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The Osaka Grill is a Japanese restaurant in Polk Gulch just down the block from the Galaxy Theater. It's a high-ceilinged, white-on-white, starkly hip establishment where skilled chefs practice the dazzling art of teppanyaki, the slicing and grilling of food. Prawn, mushroom, and zucchini alike are carved with origamilike precision and set to sizzling over a stainless steel plate precisely calibrated to inspire the most inviting aromas. The accouterments are minimal and exquisitely simple, and while you're sipping your sake from crystalline stemware the swoosh and ting of the grillmaster's cutlery provides hypnotic counterpoint to the elegant surroundings. The menu is intriguing, the service is impeccable, and the background sounds are rife with jazz and bossa nova. But beyond all that is the fact that the Osaka Grill serves Kobe beef.
This is significant. Of all the great delicacies of the world -- Périgord truffles, Alsatian foie gras, Beluga caviar -- Kobe beef may be the most fabled. I've wanted to try the stuff ever since I saw a picture in a Japanese cookbook of a Kobe-bred steer sucking down a bottle of Kirin, a mainstay of the breed's enviable diet. Around the same time I read Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice, in which James Bond, finding himself in the Land of the Rising Sun, takes time out from sake-sipping and geisha-groping to personally massage the skin of a grateful bovine with raw gin (another aspect of the Kobe training program) and subsequently eat beef that "was, indeed, without equal in his experience."
The reasons for this high quality are numerous. For over a century the Japanese have bred their cattle to be thoroughly marbled with that streaky white fat that makes certain beef so tender and tasty. The result is Wagyu beef, a breed with a higher percentage of unsaturated fat than any other in the world. The Wagyu residing near the city of Kobe are the cream of the crop. These chosen few are raised on an expensive diet of rich pasture grass, white rice, rice bran, and beans -- later supplemented with a daily bottle of beer to stimulate the appetite. Kobe farmers give their cattle gentle massages daily with gin or sake to distribute the marbling throughout the flesh and to keep the animal content, which is believed to result in a tastier steak. All of this TLC is conducted under strictly regulated standards not unlike the ones imposed on Roquefort cheese; just as you can't call a cheese Roquefort unless it's naturally aged in a specific subterranean cavern, you can't call a beefsteak Kobe without its daily Suntory rubdown.
Five-course Kobe beef dinner $130
Five-course seafood combination dinner $35
Triple Chocolate $6
Green tea ice cream $6
Silver Momokawa sake $8.50/glass
Dragon Pearl tea $4.50
The result is a steak with marbling so rich it earns a nearly perfect score on Japan's rigorous 1-12 ranking. (Prime American beef -- the USDA's highest ranking -- lingers in the 3 to 4 range.) Another result of all that good breeding and feeding is an equally impressive stipend. You can buy it for $100 per pound at luxuryfinder.com, but it's too buttery and temperamental to cook in your home kitchen like an everyday beefsteak. Since Kobe is closer in texture to foie gras than to porterhouse, it's best to sear it quickly over an open flame to keep that carefully fashioned internal fat from melting away.
That's exactly what the Osaka Grill does. Its chefs cook food the teppanyaki way -- a process that has evolved alongside the Japanese meat industry over the past century or two -- by cutting up ingredients and grilling them on a big stainless steel teppan (metal plate) until crisp outside and succulent within. (U.S. eaters became aware of this specialized art form through the Benihana of Tokyo chain.) Though teppanyaki comes out of the great Japanese tradition of culinary show biz, the Osaka Grill ethos is less bombastic than the Benihana model: Osaka's chefs chop and carve with a simple grace that's as precisely utilitarian as it is subtly theatrical. It's the ideal setting for Kobe beef, a delicacy that in all the Bay Area can be found only here.
You begin an Osaka meal by taking a seat around one of the inlaid-slate cooking tables in the spacious dining room. After the first two courses have come and gone (a simple, earthy shiitake broth and a shredded-greens salad with a garlicky cream dressing), your chef arrives with a cart arranged with the ingredients for your meal. This grillmeister carefully wipes down the preheated teppan and drizzles it with soybean oil, then sets bowls of dipping sauce -- ginger for the vegetables, peanut-wasabi for the meat -- at the edge of the grill to warm. Order some gyoza (Japanese pot stickers) to munch on while you wait for the main event -- they're crisp, pleasantly greasy, and delicately fashioned around a filling of green onion and cabbage. Another starter comes with your meal: the jumbo prawns the chef tosses onto the grill and eviscerates with a quick ting of the cleaver. Several more rapid-fire slices and dices, a dollop of butter, a dramatic squirt of lemon, a sprinkle of parsley, and voilà -- the sweetest, most tender chopped-up shrimp meat you've ever tasted.