It has been a long time between barbecues. Since 28 April, to be precise. It's hard to believe that back then I was cooking two or three barbecues a week. Then summer set in, with its attendant rain, squalls and floods. Now my inner Australian misses the smoky, blokey atmosphere of a good barbie, and craves the thrill of the grill. So naturally I head for the new Bincho Yakitori in the Oxo Tower. It may be Japanese, but it's full of cold beer and men in aprons chucking prawns on the barbie, so it's close enough.
Recently opened by Dominic Ford (who also runs Tamesa @ Oxo on the same floor, and The Butcher and Grill in Battersea), Ronnie Truss and chef David Miney (pictured, left), Bincho is based on the izakaya concept, the closest thing Japan has to a pub. It even looks and feels a bit pubby, with its warm, woody floors, tables and columns. Windowside tables get dress-circle views of the Thames at its most polished platinum, while others face a line-up of six smoky grills on the opposite wall, where Tokyo master chef Hidenori Ohata oversees the delicate art of yakitori and kushiyaki.
But first, the glossary. Bincho is a prized, highly carbonised charcoal used for grilling. Yakitori means grilled chicken, although the term can be stretched to encompass other birdy bits (in Japan, sparrows are popular, the heads crunched whole). Kushiyaki means anything skewered and grilled. That said, there is also a hospitable range of soups, appetizers, rice dishes and salads.
Yet no matter how much you pretend you are ordering a "normal" meal, you will inevitably end up with a succession of tasty little nibbles instead, so just go with the flow. Some of these nibbles are devastatingly good, like melt-in-the-mouth chicken tsukune (meatballs, £1.60); scorchy tebasaki (wings, £1.30); and glistening, juicy unagi (eel fillet, £2). I also particularly like two dusky, fleshy sardines (£3.60), which have been skewered into curves to make them appear to be swimming. Some skewers, such as the momo (chicken fillet, £1.20) and leba (chicken livers, £1.30) are so minor as to be the equivalents of a handful of peanuts, so going with the flow can mean your drinking can overtake your eating, and you have to make sure you get enough sustenance to soak up the booze.
Listed are five Japanese beers, around a dozen, mostly fresh, fruity wines, and 19 sakes, all of which carry helpful descriptions of character and flavour. Nambu Bijin (£5 a glass) is "sophisticated and complex, yet pleasantly floral". In traditional izakaya style it is poured from a big bottle into a glass sitting inside a masu – a square, wooden drinking box. You drink from the glass, then polish off the overflow in the box, which will dribble down your chin and on to your chest, because square boxes are almost impossible to drink from.
Reinforcements are called for – a hearty, homely (and filling) miso stew of daikon and pig's tripe (£4) and a salad of raw fish and tosaka seaweed (£5.50), which is low on the salmon and squid bits, with too many limp leaves. Grilled food is definitely the way to go here, for its spontaneity and its smoky, gently sweet flavours, lightly scorched from the basting sauces.
Ordering a Westernised dessert such as yuzu pannacotta or sake poached pear, seems like straying too far from the East, so I end on a bowl of ochazuke maguro (£4), a traditional Japanese finisher in which green tea is poured over a bowl of rice topped with a curl of raw tuna, served with pickles. It's filling and comforting, but it still feels as if someone has just poured tea into my rice.
Bincho does the sort of cheerful Japanese street food that even the most sushiphobic child or adult could handle. It is limited, but I like it because it's easy, relaxed, fun, and flexible; another step on the path to casual, quality dining in this country. And because it's probably the closest any of us will get to a barbecue this summer.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook; 10-11 needs help; 12 ok; 13 pleasant enough; 14 good; 15 very good; 16 capable of greatness; 17 special, can't wait to go back; 18 highly honourable; 19 unique and memorable; 20 as good as it gets
Bincho Yakitori, 2nd Floor, Oxo Tower Wharf, Bargehouse Street, London SE1 Tel: 020 7803 0858
Lunch and dinner daily. Around £60 for two, including drinks and service
Second helpings: More hot charcoal
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