It seems almost shameful. Not only am I deeply passionate about Japanese culture and cuisine, but I pride myself on visiting most anything that resembles a Japanese restaurant here in the Dirty. Such was the basis for my dismay as I met up with ChowDownAtlanta (website) for a little grub late last week. After our usual game of who’s gonna make the call, we finally settled on the long standing Yakitori Jinbei for our lunch endeavor. Located up Cobb Pkwy, just outside I-285, it is beyond shocking that I had never before ventured into the tiny strip mall eatery. Open since ‘02, I lived not more than 3 miles from the place for many a year.
Walking into the 40 some-odd seat room, you can’t help but identify the formulaic Japanese décor. Heavy on the soft, and accented with the deep, the simplicity of the space is both expected and demanded. It is a style that I will never tire of. My affinity for the layout, however, is inconsequential. What is of importance is that the place is clean and the furniture and such are all of relatively high build quality.
A purported Japanese pub and restaurant, the atmosphere inside seems slightly left of casual and thus lends itself well to a friendly get together. Bare in mind, this interpretation is based on a single visit; although, most everyone else who has chimed in on YJ has said the same.
Given the name of the establishment and the other comments on this place, it would appear that the yakitori is indeed the star of the show. However, the yakitori, in a most puzzling of realities, is unavailable during the lunching hour. As the goal of our lunch was to obtain some ramen and some sushi, I can’t say I was too displeased after learning that befuddling fact. At the end of the day, if you put the word yakitori in your name, it would follow that the yakitori should be available when you are open.
So while the dish, which is essentially a Japanese preparation of skewered chicken meat or offal, was nowhere to be found, we were able to move past that easily. Chow Down was responsible for the noodle ordering and I was told to take care of the raw goods.
Looking through the mark your own menu of sushi, it became apparent that it was awash in lameness. If all you eat are the American standards of tuna, salmon, and California roll, then you’ll be fine. If you want things like uni, aji, or gindara, then you had better look elsewhere. However, the Negitoro bowl off the main lunch menu seemed appealing, so an order was in order .
The Negitoro bowl was relatively pleasing but our selection of red snapper, salmon, tuna, and yellowtail delivered what I expected: passable, but far from acceptable sushi. It is not that you won’t be able to find inferior sushi here in town, it’s that a restaurant like this should do a better job. While a far cry from craptastic chains like Ru Sans and Ra Sushi, the cut of the fish was amateurish, the size of the pieces was excessively large, and the flavor reeked of mediocrity. I found the Negitoro bowl, which comprised of fatty tuna, quail egg, green onion and rice, to be much better. Though the meatiness of the tuna was apparent, and the egg was a nice touch, you could still see how the quality of the supply held this back. I would completely forgo the sushi items but I would take down another Negitoro bowl without much of a fuss. It is certainly worth noting that the vinegar rice was well executed whether we found it on the bottom of our bowl or under our fish.
People might be quick to note that the sushi here seems nothing more than an afterthought and conclude that Yakitori Jinbei should get a pass. Maybe it is included out of some self-imposed obligation as many around these parts have not been exposed to Japanese cuisine other than sushi and hibachi. Whatever the reason, it should be expunged from the menu so as to prevent the distraction.
While I drove us shamefully down the wrong path, Captain Chow steered us back towards command central. Chow grabbed us an order of Shouyu ramen and Tonkotsu ramen. Coming in at $9.80 an order, and joined by a salad and some rice, the price is more than reasonable. Even if the price seems high, the portions are large enough that you won’t feel fleeced. In fact, I suspect that unless you are like that little spark plug across the table from me, an order will fill you up regardless of the time of day.
Speaking to the execution, both bowls showed up shoulder high in broth that covered a bundle of perfectly al dente ramen and joined by fresh odds and ends. The Shouyu ramen, which includes a soy broth, green ions, sea weed, and roasted pork, was easily the silver medalist. Though not truly problematic, the soy broth was not only muted in saltiness, but also distinctly sweet. Though neither of us flailed our arms in disgust, I certainly felt that the dish was just a bit off. Though Haru Ichiban version still wins this battle, the ingredients were all very well used, except for the broth.
The Tonkotsu ramen was a definitive winner. Only the gods know what possessed Ms. Chow Down to allow the bowl to sit in front of me for the majority of the meal. Regardless, I was happy to slam down as much of this as my stomach could hold. Though far from award winning, the freshness of ingredients, quality of ingredients, and price point, all made this bowl worth of the trip. In that respect, both ramen orders were nearly identical.
Yakitori’s Tonkotsu relies on a cloudy, pork-based broth as well as green onions and sea weed. The roasted pork made another appearance, and just like it was on the Shouyu, it was spot on. The flavors in the dish will hint at something more decadent, but ultimately settle in at lite, subtle, and satisfying.
It is worth noting that the word Tonkatsu is completely misused as the pork is roasted instead of fried. [It’s now worth noting that I’m a complete dufus: tonkotsu and tonkatsu aren’t the same thing … thanks for teaching me something new commenter Jason] Whatever the case, the dish is most definitely tasty. Overall, the experience was plenty respectable. I would have no problems putting down either of those ramen bowls a second time nor would I refuse to grab a Negitoro bowl. However, the sushi has got to go.
Other noteworthy accompaniments include the service and the oddly soothing sounds. Our waiter, while very nice, seemed to have an awfully difficult time handling just four lunch tables. I hear this place packs them in at night, so one can only wonder what that says for a typical service. Also, the Japanese string music meets Burt Bacharach’s Theme From Arthur was humorously entertaining. In what is nothing more than an afterthought at this point, the ginger salad was bagged and bottled and completely unappealing.
Meanwhile, YJ claims to be the only restaurant in the city that utilizes Binchōtan. Binchōtan is an oak charcoal that fires very hot. Thus, it makes it easy to cook items quickly while not giving them an overtly smoky flavor. The coals could easily be the most important factor in delivering a good yakitori – so I’m looking forward to a sample.
Though I cannot make any claims with regards to consistency, the ramen appears to be amongst the best in the city and the quality of the sushi fish leaves a lot to be desired. Return visits, especially for dinner, are in order so that I can see how things hold up over the long haul. It follows that I am very curious to sample the Yakitori and to try some of their Torisoborodon (ground chicken + scrambled eggs over rice).
Atlanta Foodies On Yakitori Jinbei
- The Food Abides on Yakitori Jinbei (09.08.09)
- The AJC on Yakitori Jinbei (12.23.08)
- Eat, Drink, Man on Yakitori Jinbei (09.11.08)