As a recent arrival in this chicken coop, I can't say precisely where Totto falls in the pecking order of New York yakitori-ya. But it's unlikely there are many better choices.
The action is behind the counter, as you'd expect, at this lively joint upstairs from Sugiyama on 55th Street. Yakitori plates emerge from two prep stations and (isolated by a pane of glass and an efficient vent system) two grilling stations.
Highlights have included teba, or wing ($2.50), with a great balance of moistness and slight char; sunagimo, or gizzard ($2), tender but with a crunchy bite; and gyutan ($5), firm, moist chunks of beef tongue.
Some common yakitori offerings were fine, but there was room for improvement. Negi, or breast meat with green onion ($2.50), and momo, or leg meat ($2), were moist and smoky from the grill, but the chicken was not the most flavorful. Tsukune ($3), a patty of minced chicken on a double skewer, was tasty but slightly dry. The chicken was served with a quail egg for dipping. (Which came first? They were on the same plate, so call it a photo finish.)
Vegetable skewers include asparagus ($2), smoky and sweet one time, woody and bland the next; and kinoko ($3), three meaty-textured wedges of eryngii (king oyster) mushroom. These have pleasing smoky and woodsy notes, but don't expect deep mushroom flavor.
It pays to range beyond yakitori to the other dishes, made in the kitchen in back. If goya champuru ($8) is on the specials menu, try it. It's an Okinawan stir-fry of thin slices of bitter melon (goya), scrambled egg and squares of pressed tofu, topped with dried bonito flakes. The bitterness is set off by eggy richness and a sweetness from the lightly browned goya. Momo with garlic ($7, also from the specials menu) is a good-sized plate of delicious chunks of chicken leg, sautéed with garlic and green onion.
Yuba shumai ($8) are delicate steamed dumplings of tofu skin with a ground fish filling; dip them in shoyu spiked, if you like, with mustard. Tezukuri satsuma-age ($6.50) are three fat, fried patties of minced fish (with more texture than most), served with grated ginger and a shiso leaf. Asari sakamushi ($9) is a dozen or more small tasty clams, steamed in sake and mildly seasoned dashi, with a bit of chopped mitsuba. Tori dango ($7.50), five minced-chicken balls coated with sticky rice then steamed, were comforting but bland.
There are a handful of vegetable dishes that go especially well with the grilled stuff, among them jikasei temomizuke ($4.50), a crunchy and refreshing dish of shredded salt-pickled carrot, cabbage, daikon, cucumber; and morokyu (a special), crisp, cold slices of Japanese cucumber with rich, beany red miso for dipping. Oshitashi ($5), made here with spinach, was disappointing, stemmy, sodden and tasting of dashi and soy but not spinach.
The Totto special chicken soup ($6), a half dozen chicken meatballs with green onion, enoki mushroom and mitsuba in a clean, chickeny broth, can be a wonderful way to finish up, if the kitchen is on its game. But be warned: One night the broth was salty and weak on chicken flavor.
Other choices at the end of the menu are yaki onigiri ($3), a plump ball of rice with dried bonito flakes and chopped shiso inside, brushed with sweetened soy sauce and grilled (also available with a miso topping), and ochazuke ($6.50), rice and tea, flavored with spicy cod roe, salmon or ume (Japanese apricot). Two other intriguing options are zosui ($9), a rice gruel with chicken and vegetables, and takitake donabe gohan ($10 for two), rice cooked in a pot with chicken broth.
Desserts are worth a look. Yawaraka annindofu ($5.50) is a tofu custard, like a light panna cotta, sweet but not too sweet, with a hint of almond flavor, a mint leaf and a spot of frozen raspberry puree. Nagomi matcha pudding ($5.50) is pale green and intensely flavored with powdered tea, a somewhat austere dessert whose only sweetness comes from the red beans served alongside. There's also vanilla or green tea ice cream ($4).
The sake list is strong, ranging from Kikusui, Suigei, Tengumai and other familiar names (starting around $7 a glass, $15 a carafe) to Masuizumi ($17 a glass, $90 a bottle). There are also cheaper, very different ways to go, including sake lime, a bracing beverage over ice, sort of reminiscent of a mojito; the cedar-aged taruzake ($5 a glass, $9 a carafe); and umeshu ($5), a tart concoction flavored with ume.
Totto is on the small side -- a dozen counter seats, table seating for fewer than 30 -- and can get jammed. The servers are helpful but harried, and occasionally they'll lose an order. Specials tend to sell out.
I've seen lines straggling halfway down the stairs; there's no place to wait inside the restaurant. One gambit, for those not in a hurry, is to grab a drink next door at Japas 55, the upstairs karaoke bar owned by East. From there it's easy to duck outside and scope out the yakitori line until it's tolerably short. Free entertainment, too, if you want to call it that.
251 W. 55th St. (upstairs), between 8th Avenue and Broadway
Open 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. seven days a week