Expect bottled cocktails such as the Yaki Highball, made with Suntori Whisky Toki and soda, on the menu when Yaki opens this spring. (Photo by Stephanie Breijo)
"I've wanted to do the izakaya thing for a long time," says John Maher. "I've been posting 'I wish I had an izakaya' for years."
Should all go according to plan, on May 1, the owner of The Rogue Gentlemen will finally see his dreams come to fruition with Yaki, a modern izakaya and yakitori-ya in Jackson Ward. "I've been to them in Tokyo and San Francisco, and I just love the simplicity of it: For the most part they just do one thing, and they do it really well. We're staying pretty true to a yakitori, and they only do chicken."
In the former Boka Tavern space at 506 W. Broad St., from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., Yaki's intimate, 12-person bar and 30-some seats will give guests a chance to enjoy the late-night bar scene typical of an izakaya, a casual Japanese tavern. Like yakitori-yas, Yaki's menu is more or less limited to skewers of grilled chicken, or yakitori, to be tenderly prepared over a custom-built steel grill lined with ceramic bricks and filled with imported Binchotan charcoal, which burns hot and smokeless. Each whole chicken yields 12 or 13 different morsels, and each will find its way onto 8-inch steel skewers stacked with product. Each skewer, at around $7, will feature a row of one variety of chicken seasoned and sauced distinctively: chicken breast with shiso and olive oil, wings with soy sauce and togarashi, liver with sherry vinegar and pickled onion, thighs with sake and scallion. In keeping with Japanese technique, the Yaki team will even use the breastplate of the bird, roasting and grinding it to add texture to the chicken meatball made with taré and egg yolk.
For the produce-inclined, expect three or four seasonal vegetable skewers such as trumpet mushroom with ponzu and garlic, or asparagus with garlic and miso. You'll also find a limited selection or small plates: the chicken and egg, for instance, combines a soft-poached egg with cold-smoked chicken that's prepared in a confit with chicken fat and then pressed to a crisp finish. The rice cake with mirin and soy, also on the preliminary menu as a small plate, can have the consistency of gnocchi, so Maher will be treating it much like he would the Italian dumpling.
The restaurant is his own take on both an izakaya and a yakitori-ya, and he's approaching both concepts with reverence and a lot of research. "We need to understand what we're doing. And we're not opening a Japanese restaurant," Maher says. "We're just opening something [that reflects what] we like to do, to eat and drink cheaply."
For the first time in roughly four years, Maher is designing a menu and even plans to step back into the kitchen occasionally, though he won't be the chef. In fact, he says it's specifically not a chef-driven restaurant: "This is more going to be about the place as a whole and the environment and the idea that this has never been in Richmond before." Will Longoria, executive chef of The Rogue Gentlemen, will remain at his post.
The space is getting an upgrade to match the streamlined menu. The bar and the booths will stay, and the front seating will be rearranged. A lighter counterbalance to The Rogue Gentlemen, Yaki's bricks and walls will get a clean coat of white paint, as well as a custom neon sign, "Yaki" in a coral-orange cursive.
"Yes, we're calling it a modern izakaya, but we're not opening a traditional Japanese restaurant. It's our interpretation of what an izakaya is, which does not mean we're going to have 40 sakes and green tea ice cream," Maher says. "We're just trying to stay true to what the concept of what yakitori is in Tokyo, but in a headspace that fits who we are as Rogue Restaurant Group."
Sake, traditional at an izakaya, may find its way to the Jackson Ward restaurant someday, but for now, the focus is on five or six simple, clean cocktails all hovering at around $11. Shaun Loughran, currently the head bartender at Rogue Gentlemen, will be leading the bar program at Yaki, where he'll also be bottling cocktails such as the Yaki Highball made from Suntory Whisky Toki, a bright Japanese whiskey made specifically for the classic drink. Boka Tavern's CO2 lines in the back inspired the bottled cocktail program, which may change seasonally. Higher-end Japanese whiskey and bourbons, such as Hibiki and Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky, will be available as well. And while Yaki won't be offering the breadth of cocktails its sibling restaurant does, it's planning on utilizing the same craft ice program, as well as ingredient quality — just pared down and at a lower price.
Maher, who trained at The French Laundry, Thomas Keller's celebrated California restaurant, is thrilled to finally be breathing life into his years-long goal.
"I'm excited for it. You know, it's like riding a bike. I'll never lose 20 years of experience in Michelin three-star kitchens. And it's chicken; at the end of the day, it's grilled chicken," he says. "It's that grill, with that charcoal, and that chicken at the right temperature and with that seasoning. That combined makes delicious food, and that's really all I want to do."
Yaki is expected to open May 1 at 506 W. Broad St., open from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Saturday.