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Photo by Rob Bartlett

Don’t call Orlando's new Tori Tori a restaurant, even if it does serve some of the best Japanese grub in town 

Tori Tori wants you to know that they are, without question, a bar. A "cocktail bar," according to their Facebook. A "neighborhood bar," reads the opening line on their website. A disclaimer further down the page is more to the point: "Please advise that we are a bar." OK, Tori Tori. We get it. You're a BAR.

But, c'mon, there's no bar in town – cocktail, neighborhood or otherwise – serving whole Japanese flying squid ($11) impeccably grilled over binchotan coals, or cabbagey okonomiyaki ($7) made with Japanese mountain yam, as bar bites, now is there? You want to be a restaurant, but you don't want the responsibilities that come with being a restaurant: taking reservations, training servers, turning tables and all the related annoyances. You force us to jockey for position at the bar and awkwardly gesticulate for a bartender's attention to get our hands on that food, but it's OK. We still love you. Your mid-mod-nouveau-farmhouse style makes us feel grown up. Your vibe is a little bit Wynwood, a little bit Shoreditch, and you can't help but display a bit of 'tude. You tell us we don't deserve you, but then you flash a smile, slap us on the back and say you were only kidding. Yeah, you're all right, Tori Tori.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett

Now, there'll be those who'll decry ordering food from a bartender, being handed a number, then left to search for a hard-to-come-by seat to await a runner to deliver your eats (and drinks). To you, I say this: Don't be such a whiny pillock. Suck it up or you'll miss out on some incredible yakitori and kushiyaki; marvy highballs ($8) employing Japanese whisky, gin, vodka and shochu; and crafty cocktails both stirred and shaken.

But the depth of flavor in that yakitori – be it chicken skin ($2.50) binchotan-grilled with tare (made from soy, mirin, sake, roasted veggies and three different types of sugar) or chicken oysters ($3) with salt – constitutes skewering at its finest. Prep cooks come in at 7 a.m. to butcher 15 organic, free-range, pre-brined chickens every day, and most of the meat – off-cuts and all – is lanced onto a skewer. That includes breast-bone cartilage ($3), heart ($2.50), gizzard ($2.50) and the aforementioned oyster. If you like the subtle metallic bite of heart, you'll like the heart. If you're into the funky chew of gizzards, you'll like their gizzards. And if you like your chicken crunchy, then go crazy with the cartilage, but not too crazy – owner Sonny Nguyen (Domu) recommends ordering no more than five skewers at one time in an effort to preserve the integrity of the meats. "We don't want the skewers to cool completely before the customer is able to eat them," he says. Makes sense.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett

Of course, you can get more standard, though equally stellar, $3 cuts like thigh, breast, wing and succulent tenderloin, though I'd pass on the chicken meatball ($3.50) crunched with onions. There are better cuts to be had – cuts of the non-poultry (kushiyaki) variety, like melty pork belly tare ($4) and plush USDA Prime beef chimichurri ($4.50).

But then you bite into the most delicate blue crab and corn croquettes ($6) served with a sauce made from crab tomalley and think, why can't Tori Tori be a restaurant with a kickass bar program instead of a bar with some kickass food?

All the more so when you bite into orbs of tempura corn ($5), the likes of which I've never seen – fresh kernels floured, battered, fried, dusted with spice and served over garlic confit mayo. Sure, portions are smallish, but the pricing is more than fair. Guests can eat well without breaking the bank. Hell, an $8 order of fried rice with blue crab and garlic confit will likely send you home gratified.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett

There are "handies" as well, filled with everything from Hokkaido scallops and uni to salmon from the Faroe Islands. (The cylindrical hand rolls come with an inner wrapper to keep the nori crisp, so make sure you remove it before chomping into one.) We sampled a handie with otoro ($9) but agreed fatty belly tuna is better enjoyed in its unadulterated form. The variety of the offerings here begs the question ... is Tori Tori a restaurant? Technically, no. But is it the most exciting izakaya-ish, gastropubby cocktail lounge to have opened in recent memory? I'd say so, bar none.

This story appears in the Nov. 13, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.

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