Alongside geisha and poisonous blowfish, gourmet Kobe beef fits nicely into the stereotype of refined Japan. And like astronomically priced department-store melons, this pricey breed of cattle does much to reinforce the image of a land of big-spenders.
Yet, it seems, the opportunity to savor Kobe beef is still deemed by many to be an indulgence worth the splash-out. Why? Because everyone knows that Kobe beef cows, bred primarily in Hyogo Prefecture, are a cut above. They have a reputation for being the most-coddled cattle on earth, regularly enjoying beer and receiving massages so that their unsaturated fat is evenly distributed, producing perfectly marbled meat of global renown.
So plan on being quietly wowed when you visit Ikuta in Yoyogi, an establishment that prides itself on being one of the few places in Tokyo where you can dine on authentic Kobe beef, or more specifically, the prized black Tajima breed. One of the restaurant’s walls boasts the autographs of celebrities who have dined there, but Ikuta doesn’t trumpet ostentation. Like its dark wood interiors and modern washi lamps, it exudes quiet, slow-burning class.
As you’re served the bovine equivalent of Beluga caviar, you’ll notice that the noses of the staff aren’t in the air. Their job is to make you feel pampered but at ease (and while you may imbibe beer, massages are not on the menu). During our meal, smartly dressed Executive Manager Junya Kumazawa acted as our host, expertly manning the grill and giving detailed descriptions of the series of dishes and the provenance of their ingredients.
If you’re the type that wants to know exactly what it is that you are eating, the staff can bring out officious certificates documenting the animal’s government- approved lineage, as well as a cow’s unique nose-print. (That’s right: Cows lack opposable thumbs and passports for suitable identification.)
A meal at Ikuta begins with the presentation of a large straw-woven tray holding the day’s selection of meat cuts. You might not be able to identify, say, the misuji, which comes from a special part of the cow’s shoulder, but it’s not really important: It’s all good. So after choosing your course and your accompanying beverage — fine wine, shochu, nihonshu or beer — it’s time to sit back and enjoy a gourmand’s parade.
Ikuta’s total commitment to Kobe beef is clear — almost every dish here contains some form of it.
While one dish might resemble the yukke (raw beef) of Korea or another, the sweet-and-sour pork of China, the main ingredient is Hyogo’s finest. Each successive mouthful, however, is really just delicious foreplay to the main event: the final grilling, over glowing charcoal embers, of the chosen cut of beef. Don’t think of taking over the tongs; let the expert staff cook it the way it should be, and then savor each melt-in-your-mouth morsel slowly. And be sure to remember that noseprint and show respect to the supreme sacrifice.
If you wish to preserve that mental image of the mellowed beer-guzzling cattle, don’t ask too many questions. When queried about the curious life of a Tajima cow, Kumazawa chuckled and said, maybe once in a while they get a sip of beer, but they don’t quaff straight from the keg. It’s down to superior genes, not the vigorous kneading of the flesh.
Kumazawa might debunk a few myths, but he is fiercely confident that “true Kobe Beef,” with a brand-protected upper-case B, can only be found in Japan. Complex beef trade restrictions aside, suffice it to say, Kumazawa stands by his Tajima gyu.
It’s probably no coincidence that Kobe’s oldest temple bears the name Ikuta. For meat lovers, this is the stuff of the holy grill.
Ikuta, Daini Houzan Biru 1F, Yoyogi 1-31-15, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; tel: (03) 5304-7240; www. oztable.jp/ikuta; Open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; 5 p.m.-midnight (last order 11:30 p.m.)