Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Sumibiyakiniku Nakahara: From raw beef with egg yolk to 'legendary' wagyu tongue

by Robbie Swinnerton

Special To The Japan Times

Open the menu at Sumibiyakiniku Nakahara and the first thing you will see is a full-page diagram showing the 22 basic parts of a Japanese cow. It’s a simplified chart but the point is clear: You don’t just eat well here — you get an education in some of the finest wagyu beef in the city.

Forget the stereotypes — Sumibiyakiniku Nakahara is no ordinary yakiniku barbecue restaurant. It is spacious and chic, with a stylish color scheme of red, black and silver. Extractor fan chimneys gleam with purpose. The tables are spotless and there’s absolutely no smoke in the air.

But what really sets it apart is the quality of the meat and the meticulous attention to detail brought by owner Kentaro Nakahara. Unlike most chefs, he sources his wagyu directly, working through wholesalers to check the provenance, bloodline and — most crucially — flavor.

Scrutinize that menu again. It covers the full gamut, from innards and offal to standard kalbi ribs, all the way up to sirloin and other super-premium cuts. If you want to try a bit of almost everything, the place to start is with the omakase tasting menu, featuring slices of seven different grilled items. But be sure to sample the starters too.

Begin with an hors d’oeuvre of aged beef “prosciutto” anointed with finely chopped tomato, garlic, shallots and capers in olive oil. As with any good ham, it delivers just the right balance of salty and umami flavors to prime your palate.

Nakahara also has a license to serve raw beef. And his beef tartare is an eye-opener: Prime tenderloin is cut into small cubes rather than finely minced, making it more textural. Dressed with uncooked egg yolk and only the lightest of seasonings, this is raw beef at its rich, creamy, unadulterated best.

At this point the charcoal grill on your table is primed and ready for you to start cooking. First, a delicate sliver of beautifully marbled sirloin; then outside skirt, a chunkier, fattier cut that goes well with condiments such as spicy, fragrant yuzu-kosho (green chili-citrus relish). Next a sliver of misuji (a rare and pricey cut from the shoulder area), followed by uchi-momo (lean meat from the inner thigh), which is often considered too coarse for grilling but here tasted superb. And finally, full-flavored kata-sankaku (a shoulder cut). The size and sequence of these contrasting cuts is perfectly calibrated.

If you’re phoning to book — which is highly recommended, especially on weekends — be sure to put in a special order for two of Nakahara’s signature dishes. The maboroshi gyutan (“legendary wagyu tongue”) — three different cuts taken from the tip, the underneath and the base of the tongue, each grilled separately — is as outstanding as its name. Likewise the hire-katsu, a breaded cutlet of lean tenderloin that no steak lover should miss.

If you still have room in your stomach there is one final highlight: wagyu sushi. Strips of beef as rich as the belly-meat of bluefin tuna are pressed onto rice flavored with ginger rather than vinegar, and served with a few maki (rolled) sushi.

And for dessert, homemade pistachio ice cream. In Nakahara’s hands, the idea of high-end yakiniku is no longer a contradiction in terms — it’s a veritable pleasure.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.