This is best described as the Japanese equivalent of Korean barbecue. Both have similar principles: you cook your own meat, over your own grill, at your own table. “Yakiniku” translates directly to “grilled meat”.
Japanese BBQ in Nakano
Its day four and I finally get an authentic Japanese experience. Perhaps even the most authentic I will get during this entire trip. We had Japan natives guiding us on this culinary tour. Our hosts took us to their neighbourhood of Nanako. They led us beyond the Nanako Broadway, pass its narrow allies and bold lights, to this very traditionally Japanese dressed lane way. Tiled roof tops, cloth banners, red lanterns, and bamboo poles. The kinds of buildings I expected to see and wanted to see more of. There was even a panoramic photo taken to commemorate this.
With just my partner and I, tourists in a foreign country, we would never approach such a place hoping for service. First its name was only in kanji characters; and with only a showing of black cast iron pots on display, we couldn’t be sure if it was even a restaurant. There were also no menus posted out front, no photos to refer to. Just looking at it you couldn’t tell what they offered. And even if we ventured in to look, how could we have asked?
And let’s say we managed to get seated, the language barrier alone would have prevented us from ordering anything. As was the case with the exterior, there were no photos to refer to, just lines of script on an black and white sheet of paper. Luckily we were not alone, and our hosts lead us through this truly authentic Japanese meal.
The first floor was their bar, with stools circling the room. Those behind the counter greeted you in unison. Our hosts, having been here before, led us straight up the flight of stairs. At the top you remove your shoes. You either leave them on the shelves and in the bins provided, or borrow one of their plastic bags to keep them in and off the floor at your table side. Here inside and outside space is differentiated, a concept explained to me when I took Asian Studies at UBC. You keep the inside clean, meaning public articles like shoes need to be removed. The room we were about to enter in to was an elevated platform of woven fibres. Each table had its own pit, with a recess allowing your legs to hang in comfort. Sort of like sitting on the floor with an extra place for your feet. Thankfully, as not everyone can cross their legs for an extended period of time.
To start you are given a hot towel to wipe up. Though because of the delay in busing tables it remained table side and was available to use well after it cooled. Looking around the room, some patrons even more bibs. I guess barbecue is a messy affair. The space was traditional in look and feel from the seating, to the setting; from the removing of shoes, to the charcoal grill being used. However the restaurant was modern in its method and technology. Our server used a held device to input our order.
The room quickly became hot like a sauna. A high level of cheek redding heat from the confined space and a grill firing up at each table. Though above each table there was ventilation system in place. A black pipe hanging low to alleviate some of the smoke created by the cooking process. None-the-less it had us sweating and finding that eating became more and more difficult. Though our hosts kept us lubricated with tall pints of Sapparo. This kept us cool, along with slowly removing our multiple layers.
Given the language barrier between our hosts and ourselves, and the lack of written English on any menu, I can only assume the below is what we had. Using my best to guess at the dish from what I saw and what I tasted.
We began our meal with a light salad: spinach greens dressed in a miso vinaigrette, topped with homemade mini croutons. I don’t normally eat salads as I don’t prefer the texture of all those leaves in one bite. But in order to be polite I did finish the portion I was given. The leaves were fresh and the sauce salty, leaning on tangy. I can see the value in such a dish as more of an add on, a side to later accompany all the meat.
A humourous mis-translation had this dish introduced to us as “hormones”, whereas by its looks we decoded it to be beef tripe. I have never seen any meat product this shade of grey before, let alone try any of it. Though this off putting colouring was improved by the presence of the cucumber slivers and sesame seeds. I am familiar with tripe and knew what texture to expect, a ridged rubberiness. But got those who have never seen it, let alone try it, this may be a texture that is hard to get past. The dish came with a serving of chilli sauce and sweet soy for dipping. Both gave the tripe a more palatable and familiar flavour.
Kimchi flavoured rice cooked in a stone bowl. It looked and tasted like Korean-style bibimbap. A stone bowl is heated. Inside, many ingredients are presented neatly over a bed of rice, and finished with an egg cracked overtop. In Vancouver the rice is mixed immediately by a staff member, here it was a self serve affair. Better for me as I got a before and after photo this way. One of our hosts took the responsibility of stirring the pot. Using the spoon provided she mixed the lot, coating it in egg. Then flattening the mixture to further cook it with the resonating heat from the bowl. It also tasted like Korean style bibimbap. Crispy rice flavoured in pickled kimchi.
The rice came with a side of soup a light broth that we were too full to touch.
Once again and unfortunately, without an English menu, and even with our host’s best attempts I was unable to identify all the beef parts we had over the barbecue. So below are photos of how they were presented raw, and of them being cooked on the grill. In general they were all well marbleized with plenty of fat. A few more than others. These were not cuts we were use to, and we both secretly wanted leaner cuts.
The first was the most similar to the beef we enjoy on similar barbecues in Vancouver.
Beef tongue. The tongue was the next leanest protein, but even then it was ridiculously chewy because of all the sinew. I forced the metal image of a large tongue out of my my and the ironic thoughts of me using my tongue to eat this tongue, to be able to get this one down. I have never had to chew my food more, and longer it took to break down, the more nauseated I felt. In Vancouver I have only had this served in paper thin slices. This was a hunk. Surprisingly my squeamish partner was able to get it down and keep it down better than I.
From here the pieces of beef got fattier and fatter. The whiter its shade the fattier it was. Most strips just melted in your mouth, I am not sure I like my meat doing that.
The entire process reminded me of the Korean barbecue experience in Vancouver. Except, the grills there are often built into the tables and sprinklers are always installed above, mostly as a precautionary measure. Also the cuts of beef used and the flavours in which they are seasoned set the two a part. Here, it is fattier beef dressed in simple seasonings, to really allow its natural flavours to come through. A dish of lemon juice is available for dipping into. The zest of the lemon helps to better accentuated the salty marbling of the beef. Though if this is not enough flavour for you, there is also a sauce available for use. Although we personally found the meat to be already pretty tasty. Plus we didn’t want to mask any of it, so enjoyed it as is. We were paying top dollar for this after all.
When needing to use the facilities, slippers are provided for you within. An important fact, given you had to remove your footwear before you entered the dining area. And an interesting note, smoking is allowed indoors here.
Would I come back? – Yes.
Would I line up for it? – No.
Would I recommend it? – Yes.
Would I suggest this for someone visiting from out of town? – No.
Our guests promised us an authentic Japanese dinner, and they certainly delivered with this one. It was quite the experience, with the spaces we were able to visit and the variety of dishes we were able to try. One for the books, and one that I could not hope to duplicate. Not just because of the communication issues, but more I wouldn’t know how to get back, and I don’t even know its name. Plus, like my partner we deemed this cuisine not really our scene. Good to try, but at the predicted price (our hosts wouldn’t let us see the bill, let alone pay for if), this is not something I need another go at anytime soon My partner especially so, as he had a hard time digesting it all after he left. Don’t deny your cravings.