A yakitori restaurant offers a pleasant but uneven experience
Calling your restaurant Famous Yakitori One takes some prescience. It suggests you're thinking big even though your space is quite small, and that you're thinking ahead (Will there be a Famous Yakitori Two?). Or perhaps the "One" simply denotes Famous Yakitori One as Baltimore's first yakitori-ya, a restaurant modeled on the tiny Japanese restaurants (and street stands) that serve the grilled skewers known as yakitori. Though a recent visit yielded a meal that was disappointingly uneven, the little restaurant's vibe is so well-intentioned and generous that one hopes it can smooth out the wrinkles and make a go of it.
Even if you've never had yakitori on the streets of Tokyo, walking into Famous Yakitori One will make you feel far away from the brightly lit strip malls of Maryland Avenue (though the restaurant itself is in the lower level of a former rowhouse). This is particularly true in the second of two dining rooms where a television is tuned to Japanese news and black-painted walls boast a reproduction of a portion of the Tokyo metro map that includes stops for Yurakucho, Shimbashi, and Shinjuko, three of the best known streets for yakitori in Tokyo. Pasted over the metro routes are graffiti-decorated dollar bills, some inscribed with Asian characters, others with slogans written in English (i ? famous yakitori, bitches!" was among the sentiments), a testament to the restaurant's international clientele.
You can order more than yakitori (and more than just chicken yakitori) at Famous Yakitori One. Besides the skewers which come in sets of 10 or 30 or a la carte (more on those below), the menu lists a mix of Japanese and Korean dishes. Some, such as shrimp tempura or chicken teriyaki would be recognizable to most Americans, while others, such as onigiri (filled rice balls) or donburi (rice bowls served with options like eel and egg, Korean short ribs, or Korean spicy squid) might not be as familiar. Prices are eminently reasonable, making this an affordable place to try something unfamiliar. The restaurant also has a liquor license and offers just under a dozen sakes, in both large and small portions, as well as soju and bottled domestic and imported beer.
Based on the tables of diners eating around us, though, I'd venture that most folks come to Famous Yakitori One for yakitori. You can order individual skewers such as bacon and scallop or short rib or squid legs or even garlic--"What's on the garlic skewer?" someone at my table asked; just garlic, she was told--but we opted to try Set D ($29.95), 30 skewers that, according to the menu, included chicken, beef, asparagus-wrapped bacon, quail eggs, chicken gizzards, and shrimp, among others. Thirty skewers look like a big platter--and it is--but when you realize that some of the skewers are simply an inch of grilled scallion or a lobe of green pepper, 30 skewers begins to look smaller (and more expensive). That said, there was some impressive yakitori. Grilling made the shrimp--skewered down the center, making the curled shrimp ramrod straight--all sweet and meaty, while bacon wrapped around the dainty white stems of enoki mushrooms was a revelation, earthy and delicate at the same time. The beef benefited from its soy and ginger marinade, as did nibbles of dark-meat chicken, though neither were particularly inspiring. Pork was more fat than meat--which, admittedly, some diners prefer--and the gizzards were chewy, verging on elastic. It was only after we passed another table on the way out did we realize that our set was missing the quail eggs (theirs was not).
Despite the house salads ($2.25) and the edamame ($2.95) that came unbidden to our table, we were still hungry after the yakitori and were glad for the order of okonomo yaki--described on the menu as "Japanese 'Favorite Pancake'"($6.75)--placed earlier. Made from a batter of egg, flour, cabbage, and add-ins such as squid and shrimp (our choices) and topped with Japanese mayonnaise and barbecue sauce, okonomo yaki is the height of Japanese comfort food; its closest equivalent might be a frittata. And this one was a beauty--thick and wide and messy, and we wondered how on earth to split it three ways. No problem, said our server, who left and returned with the restaurant's young owner who produced a pair of red kitchen scissors and proceeded to cut our okonomo yaki into three rather neat portions. This was to my companions' advantage because if we had had to share a plate, I would have eaten much more of the savory pancake than just my portion. Although the squid and shrimp get a little lost in the silky cabbage and pleasantly salty batter, the result is still eminently satisfying. I would order it again, along with the agedashi tofu ($3.50), the small bowl of deep fried tofu and greens that was brought to our table while we considered the menu further. (Note: It was unclear whether we were recognized as being with City Paper or whether the gifts from the kitchen were purely generous; my assumption is the latter.)
The staff at Famous Yakitori One certainly tries hard to please, but the restaurant needs to be more reliable in following through on what the menu promises, be it a complete yakitori set or offering more than one of four desserts listed on the menu, to ensure diners return for another visit. It also needs clean menus, as there's nothing quite as off-putting as seeing someone else's dinner on the printed page before you. If it works on these issues, it may very well live up to the fame to which it aspires.