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 saké 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.
1-22-13 Nakayamate Dori, Kobe Hillside Terrace
(On Pearl St., just east of Kitano-zaka)