Thursday, November 1, 2007

Vegetarians & Kobe Beef @ Wakkoqu

My best friend in Japan, J, is an American who’s a slightly finicky eater. While I long for huge Texas-style cheeseburgers and love to indulge in a big slab of steak, she’s a confirmed vegetarian. She ingests no ground beef, no chicken, no cutlets fried into crispy, luscious ton-katsu, no ramen steeped in rich, pork-bone broth. She rarely even takes a bite of cheese.

She does, however, eat Kobe beef.

So when I suggest that we celebrate her latest career coup by eating at Wakkoqu, which my Japanese husband and I think serves the best Kobe beef on the planet, she responds, “Let’s go tonight.” J justifies her enthusiasm by claiming that whatever greater force exists in the universe to judge our adherence to ethical and nutritional values, he/she/it will certainly forgive a periodic nibble on the forbidden flank.

In general, Kobe beef is from Wagyu cattle bred in Hyogo (of which Kobe is the capital), and, although not as expensive or famous in Japan as Matsuzaka beef, it’s legendary across the world. It’s highly marbled (with nearly 50% fat), although--at least according to the Australian nutritionist Dr Tim Crowe--it’s also rich in Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids: the “good,” cholesterol-lowering fat. Kobe-beef cows are rumored to drink beer, especially in the summer months, which ranchers give them to combat loss of appetite due to heat. Legend also has it that the animals are brushed with sak√© to soften their skin and are periodically massaged to keep their meat tender. Yet despite this swanky life (at least for a quadruped), some of the Kobe beef places I’ve frequented in Kansai offer steak that’s more greasy than great.

But Wakkoqu’s is sublime. Located in the Kitano area of Kobe, their chefs cook Teppanyaki-style, on an iron grill in front of you. (They also serve grilled prawn and abalone, for vegetarians more pious than J, and have a great wine list.) We begin with a sliver of rich smoked salmon garnished with onions and salty capers, followed by a simple green salad. Then comes our 220-gram hunk of heaven.

The chef brings the meat over on a wooden tray and places salt, pepper, and a dollop of sharp mustard near our plates. Then he slices off a strip of fat to coat the grill and roasts fresh garlic chips in it. Next, he dices the beef with a sword-sharp knife, lays it on the grill in front of us, and salts it as it sizzles. After cooking it as we request (medium-well for both me and J), he slips the cubes of rich steak onto our plate. As we feel each chunk literally melt in our mouths, he starts to roast the vegetables: huge slices of carrots, crips bean sprouts, deep-purple-fleshed eggplant, earthy mushrooms, and more. Last comes the rice, cooked in a small portion of left-over fat, salt, chopped garlic, and the remaining flavors on the grill.

It’s so good, I can’t even describe it, except to say that I think I may be addicted to it all.

Details:

1-22-13 Nakayamate Dori, Kobe Hillside Terrace
(On Pearl St., just east of Kitano-zaka)
Phone: 078-222-0678

Monday, October 1, 2007

My New Gaijin Life: Eating Okonomiyaki @ Fusaya Shou Gekijou

When my husband, T, and I moved back to his hometown of Osaka from my home in Boston, he set a few ground rules for our new life in this country where cappuccinos can cost 700 Yen a pop. I don’t remember any of them (who likes to listen when their spouse is talking budgets?) except the one that threw shivers down my spine: no more eating out every night at restaurants. Knowing that his argument, fiscally at least, made sense, I did the only sensible thing: buckled down and investigated the cheap chic food scene in Kansai. (Who has time to take language classes when there’s a culinary—no a lifestyle—crisis on hand?)

Luckily for our wallets—and our marriage—I found a perfect option: Okonomiyaki, the traditional Osakan pancake made from yam potato flour instead of wheat, then topped with meats, vegetables, and seasoning sauces. It may not seem chic, but when you eat it at Fusaya Shou Gekijou, in the Karahori outdoor mall, it is. Fusaya is known as a hangout for Osakan musicians, and it’s a great window onto the local scene.

We’re seated next to a young woman in a bright green skirt, an elaborate tattoo snaking down her arm; and a group of twenty-somethings playing quarters. We start with kimchi-yakisoba, fried noodles and tart Korean cabbage with crisply cooked shallots, onions, and chicken, all topped with sweet pickled ginger. Next we order three okonomiyaki, one layered with pork, potato paste, egg, and the traditional Worcestershire and creamy sauces; another tiered with melted cheeses and spring onions; and a third stuffed with a curious but appealing mixture of squid-ink pasta and pungent fish flakes.

Later, we’re honored with a visit from the owner, a smiling, laughing older gentleman speaking in emphatic bursts of Japanese that I cannot understand, but that nevertheless make me grin along with him while T translates. He explains that “okonomiyaki” means “as you like,” suggesting a freedom to experiment with ingredients and cooking methods. He has funneled this into a global culinary vision, using creative ingredients from around the globe. This, he explains, is why all the world’s citizens enjoy and feel at home with his food. “I have many dreams,” he says, “but my final one is to journey into a black hole, a new universe, and make okonomiyaki in another world.” He once more laughs expansively, and I once more nod my head with mirth—not understanding a word until T explains it. Then, our plates are whisked away and replaced with the meal’s stunning final act: rich vanilla ice cream nestled into a steaming mound of earthy-flavored sweet potato.

As we leave, T turns to me, takes my hand, and asks, “why the huge grin?” “I think I’m going to make it in Osaka,” I tell him. Plus, I think to myself, now that we’re budgeting, I can afford that great pair of heels I saw the other day, calling out to me from a sparkling Umeda window.

Details

Fusaya Shou Gekijou
7-1-47 Tanimachi
011-81-6-6763-3115
No English menus, although the staff speaks a bit of English. Set-menu meals from \1600 per person.