The Art of Bincho Charcoal Grilling in Japan, Explained by a Michelin Star Chef

The Art of Bincho Charcoal Grilling in Japan, Explained by a Michelin Star Chef
The Art of Bincho Charcoal Grilling in Japan, Explained by a Michelin Star Chef

Vestry Restaurant
Vestry Restaurant in SoHo, Manhattan

In Japan, a stick of charcoal reigns supreme. Known as binchotan, this artisanal charcoal is favored by Japanese chefs for a range of dishes, including classic yakitori and yakiniku. In New York, Australian-born chef Shaun Hergatt has created a new series of grilled dishes at his Michelin-starred restaurant Vestry, all centered around highlighting the Japanese art of binchotan charcoal grilling.

“After using charcoal for many years,” Hegart said. “I realize it can help improve the taste of ingredients and really bring out the flavors, and I want our customers to enjoy it.”

Scallops in a bowl.
Vestry’s Grilled Hokkaido Scallops, Potato Confit, Benji Mushrooms, and Smoked Sabayon

What is Binchotan?

First, binchotan is different from the standard charcoal most people are likely to be familiar with at a typical American backyard barbecue. If your first impression of charcoal is that it’s square and faintly smells chemically like Kingsford charcoal briquettes, binchotan looks nothing like it. Binchotan resembles a cylindrical log and has been used in Japan for centuries. Bincho charcoal is made from Japanese oak, the key to its precious properties is its long burn time (3 to 5 hours), odorless and smokeless properties, allowing grillers to create incredible food without worrying about any burns An unpleasant aroma. Or, in a hurry.

“It’s a very delicate charcoal with a very specific and layered flavor profile,” says Hergatt.

The secret to Binchotan’s durability lies in the fact that the wood is fired in a kiln until it is charred. Then, throw ash and sand over the binchotan to extinguish the fire, which usually turns off-white. With a light touch, you will also find that binchotan is very firm. Finally, the main attribute – the heat these cylindrical charcoals generate is amazing – up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit! While the price of this artisanal charcoal can be eye-popping, it’s several times more expensive than standard commercial charcoal ($100 for 4 lbs for some varieties).

For Japanese BBQ, binchotan is most commonly used in yakitori restaurants or yakiniku restaurants. Both styles are meat-based, with yakitori being chicken-based, while bulgogi is a combination of beef or pork due to its historical ties to Korean BBQ. This type of roast also focuses on small cuts of meat, often skewered or sliced, and is intended to be eaten socially with plenty of alcohol.

Binchotan’s long burn capability typically lasts 4 to 5 hours, which is great for these types of restaurants during busy working hours. As a bonus, binchotan is smokeless and odorless, and is also great for small spaces, making it perfect for small kitchens in Japanese cities and large American cities like New York, where space is at a premium. However, due to its density, binchotan takes longer to ignite than other forms of charcoal. It is not uncommon for binchotan to take 20 to 30 minutes to fully light.

Vestry black sea bream on a plate.
Vestry’s local black snapper with fennel, chickweed and soda

Vestry’s Innovative Binchotan dishes

Since Vestry is heavily inspired by traditional Japanese cuisine, it’s no surprise that the menu at New Binaga Beach, with Hergatt at the helm, is centered around seafood. However, the cuisine here is also unique, using traditional Japanese ingredients and techniques as a starting point. Given the island nation’s penchant for fish and shellfish, these new bincho char dishes are one of the best items on the menu.

“White Carolina prawns—everyone loves grilled shrimp, and I love grilled shrimp with red kosho and garlic chives,” says Hergatt. “It’s an explosion of flavors. I’m also very happy with the binchotan grill for fish. It works with any fish that has skin. The Local Black Brim, for example, has a crispy, smoky skin so it tastes particularly good.”

By using binchotan for grilling, Hergatt makes all kinds of delicate seafood dishes sparkle without adding any strong mesquite wood smoke that can overwhelm the taste. While some types of grilling or grilling do benefit from the added flavor of wood fire, such as classic South American grilling, the bincho charcoal grill option lets the ingredients pop without external aromas or smoke.

The conclusion was perfectly cooked seafood, crispy but still juicy and tender. The aforementioned Carolina Prawns are a hit, and delicious; the sharp, grassy flavors of the chives pair beautifully with the grilled shrimp and red soy sauce. You’ll pour the sauce over the bowl of white rice that accompanies the dish. Or, better yet, dip some homemade sourdough bread into all those grilled prawns.

But the local black sea bream is perhaps the best representative of this new binchotan in this Japanese food. Making the most of the freshest local seafood and sudachi (a small Japanese citrus that resembles a lime), this dish is something special. The fish skin is crispy thanks to the binchotan charcoal grill, and the texture crunch of the accompanying fennel and chickweed salad only adds to the tartness of the soda dressing. If you need to order a bincho charcoal dish at Vestry, this fish entree is a real treat.

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