Things did not get off to a good start. I was late and in a fractious mood after emerging from the tube to a biblical monsoon and a Tesco building site blocking my shortcut to the restaurant. As I began a long, rainy loop of Soho, Jonesy was already seated at our table, recovering from the embarrassment of a cartoon banana-style slip on the wet floors of the restaurant entrance, in full view of staff, customers, and a group of guffawing smokers clustered around the doorway.
He had invited fellow food journalist Qin Xie and me to dinner at Bincho Yakitori, a little restaurant on Old Compton Street which specialises in traditional Japanese Yakitori and Kushiyaki, a selection of chicken, grilled meat, fish and vegetables skewered and cooked over open coals – a tastier distant cousin of the kebab.
The entrance is flanked by an open grill, where you can sit and watch the chefs or ‘Keepers of the Flame’ as they are rather grandly termed on the website, nipping backwards and forwards in a haze of blue smoke, sizzling tasty bits of meat on the open flames.
It’s a warmly decorated place, with low-lit, long wooden tables, emulating the communal dining style championed by Wagamama. We had a seat in the heart of the grilling action, though there are another 30 seats downstairs and a bar at the rear serving cocktails with a Japanese twist.
My self-imposed alcohol ban prohibited me from trying any of these, and I had to make do with a consolatory sniff of Jonesy’s bottle of hot sake, which he poured for himself and Qin, thinking my pomegranate juice wouldn’t pack as much of a punch.
The menu is divided into Yakitori (grilled bird) and Kushiyaki (meat, fish or vegetables) and presented in small tapas-size dishes. Like tapas, the waitress recommended we order at least three each, which we had to mark with a pencil on the menu as we kept forgetting what we’d picked and then worrying we’d ordered the same thing twice.
The Yakitori section also includes quail eggs and duck breast, though it’s predominantly made up of different bits of a chicken, from the Sori (oysters) and Sunazuri (Gizzard) to the Muni Shishito (chicken breast and peppers) for the less adventurous poultry eater. Our favourites were the chicken-stuffed shitake mushrooms and the skewered oysters, tender and flavoured with a light, sweet glaze.
From the Kushiyaki we had the Buta (pork belly), Tai (sea bream) and Gyu (beef rib) which we ate with buttered garlic rice and cool sashimi salad, with slivers of salmon and squid set off by a zingy citrus dressing.
We declined the offer of a traditional Japanese pudding of Ochazuke, on the basis that it didn’t sound much like a pudding at all, consisting as it does of steamed rice and green tea-infused broth with wasabi and soy.
Happily there was an additional dessert menu of Western favourites with an Eastern flourish, such as my light crispy soymilk doughnuts with green tea sugar and vanilla ice cream, which I could have happily ordered twice, and Jonesy and Qin’s layered banana cake, with green tea ice cream (sense a theme emerging here?) was also very good.
It’s a lovely, calm sort of place, Bincho Yakitori, and we were all in a considerably better frame of mind leaving than we had been arriving, comfortably sated (rather than overly full) after our selection of delicious and reasonably priced dishes.
It’s a great choice for a quiet, midweek dinner, a quick pre-theatre bite, or if you’re Jonesy – an excellent precursor to some after-dinner Spitfire cocktails at ‘the club’. Feeling very boring and teetotal, I made my way home instead. I’ll be going back when I can try the sake.