How bad did I want a Japanese konro grill? Let's just say I had a picture of one tacked up on the refrigerator of my Manhattan apartment for at least five years in the hope, the hope, that someday that I'd have a backyard or rooftop where to use it. So when my wife and I scored a garden apartment in Brooklyn last year, I knew I'd buy one come spring. What I didn't expect was that my friend Saori Kawano, the founder of Korin Trading and the nonprofit Gohan Society, already had one set aside for me and my wife as our wedding gift. Whoa. Saori is a trailblazing entrepreneur who built the largest independent Japanese restaurant supply company in America; aside from being exceedingly kind and gracious, add "mind reader" to her prodigious talents!
So on Friday, Saori handed me the konro and a box of binchotan, called a car service to haul everything to Brooklyn, and moments later I was rolling across Roebling's bridge. An hour later I was setting up my grill. My konro is a rectangular grill about two feet long. The firebox is made from porous ceramics. It's narrow, so I can hang skewers over the fire without burning my hands. It has two wire grates but these are removable, and that's the beauty of this thing: Without grates, and by skewering your ingredients, you can grill in three dimensions -- that is, move the ingredients around on an angle to cook evenly. Last year when I apprenticed in the kitchen of Ryugin in Tokyo, I watched a masterful chef named Seki-san grill fish, meat, duck, chicken, fighting cock and veggies this way, angling the foods over the blazing fire. I wanted to try this myself, and now I had my chance.
The first thing I did was light the binchotan charcoal. The top grade of this traditional oak charcoal is naturally shaped like the branches that it's made from, and is so hard it clinks like glass when you whack pieces together. I used a lesser grade, but one that works great, too. It takes about an hour to get the charcoal going, which I did on my stove (with the doors open). Once the fire was going, I marinated shiitake mushrooms with a 50/50 mixture of olive oil and soy sauce; brushed parboiled fingerling potatoes with sesame oil, and seasoned with salt; brushed another batch of parboiled fingerlings with vegetable oil and sprinkled shichimi togarashi over them (Saori's suggestion, terrific); ditto for pearl onions; and got my shell steaks ready (also known as New York strip -- my favorite steak). For the steak, I took a page out of my pal, coauthor and grilling fanatic Tadashi Ono's playbook: dunk in 2 parts soy sauce to 1 part olive oil, plus grated garlic and black pepper -- Tadashi's all-purpose, go-to meat marinade (which we're featuring in our upcoming grilling book!). I skewered everything with metal skewers (tanegushi) and was ready for action.
I grilled by feel, touching the foods, angling them like Seki-san did, watching carefully. I was amazed by the intensely concentrated heat produced by the binchotan, which burns smokeless and odorless, and how the ceramic firebox held that heat and spread it throughout the rectangular grill -- so even though I was just grilling in one corner, I was able to indirect grill without coals, too, and also keep my cooked foods hot at the farthest reaches of the konro. The food tasted uh-mazing. My darling wife was smiling (and not just because we recently adopted an adorable puppy). Can't wait to grill with my konro again: Thank you, Saori-san! Check out the pictures below-including a photo of our pup, Ben (part Rottweiler, part Chow, part monster, totally sweet):
4-27 UPDATE: Today I got a few inquiries about where to buy this incredible grill. Click here to check out Korin's konro.