On my way back from a quick after-work run to Fry's, I was geographically set up well to have my 2nd sitting for Yakitori at Yakyudori since they started their excellent Yakitori service at their Convoy location. But as I turned onto Convoy from Aero Drive, I couldn't help but recall that any day now Yakitori Kobou would open their doors for the first time. Well better than that, they were open for their first day of business!
The first thing I noticed was their more than adequate staffing levels. Of course this being opening day, it could be that more than a shift's worth of staff could have been there to help out and to cross-train. (I can still clearly remember Tsuruhashi's opening day [just two doors down from the new Kobou] where they must have had 3 shifts worth of staff on hand!)
The clientelle was almost all Japanese, so I mused that most of them must have been here due to the ads recently placed in the local Japanese circulars. The interior has a bit more of a spacious feel than at Yakyudori, with a counter which is perhaps a tad longer and more seating available on tables, and a format that makes it more flexible to handle a wide range of group sizes. They certainly didn't hurt for customers; the restaurant wasn't quite packed, but busy at around 85% of capacity.
As is my custom I took a seat at the bar, right in front of their grillmaster for the night, Yoshi-san. His station was fitted with a Shichirin which is perhaps the same length as that of Yakyudori's, but is designed to handle two skewers across, being twice as wide. As near as I could tell they were burning a 100% mix of Bincho-tan, a pretty tricky affair vs. Yakyudori's mix of Bincho-tan and Oga-Bincho.
It was clear that Yoshi-san is very fast at the grill - not necessarily a good thing - but required given the crowd and size of the restaurant. If one is familiar with Yakyudori's menu, the Kobou's menu would be very familiar, though there are some striking differences as well. Kobou seems to have less beef or pork offerings, while there are some chicken items on their list that Yakyudori does not carry on their regular menu such as the Torikawa, or chicken skin. (However they both carry a Kawasu, called Kawa Ponzu at Kobou.) In toto, the Kobou menu ends up being more focused on the chicken while also casting a broader net on the sides.
I placed my order and was surprised to be offered a "shot" of milk as a "Saabisu" ("service", or complimentary item). Apparently all who order beer will be offered a free shot of milk as a "liver aid". Odd, I thought, but then again various new health fads seems to constnatly course through Japan on a yearly basis. (BTW their house beer is Asahi Super Dry on tap.)
Here's what I had and what I thought:
Kawa Ponzu (Vinegared chicken skin) - Kobou's version of Yakyudori's Kawasu, Kobou's comes more adorned with thin slices of Kyuuri (Japanese cucumber), Wakame (seaweed) and peppered Daikon Oroshi (grated Daikon with chilli pepper). While more adorned the Ponzu flavor was not very pronounced, which to me is key to tying the flavor of the chicken skin with the rest of the ingredients. I like Yakyudori's simpler preparation of just skin and Ponzu.
Perhaps Kobou's version could work too, but the skin was cut into larger pieces (and more hastily cut and prepared, leaving clumps of skin stuck together with tiny traces of visible fat), resulting in a higher skin to Ponzu ratio than in Yakyudori's version where the skin is cut into thin strips. Honestly this would work out just well without the skin, given that the skin was completely out of balance vs. the Ponzu.
(This is a clear case where the right cut can make the difference, and reminds me of the traditional Kampyo maki [gourd roll] that is always cut into 4 pieces vs. the 6 pieces of all other Hosomaki [narrow rolls]. In this case the 4 piece cut exposes less Kampyo, which is quite assertive in taste, relative to the Shari [Sushi rice], whereas when cut into 6 pieces it throws the balance way off by exposing too much Kampyo over less Shari and becomes too Kampyo dominant in taste...)
Gyutan (Beef tongue) - Their Gyutan was cut much thicker than Yakyudori's, but more like Yakyudori's Gyutan Steak. However when Yakyudori offers Gyutan Steak, it's only when they have the very best beef tongue available, using the very back of the tongue where it is the most tender and marbled. In Kobou's case they should have cut it like Yakyudori's regular Gyutan offering, which is as thin slices.
The result was tough in texture and leaden in taste, with none of the fine and volatile surface oils that graces Yakyudori's offering. (You can actually "taste" Yakyudori's Gyutan when it's still inches away from you...) In comparison Kobou's offering seems dead.
Pucchi Tomato (Petite tomato) - Here Kobou's offering is again more adorned, in their case wrapping each tomato in a wrap of bacon. As a dish by itself it is quite good, served with a squirt of Kewpie Japanese mayonnaise. Unfortunately for me tomato is my only chance to have a nice, acidic palate cleanser between the heavily protein driven items of a Yakitori meal, and the bacon wrap in their version defeats that very purpose.
Tebasaki (Chicken wings) - Let's just say that Yakyudori's version is pure magic. However Yakyudori manages to orient (contort?) a chicken wing in the way that they do must involve extra-spatial dimensions, the end result being a finely crisp skin with tender and succulent meat. Kobou's version is not bad if one does not compare it against Yakyudori's, as the meat is very tender and moist and there are isolated spots here and there where the skin has crisped to some extent. However the overall level of texture contrast pales in comparison to Yakyudori's, with the latter's almost so extreme and controlled that it seems the skin and meat were cooked separately then reconstructed back onto the bone.
Nankotsu (Chicken cartilege) - I don't ask for much with regards to Nankotsu - it is what it is and I enjoy it for its texture, and here Kobou's version is just fine.
Sumiyaki Onigiri (Charcoal-roasted rice ball) - I never ordered this at Yakyudori so I can't compare, but Kobou's version is just fine, if not a bit boring. Onigiri should be lightly seasoned on the outside with the moisture from the salt-water moistened hands that forms it. If seasoned at all, I could not tell. and sprinkling salt on an Onigiri at the table is far too "strong" a flavoring to be a proper correction. Too bad as it was very nicely roasted!
Tori Kawa (Chicken skin) - I don't recall Yakyudori ever offering this, something that I've always wished they would. Kobou's version is very juicy due to the oils from the skin, but I wished they could get more caramelization on the skin for more texture and taste interest. For some, myself included, their version could verge on the side of almost being undercooked.
BTW when I ordered I asked for everything to be Shio-aji, or salt-flavored, vs. Tare (sauce). Honestly I don't know what their specialty is, and it could be that Tare is their specialty vs. my preference of Shio-aji (as is Yakyudori's specialty). That being said I didn't see any pots of Tare on the counter, perhaps a necessary concession as it would be next to impossible to instantly train the locals not to "double dip" into the Tare pot.
Over and above my specific observations above, I was struck by an under-salting of all items. Certainly watching the grillmaster at Kobou one is immediately struck by how fast he operates, but this also means that none of the items gets the intense individual care that Nabe-san gives at his grill at Yakyudori. Also Nabe-san is dead accurate in his salting levels, and is careful to salt each item individually. In the case of Yoshi-san at Kobou, I noticed that he salts only on the grill, where one can at best salt several items at once. (Nabe-san generally salts away from the grill, allowing the salt to fall on the floor allowing him to treat each items individually...)
So my take on Kobou is that it doesn't deliver nearly enough given Yakyudori's excellent offering. Perhaps had they preceded Yakyudori they would have given San Diego a good early taste of Yakitori. But that is not the case and Yakyudori still takes top toque. I was naively hoping for a two horse race; would be nice to have had the luxury of choosing between two quality offerings. OTOH I'm just happy that at least we have one excellent thoroughbred entered in this race, in this case in the form of Yakyudori and their incredible Bincho-jockey Nabe-san!
Pictures on Flickr: http://tinyurl.com/2erfs7k