Installments in this series:
A hardcore carnivore pays a visit to the Holy Grail of meat places.
Kobe is Japan’s sixth largest city but it’s relatively compact in size. It offers itself to casual meanderings, and every discovery feels like a reward. It’s a new place for me to revel in, away from the chaos of Osaka, which is just 22 minutes away by train.
The hustle surrounding the Sannomiya Station is a great springboard to any point in Kobe. Plenty of shopping to be had too, underground and in the surrounding department stores.
Like any Japanese city, Kobe comes alive at night. The clash and clutter of color collide, but fittingly so. There is no cacophony or disharmony because this is Japan, where order is honored.
Being in Kobe is perhaps the holy grail of any hardcore carnivore like myself. The region’s famed Kobe beef is here, meat from the pedigreed Tajima-gyu lineage born and slaughtered in Hyogo Prefecture, Japan. Though it’s whimsical to think so, these calves aren’t massaged with sake, intoxicated with beer, or put to sleep with classical music. They are however, raised with much love, labor, and nothing but the best feed. Once the calves are slaughtered, their meat must pass strict requirements and only the highest grades earn the Kobe Beef label, which is a strictly guarded trademark. While Kobe Beef is the most famous type of wagyu outside of Japan, several other breeds such as Matsuzaka and Yonezawa beef are equally if not more worshiped among Japanese gourmands.
Kobe beef can be prepared as steak, sukiyaki, shabu shabu, sashimi, or teppanyaki. But on the three occasions that I get to eat Kobe beef, it’s served as teppanyaki, one of the best ways to enjoy it, I’m told.
The teppan or “iron sheet” is either a counter made up of an enormous griddle, or a griddle built into the center of the table, as in this photo. At one restaurant, this is my starter, a mug of chu-hai, a sort of shochu highball, my alcohol of choice while in Japan. I pair it with a cheese omelet,a gross understatement of a name and an absolutely ethereal combination of sheets of cheese canoodling with clusters of eggy curds.
Because there’s nothing that heightens culinary anticipation like another round of starters, here are a couple. Scallops taken off the grill the second they lose their translucence, so tender they are that biting down on them is almost a travesty as they gush their briny juices. And down below, could those be cheesy potatoes? Why yes, they are. Astoundingly enough, it’s just cheese slathered on boiled potatoes. How can something so basic be so divine? Well, that’s Japan, for you.
In this teppanyaki restaurant, the chef-owner is the one who almost exclusively cooks the beef, the whole fillets are hoisted into the kitchen from the freezer up in front. Tonight we’re having Sirloin A-4 Grade (¥3,000/150 g). Though I have to twist my trunk at a disproportionate angle to watch the chef cook, I’m transfixed. The steaks are seasoned heavily, continual showers of salt? pepper? magic, maybe? Every move the chef makes is choreographed, moves repeated and perfected over years, and every effort possesses purpose. flick!-clang!-scrape! The spatula emits its characteristic metallic complaint. Swoop! The spatula seems to go airborne as it flips the steaks over one last time before laying them almost ceremoniously onto their foil plate.
At the more rustic teppanyaki restaurants I eat in in Kobe, I discover that the teppan is gently heated. It acts as a heat source on which the foil-lined beef rests so the meat remains hot throughout the meal.
Kobe beef is revered for its marbling index of 4 or higher and its excellent texture and fineness. In Japanese, it’s called shimofuri or fat marbling. Combine that with sashi, the meat’s fatty content that actually – unbelievably – melts in my mouth. The meat’s tender fibers and unique texture bleed onto my tongue, rough, ravaging undercurrents of fat and an almost unbearably rich, rich beefiness.
It’s lust. And the pain is exquisite. The only salve is to eat more, more, more.
While rice is optional, a good teppanyaki will always have a side dish of stir-fried vegetables. Often, it’s shimeji mushrooms, bean sprouts, leafy greens, and onions – all fried in the Kobe beef fat. Oy.
There are also much fancier places to have Kobe Beef in Kobe, places that charge upwards of ¥20,000 for 3 people. These places remind me of the poshy teppan establishments in hotels that I used to eat in when I was a kid. Just like then, here, the air is hushed, the waiters are in full uniform, and there’s an individual basket for me to rest my handbag, which a waiter will carefully cover with a white cloth.
Every place setting has two kinds of soy-based dipping sauces for the beef, a side salad lavished in a sesame dressing, and a small portion of cured pork.
Kobe beef and veg all ready to go.
At these fancier places, the chef dons a full toque. His deep respect for his craft extends to his almost deferential seasoning of the steak.
Kobe meat in all its multi-colored, mouthwatering stages of doneness.
The chef speaks to us in basic English and explains what’s on our plates. From left to right: garlic – “the best in all Japan, from Aomori,” – says the chef; lotus root, eggplant, “rice cake,” he says of the next one, but I think it’s a sea cucumber; then mushroom. There’s also fine Japanese sea salt and whole grain mustard from France. These help point up the flavor and then counteract the cloy, respectively, of the meat.
I don’t think that eating at these fancier places necessarily equates to a better meal, even when Kobe beef is concerned. The quality of the meat is so high regardless of where I go; it really just depends on how pampered I want to be. But in all these places, I’m unsatisfied with the seemingly inadequate portions of meat. Alas, my appetite for beef – and Kobe beef at that, is insatiable!