There are more-modern inventions, too, such as a salad of jako, the teeny-tiny fried sardines that resemble worms more than fish, combined with heirloom tomatoes, a contrast of deep and bright flavors. There is but one dessert, annin tofu. Don’t be fooled by the name. This isn’t tofu but a panna cotta-like custard, made with agar agar rather than gelatin. Wobbly, rich with cream, lightly almond flavored, it is a perfect, cooling end to the meal. Wine is available, and a sake list offers a good mix of styles and flavors, but yakitori may go best with beer.
The Zai team — Aotani and general manager Yuka Cumings — wanted to bring real yakitori to the Boston area, Cumings says. So they went to Japan to find their chef. There they met Sho Inoue, working at a yakitori restaurant in the Osaka area. In Japan, chefs serve as apprentices for many years (as shown in the recent documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”). In his mid-20s, Inoue already has nearly a decade of experience working behind the charcoal.
He faces a few obstacles in Boston. Yakitori Zai’s prices reflect the high-quality ingredients used, and the cost of a meal here can easily rise, with the average small skewer $5 or $6. When area diners think of going out for Japanese food, their minds usually turn to sushi. Yakitori has more of a presence in cities with bigger Japanese populations, and it often has food-nerd cachet, with a purist approach and emphasis on the off bits of the bird. Yakitori Zai is without pretension. It panders neither to “foodies” nor those in search of teriyaki and spicy tuna rolls. It’s that rare thing in Boston — a restaurant one might actually find in Japan.