Sitting down at the huge teppanyaki hotplate, the first thing I notice is the friendly chef grinning his welcome. The second point is that I don’t feel hot at all, despite the massive grill directly in front of me. Turning to my left, it’s impossible to miss the room-sized glass cellar full of wine. This establishment is stocked to the rafters with super fine vintages, and even carries a Michelin star.
But first thing’s first, to order a drink, I need to choose a course. I ask the chef’s recommendation. Tonight I’m overlooking seafood in favor of a steak. Also, I’m planning just one drink tonight, something to compliment and savor alongside the simple, yet full flavors of the seasonal vegetables followed by the main game – Kobe beef.
Sitting within the Wagyu family, Kobe beef comes from the Tajima cattle line, and is governed by strict rules within the prefecture. Not from Kobe? Can’t be Kobe beef. Even if it is from Kobe, the family of cattle, and the conditions around its breeding and rearing, are ferociously guarded to ensure the quality of the steaks.
As Chef Kajiwara recommends a Pinot Noir from Oregon, my taste buds prepare themselves for a treat.
The course starts with vegetables, seasoned simply with salt and pepper. Sipping slowly, the lightness of the red wine complements both the subtle flavors of the autumnal vegetables, and the super-tender sirloin steak.
While the main course is served at the giant hotplate, fruit and coffee are served in a lounge in the next room by the entrance. Hopefully I’ll be able to fit something in after the feast awaiting me. Before long, the evening’s star attraction arrives before me, and the meal starts in earnest. Rather than rush into it, I ponder how best to fully enjoy this moment. The biggest decision I face with each bite-sized piece of tender Kobe beef is where to dip – charcoal salt, mustard, or a slightly sour Japanese-style sauce.
Chef Kajiwara suggests the charcoal salt. The flakes are large and don’t stick easily, preventing any chance of an overpowering flavor. Despite the size of the individual specks of salt, the flavor is soft and appropriately understated. I gently add a bit extra to the medium-rare meat, the consistency perfect for savoring its tones and texture before it melts away into pure sensuality.
Taking care to pace my single glass, I decide on one sip for each bite, the result is a perfect pairing of red and red, just as the chef suggested. The unadulterated flavors of both vegetables and beef, cooked only with a little oil, are enhanced and highlighted by the light-bodied red wine.
Sitting at the counter and facing the chef is one of the treats of teppanyaki dining. Luckily I’m one of only three groups of customers, so, I’m able to talk to the chef for the entire meal. An engaging conversationalist, we cover a wide range of topics. He mentions that in Tokyo, many of the expensive restaurants’ chefs are far less talkative and friendly than in other parts of the country.
Between the sumptuous mouthfuls and engaging conversation, I’m overwhelmed by a sense of bliss. It’s a fitting climax to the pleasant day I’ had spent in Kobe – a city where everyone I encountered seemed quite open, and ready to share a friendly word or smile.
On my travels earlier in the day, I’d mentioned to a few people, when asked, that I was dining on Kobe beef that night. Everyone reacted with excitement, tinged with a little of the reserve that borders on jealousy, causing me to realize that even in the namesake town of these steaks, it’s considered a luxury beyond the reach of many – even the locals.
The heavy regulations set in place to protect the brand aren’t legally binding overseas, making it hard to verify that what you’re eating is true Kobe beef when served outside of Japan. But inside the country, rules are strict, and you’re guaranteed nothing other than the genuine product. Since 1983, Kobe beef has been strictly defined and regulated by authorities. For example, one of the unique aspects of Tajima beef is that the fat has a comparatively lower melting temperature, as well as high levels of oleic acid, said to lower problematic LDL cholesterol.
Fed on grain fodder, and with only some 3,000 Hyogo-raised cattle qualifying for the brand specifications each year, prices are high.
Should you choose to indulge in the delicacies offered by Setsugetsuka, Kajiwara or one of his fellow chefs will show you what is certainly one of the pinnacles of steak preparation. For those with appetites that stretch beyond the main feast, there’s a cornucopia of delicious sweets and fruits waiting in the café-style dessert area. “Definitely next time,” I think to myself as I walk past. I’m still in the midst of bliss from my beef feast, and have a contented smile that I’ve no doubt will last the entire evening.
Photographs by Peter Chordas & Text by Julian Littler