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Kobe Seekers 

Osaka Grill

Wednesday, Apr 11 2001
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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.

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.

Next up is palate-cleansing sorbet (mango), served in a sleek, tube-shaped glass with a minuscule spoon. The sorbet paves the way for the pièce de résistance, the Kobe beef. The chef lays it upon the teppan to sear and sizzle while he thick-slices mushrooms and tosses them about with bits of the steak's expensive fat. At just the proper moment he slices the steak into cubes and gives it a final quick searing. "Medium OK?" he asks, and after watching him re-create Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for the past 15 minutes it would feel presumptuous to say, "As a matter of fact, my good man, I'd prefer it medium rare."

So how does it taste? To understate it thoroughly: no complaints here. The steak is certainly tender and flavorful, but what makes the dish so special is the nearly endorphic feeling of pleasure it sends throughout your body. The hot ribbons of silky, fragrant, smoky fat give every mouthful added moments of warming transcendence. It's like a 20-year-old single malt or a slab of Belgian chocolate -- a positively mood-altering experience. Whether it's worth $130 for the beef and the rest of the five-course meal -- that $130 would cover 65 pints of happy hour beer -- is another matter.

The seafood combination entree is also well served by the searing-and-chopping method. This simple, flame-licked cooking style brings out the salty sweetness of the fresh scallops and prawns; the scallops in particular feel absolutely velvety on the tongue. (The lobster tail, on the other hand, is chewy but still tasty.) The vegetables, too, have an intensified flavor reminiscent of fresh-from-the-earth produce; the chef deftly carves the carrots, zucchini, and yellow squash into heart shapes and arranges them in precise stacks of orange, green, and gold. The butter, lemon, and parsley used as flavoring illustrate head chef Noel Mok's successful attempts to integrate Western ingredients with Japanese concepts. (Calamari, rack of lamb, and grilled polenta are among his other teppanyaki innovations.)

Desserts include the Triple Chocolate (another Western incursion), in which white chocolate mousse with the consistency of whipped cream rests parfait style atop a layer of denser milk chocolate and another of dark, bittersweet fudge. In another choice, two scoops of dense, gelatolike green tea ice cream shelter a pond of red wine/strawberry sauce. In addition to the pots of green tea that close out the meal, the restaurant offers four varieties of loose-leaf tea, served in attractive individual teapots on fan-shaped cast-iron trivets. The Popcorn Rice variety is unimpressive, but the Dragon Pearl is fragrant, sweet, and complex. There's also a brief but satisfactory wine list featuring eight vintages by the glass -- the Gundlach-Bundschu gewürztraminer goes especially well with the grilled seafood -- as well as four sakes. One of the latter, the Silver Momokawa, tastes pungent, bracing, and dry as the wind, and is a fine complement to such a deceptively simple meal.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford

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