sauce. So much more it's mind-blowing: braised pork stomach with miso and mountain root ($6.50); too exotic? Grilled young chicken legs ($8), and -- if foie gras is your thing (it is mine) there's foie gras sautéed with pineapple and sweet soy-ginger sauce ($13). A half-dozen rice and noodle dishes: my favorite, the sautéed ground chicken over rice with raw quail egg ($6).
Love beef stew? Here is a braised beef stew ($6.50) that will be the stuff of dreams. Two crispy fried dishes: one of chicken gizzards, one of braised Kurobata pork belly. A delicate Chawan-mushi ($9), the steamed egg custard topped with black truffles! If you are like me, I must end my meal with something sweet, so the chocolate cake ($6.50) is one choice, the coconut cheese cake another, as well as vanilla and chocolate ice cream, and green tea mochi. The drink menu is remarkable, from soft to hard. Five Japanese beers, including a unique special micro brew ($8). But I was blown away by the Sake selection: Two dozen choices, from a nice $30 bottle to a $70 Hakkaisan -- so dry, spicy and nutty. Even something called crazy milk (300 ml for $12). Sho-Chu is the Korean equivalent of distilled rice vodka, and there are eight bottles ranging from $30 to $60. The wine selection is very limited -- just three glasses, and I have suggested they offer the Laetitia Brut Rose, which goes fabulously with this food. Note: they do feature Fiji Water, my particular passion when it comes to non-alcoholic drinks.
Eating here, I am reminded of my early days in 1987 reviewing the then-unknown Matsuhisa, discovering a world-class dining experience and seeking to reveal it to the world. Yes, this is the real thing, a dining experience on a three-star level. You will marvel at many of the dishes, enjoy telling all of your food-loving friends about it, and returning time after time to try new dishes.
And you read about it here first!
Robata-Ya is open for lunch, and now is open every evening Tuesday to Sunday from 5:30 pm to 10 pm on weekdays, later on weekends. Reservations are recommended (310-481-1418) but not essential.
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