Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Kobe: Where's the Beef?

"I am totally willing to drop serious money on a bomb-ass steak."
--Steven, a Taiwanese-American engineer in Kyoto

My Kobe beef steak

This review grabbed me:

"A-1 has a relaxed atmosphere and serves thick slices of Kobe beef. The teppanyaki steak (broiled on a hot plate) is cooked in a spice, wine, and soy marinade and served with charcoal-grilled vegetables and crisp garlic potatoes."
--Fodor's Japan 2009

Ding ding ding!  We have a winner! 

Is it worth it to travel a long way, just for the food?  Yes!  Japanese food will never taste the same for me again.  Once you've eaten "the real thing," nothing else compares. Kobe beef was available all over Japan, but I felt I had just had to eat it in Kobe.  The only way to get the complete experience.

As usual, I got lost coming out of the train station. Finally, I got my bearings and found A-1.

A-1 restaurant

The surprising thing was how the place didn't feel Japanese at all. The wooden counter and bar stools could have come from any pub in the world. It actually felt more like a pub than a dark, smoky steakhouse.

I pulled up a seat at the bar. The cook, wearing a pristine white uniform, came over and silently handed me a menu. The struggle was to avoid staring at the prices. Was that the cost of a steak, or one week's rent in Thailand?

"Should I spend the money or not?" was a recurring dilemma for travelers. Certain things should only be done right, or not at all. This was one of those times. Like that famous Gucci slogan: "Quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten."

After I told him my order, the cook unwrapped some Kobe beef and carefully slid them onto steel prongs. Then he laid the meat on the grill. Very efficient, tidy movements. He could have been a surgeon.

Preparing the meat.

Kobe beef on the grill

The fun part was when the cook switched the steak into a frying pan and proceeded to flambée it to hell.  Flames exploded up into the air.  The mark of a real pro: without changing expression, he knew exactly how many millimeters to lean his head back so he didn't lose his eyebrows.


He picked up various bottles and poured the delicious liquids all over the steaks. By now, the aroma was reaching my nose. Immediate thought: when will the food be done?!

Soon, was the answer. The cook faced me and signaled with his hands that I should put on the napkin like a bib. The napkin had long narrow strips that I used to tie it behind my neck. Now I was ready.

Cook with steak platter

The cook deftly slid the steak off the frying pan into a black sizzling platter. He turned around and set the platter down in front of me. The oil and juices crackled, popping off into my bib. Steam carried the heady smells to my nose.

I picked up my chopsticks. There's always a moment of fear when taking the first bite of an expensive meal.  Did I just waste my money on crappy food? 

Picking up the steak with chopsticks

As I bit down into the steak, it was soft and chewy. Just as my teeth met each other, the sauces hit my tongue. Light, savory, with a hint of sweetness. Delicate and balanced mix of flavors, totally different from steak sauces I've tasted in America.

This was one satisfied diner.

Fortified with a good meal, I was ready to explore Kobe. What struck me was how international it felt, for a relatively small city. Cafés, European restaurants, and live music joints were the norm. So cool that it almost made me forget Taipei.

Then it hit me: Kobe was a smaller, friendlier Hong Kong. Both cities have big ports. All that trade lent a cosmopolitan character to both cities. They have lots of foreign-oriented places for expats to hang out.

Walking among the colonial houses felt like a trip through Europe-land. There was a British House, a French house, etc. They seemed dressed up as Japanese stereotypes of what those countries were like.

French house

British house

At nightfall, I headed into Chinatown. I'd heard that Yokohama has the biggest Chinatown, but Kobe's was supposed to be better.

Buddha statue

Entrance gate

Having lived in China before, visiting Chinatowns are now a weird experience for me. These communities have their own separate character, totally apart from the motherland. The average street in China has a household goods shop with brooms and buckets on the sidewalk, a DVD shop with pirated movies, a "hair salon" that's really a whorehouse, etc. Not charming at all.

Kobe's Chinatown shuts down relatively early.  I got there around 9 P.M. and the place was deserted, like a Chinese ghost town. Night markets are really unique only to Taiwan. I strolled around and had the whole area to myself. That's one thing you'll never find in China: quiet.

Temple and red lanterns

Kitschy and tacky fun, like other Chinatowns. This was the China only seen in postcards. Kobe had the only other clean Chinatown I'd seen, besides the one in Singapore.

Cooks at a food stall

When I walked away, I marveled at how Japan had so many cool cities. It wasn't all about Tokyo.