Yakitori Totto, 251 W 55th St at 8th Ave. (212) 245-4555. Reservations until 7pm, then you wait. I say: "Amazing. Go."
Maybe it wasn't the kind of place you show up with your 4-year-old niece, but when the hostess insisted she was fully booked at 6:00pm we weren't buying it. The restaurant was half empty. My niece Sabrina and I saw two seats along the dining bar and made for them. We told the hostess we wouldn't be long.
Sabrina grabbed hold of the chopsticks. Then she tried to grab my nose with them. This stopped the place. I could make out from the few words of Japanese I know that diners were astonished to see a little American kid work chopsticks like the Iron Chef (okay, almost). But that's why we came here. Yakitori Totto was physically in New York, on 55th by 8th, but its vibe was pure Shijuku, Ueno or a dozen other Tokyo neighborhoods.
Yakitori means grilled chicken on skewers and that's what they sizzled here, mostly, on a grill right across from our seats, fired with real charcoal. The staff was all Japanese, twenty-something women serving, a twenty-something guy grilling. Japanese rap played on the stereo. The servers spoke Japanese in the peculiar, nasally "server" vernacular you hear in Tokyo restaurants and shops. The crowd was mostly Japanese, hungry for a taste of home. The food was the real deal.
Plates arrived quickly: Chunks of grilled chicken breast on skewers, lightly salted and tender, got Sabrina's attention. She loved them. The server delivered thigh pieces skwered with scallions, dipped in a tangy tare, like a teriyaki sauce; chopped chicken, like a chicken burger on a stick, also dipped in tare and served with a raw quail egg; and chicken "knees" -- chewy, gristly parts, a nod to texture, a dimension to food that Japanese love.
Sabrina suggested shrimp -- she may be four, but she knows how to eat. So I ordered a giant prawn, shell and head on, salted and grilled. Sabrina wouldn't touch it -- it figured -- but she did enjoy poking the shrimp's eyes with a fork.
I washed everything down with a beer "nama," or raw -- draft served in a icy ceramic cup. I'm amazed this hasn't caught on here in the US: ceramics holds the cold much better than glass. Sabrina sipped water from a straw. The hostess stopped by, said hi to Sabrina and invited us to stay as long as we liked. We were both happy.