Culinary epiphanies don’t happen often, but when they do, they are food for thought. I had one recently dining on prime Japanese beef and it was an experience that, on reflection, recalled a childhood event. Not that I grew up eating wagyū — far from it; rather, the portion of seared beef reminded me about the sadness of finishing something that is so gorgeous, so delicious, that you never want it to be over. Yet, every bite is a game of give and take, pleasure versus trepidation as the end draws nearer.
The first time I experienced this was with a Twix chocolate bar — like I said, I was a kid.
Back to the beef. It was Matsusaka beef from Ocean’s Farm in Mie Prefecture and we were dining at What’s, a restaurant housed in a machiya (old-fashioned townhouse) in downtown Kyoto. There are a handful of other branches of What’s dotted around Kansai: What’s the Kitchen in Gion, two What’s butchers and What’s the Store in Shiga. This What’s is mid-priced; in Gion it’s expensive. What’s the story with the name? Although I asked, I am none the wiser, but the beef is what matters.
In the holy trinity of Japanese beef — Kobe, Omi and Matsusaka — Kobe beef is undoubtedly the most familiar overseas. There is (excuse the pun) a lot of bull about this beef and how the animals are reared: massaged and serenaded with classical music — like, whatever. What I can say is that I could not get over the absolute tenderness of the sirloin steak at What’s. The proof: You could push through the steak with chopsticks. In fact, push is too strong a word. It’s a texture I am still at a loss to fully describe, but it is a taste I wholeheartedly recommend. Even though it hardly makes sense, this is meat that melts in your mouth. Therein lies the epiphany.
For lunch my group had another (lesser) surprise: We were upgraded to a private Japanese-style room at the back of the restaurant. (Having never ever been upgraded for anything, I felt special.) It looked out onto a pool of fiery red goldfish in an enclosed courtyard. The room was dominated by an ornate chimney chute suspended from the ceiling. By night What’s is a yakiniku (barbeque) restaurant, while at lunchtime the kitchen does the cooking.
My companion ordered gyū-mabushi, a beef take on the classic eel dish made famous in Nagoya that comprises a wooden bowl of boiled rice topped with slices of beef. As with the eel dish, there is a sweetness to this dish, offset and accentuated by sanshō pepper pods. There are a few steps to devouring this dish; suffice to say it ends by mixing whatever is left over in the wooden bowl, along with dashi poured from a teapot.
Common to both lunch sets, besides the rice, was a simple beansprout dish marinated in sesame oil. It elicited similar responses: a simple dish, cooked really well. Prime beef is not cheap: 100 grams of sirloin cost more than ¥4,000. But what price can you put on an epiphany?
477 Eboshiya-cho, Sanjo-sagaru, Muromachi-dori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto; 075-222-2989; www.k-whats.net; open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m, 5-11 p.m (closed Tues.); nearest stations Karasuma Oike, Shijo; smoking OK; lunch ¥1,000-5,000; English menu; no English spoken. J.J. O’Donoghue is an Irish writer living in Kyoto.