Sunday, April 12, 2009

NYC Japanese Barbecue and Kobe Beef - Gyu-Kaku

I'm two months late with this, but it's time to start clearing out the backlog.

On Valentine's Day, my wife and I went to this place:

My wife understandably misses the food from her home country, so we go Japanese on most special occasions. Just in case you're wondering why I only ever seem to write about Japanese restaurants.

I've previously written about our home version of Japanese yakiniku - this is the real thing. You're not going to get much more authentic if you go to Japan, and I say that from personal experience. (Ok, much of the wait staff at Gyu-Kaku is western, and at least some of the chefs are too - but you do your own cooking anyway.) This is Japanese style barbecue, which also borrows a lot from Korean style barbecue if you're familiar with that. You just order up a bunch of food and cook it yourself at the table over a gas grill. It's been a while now but I'm reasonably sure they did have charcoal or stones or something down in there to punch up the flavor. (If you're concerned about the authenticity of this, I'll just tell you that the totally rustic, 100% Japanese yakiniku place I went to in rural Ibaraki last time I was there used propane grills.) Pretty much everything's available to grill that you might expect, including many different kinds of meat, vegetables, fish, starches, and whatever else. Here's their full menu.

Gyu-Kaku is a chain; they have locations in about a dozen cities, including two in New York. This one (NYC mid-town) is on the second floor of a 3rd Avenue office building. The interior is pretty modern stylish and very dark, which I like - though the table they sat us at was obviously designed for privacy, as the ones that ring the wall of the restaurant all are. We couldn't see most of the restaurant and nobody else could see us, except for the other couple seated next to us. It's almost like a private room.

I have to point this out, because it's really the main reason I'm writing about this place:

That's Kobe beef. From Japan.

They don't have this every day. It's not on the menu. (You can see at the link above that the menu clearly says "US Kobe Beef".) But it was a special the day we were there, so of course I had to have it even though this little plate - which was probably about six ounces total - was around $26.

I've talked about "Kobe beef" before - the stuff they call that in New York restaurants is basically fake. It's at best a deceptive label. Gyu-Kaku is actually doing a good thing by calling what they normally serve "US Kobe Beef", because I think that, given that Kobe is an actual place, most people think that's where the beef comes from if they see "Kobe beef" on a menu. And restaurants are usually all too happy to take advantage of that misconception, jacking up the prices to unreasonable levels on what's really just a particular breed of cow that's raised right here in the United States on all-American ingredients right alongside (and sometimes cross-bred with) the cows you eventually eat at McDonald's.

(Read a bit more about the American "Kobe-style" beef scam.)

It's very hard to find real Kobe beef in the United States. This is the first time I've had it, and I eat Japanese a lot. And there is a difference. I've never thought US Kobe beef was anything special. Yeah, it's a little more marbled than most cuts of regular beef, but honestly, I've made $3 flatiron steaks at home that were more tender and tasted better than most US Kobe beef I've had.

This was completely different. I won't say it's the best beef I've ever had, but it was right up there (my experience at Peter Luger's steak house is the only thing that might top it). It did melt in my mouth - I hardly had to chew it. And, like Japanese beef I've had in Japan, it just tasted beefier than American beef, including American Kobe beef. It had a concentrated flavor. I have no doubt that the tenderness comes from the breed, the aging and the massaging of the cows, while the flavor comes from the food the cows are fed. These things are just not the same here.

The other ingredients we got were less memorable, but then real Kobe beef is kind of a tough act to follow. I will say that I'd recommend avoiding the Chilean sea bass, which comes wrapped in tin foil (for easier grilling) and is so small that it would barely be worth ordering if it was the best thing on the menu. But it wasn't even; the pepper sauce is too spicy for such a delicate fish, it's like trying to wash down a bowl of Texas chili with a glass of Pinot Grigio. You won't even taste it.

My wife really enjoyed her Negi tongue (to which I say "blecch!"), the assorted vegetables were good and the garlic potatoes were amazing. They're slathered in real garlic, which grills in chunks along with the potatoes and tastes great just by itself. My wife's bibimbap rice was middling.

Definitely a fun date, and if you can manage to go on a Japanese beef night, you won't regret it.


  1. jeff,
    your photos are very cool. i love the variety. keep on shootin' they are great ideas.

  2. how did you manage to get the japanese kobe beef when it was not on the menu?

  3. It was a special. I mean it's not on the regular menu, but it was on the menu that night. They said they only have it periodically, though.

  4. oh so i just have to go and try my luck one day? lol. you guys seriously lucked out then!

    have you ever heard of wagyu beef? My friend just had it at a restaurant in midtown the other night. I'm gonna try it this weekend since i'm gonna be in the city. =)

  5. Kobe beef is wagyu beef :)

    Wagyu's the breed. I think if a restaurant's advertising wagyu beef, they're probably being honest about it being that breed, but not raised in one of Japan's famous beef regions. It's kind of like what Gyu-Kaku does on their normal menu... though instead of labeling it "wagyu beef" they call it "US Kobe beef". But it's probably the same thing.

  6. so there is no difference except for origination. I get it. Thanks for clearing that up. im so excited to eat it still =)


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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