Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Our Fukuoka Christmas 13 - Wagyu wishes fulfilled at Beef Taigen

Why am I still writing about my Christmas vacation in March?  I procrastinate too much -- putting off writing for tomorrow ... or how about Friday?  Next week?
Well  dear reader, if you thought that you were going to read about Fukuoka till the cows came home ...  here is the absolute last post.  
I hope you will be "moo-lified"

From the bad puns, you will have guessed what this post is about.
Steak is not high on my list of favourites but once in a "rare" while,  I do get a hankering for a nice piece of beef.  This usually happens when I am in Japan as wagyu -- with its unparalleled marbling, is my beef of choice.  
While westerners may not like wagyu for this very same character,  this is what I feel makes it unique and deliciously different. 
Jay and I were strolling around Canal City when we came upon Beef Taigen, a popular wagyu chain in Fukuoka.  

There were quite a lot of interesting photos outside the restaurant.  This  shows the select group of ranchers from Kagoshima Prefecture who raise the black cows and supply Beef Taigen with all grades of wagyu.
I did a bit of research and discovered that more than two thirds of the black cows in Japan come from Kagoshima.  Of course there are other types of Japanese cows but black cows are what we normally associate wagyu with. 
Kobe and Matsuzaka may be more well known but Kagoshima is the "moo-ther" lode (sorry  for another bad pun!)

A butcher's chart is also displayed outside.  I try to guess what the various parts are but can only come up with the rump (10 or 11?) ) and the tongue or cheeks perhaps, another obvious guess.
Would ribs be number 7?  And is that oblong shape beside the number 15  tenderloin?  
I guess I will never make it to butcher school.

The branch in Canal City is always full of  shoppers and tourists since the prices for meals are very reasonable.   One of the specials is a wagyu hamburg steak for the very attractive price of just 1,100 yen

While long queues are normal during lunch and dinner time, we arrive way past noon and are seated right away.  The steak of the day is 3,000 yen which we are told is a 150 gram sirloin.
We order that and a hamburg steak. 

After a while our  lunch trays are brought out.  Jay's sirloin steak setto came with a bowl of rice, miso soup,   salad and three types of condiments -- seasoned salt,  and two types of shoyu based sauces.  Freshly grated wasabi is also included and Jay said that wasabi and salt on steak was a delicious discovery for him. 

I could not quite believe that this generous serving weighed just 150 grams.   Surely they must have made a mistake?  
But the menu clearly stated that all cuts of beef are 150 grams and all orders are served medium rare, unless the customer specifies otherwise.  Medium rare is how we normally order -- 
I think it is the ideal doneness for an excellent cut of steak. 

I had the hamburg steak or hambaagu as the Japanese call it, since the waitress said it was their specialty.  Of course my secret plan was to swipe a piece or two from Jay's sirloin. 
With the combined beefy aromas rising from our respective hot plates, I knew that our clothes would smell of wagyu for the rest of the day. 

The Japanese hambaagu steak should never be thought of as a hamburger steak -- they should not even be mentioned in the same breath.   
Beef Taigen's hambaagu is made with only the best cuts of prime grade wagyu, definitely no gristle, no extenders.  The patty is simply seasoned with salt and pepper, to bring out the undeniable  flavour of superior beef.
 Like Jay's steak,  my hambaagu is cooked medium rare -- lightly pink inside with a nice even  lightly charred exterior.  

Jay is down to his last piece of steak -- and he's eating it and not giving it to me.   
I did get a taste of the sirloin  and it was every bit as delectable as I had known it would be.  
The marbling increases the flavour aside from making the meat so mouth meltingly tender. 

I raised a toast to the Kagoshima black cow to thank him for his sacrifice of top quality 
beef  goodness.  He did not die in vain -- he fulfilled our wildest wagyu wishes.  
And of course,  here's a toast to finally finishing up this Fukuoka series.  
I hope that by reading my posts, you'll be inspired to visit one of these days.  
If you do,  head to Canal City and pay homage to wagyu at Beef Taigen


Monday, March 6, 2017

Our Fukuoka Christmas 12 - Yakitori Zen ... a barbecue state of mind

Put it on a stick, place it on top of an open flame and I'm yours!
Whether it's a bright red hotdog or bits of tripe, a slice of pork belly with fat or tightly bunched together chicken entrails ...  if it's barbecued, it's food that I love.
The humblest piece of meat, with the proper seasoning or marinade is transformed once it's grilled.  
In Japan, the equivalent of barbecue is yakitori -- mostly grilled chicken but diverse enough to  include other meats, fish or even vegetables.
Yakitori is a popular offering in izakayas or bars.   My favourite yakitori joints are smoky, boozy
little places, usually nestled in narrow alleys or under the train tracks and frequented by salarymen and locals. 

On this trip to Fukuoka,  there were many restaurants around our Airbnb apartment rental, one of which was a yakitori place right in our building.   How convenient -- I could pop down and have my 
yakitori fix anytime.

A few evenings later, this is just what we did.  We traipsed down to Yakitori Zen (an apt name
for the state of mind that good food invariably reduces me to) for a few skewers and a few beers.

 Yakitori Zen was a bit bigger, neater and certainly better lit than most of the hole-in-the-wall,
along-the-riles (by the railway tracks) places that I normally go to in Tokyo.
There were a few tables for bigger groups.   We hesitated as to where we would sit but the chef waved us over to sit at the counter in front of the open kitchen. 

I was happy to see an english menu.   At Yakitori Zen, you can order a la carte or have your skewers by the set.  Tonight,  we were just "grazing" so  we ordered one serving composed of  7 skewers,  "omakase"  style (chef's recommendations).  

Izakayas normally give you small dishes of otsumami or snacks to go with your beer.  
These are placed in front of you the minute you sit down.  
If there is a "table charge" (between 300 and  500 yen)  this is what you are paying for.  For places without a "table charge"  like Yakitori Zen,  these are on the house.
Our small bowls had stewed mushrooms with bits of chicken and an appetiser of simmered vegetables with fried tofu and a few slices of hot red peppers. 

I could not wait to sip my beer -- ice cold and heavenly.  Hand torn cabbage leaves tossed with a refreshing ponzu vinaigrette  is not a salad but is meant to be eaten with the yakitori -- think of it as having slaw with your barbecue.

On the counter is a glass encased chiller with trays of the various prepared yakitori sticks -- just waiting to be seasoned and grilled.  On the first night that we visited, we ordered the set but on our next visit (yes, I went twice)  I just pointed to what I wanted to eat.

Yakitori can be seasoned two ways -- shio or just lightly salted and tare, brushed with a special sauce.  Normally the chef makes his own tare so you never quite get the same flavour from each yakitori place.  While I prefer plain shio some cuts of meat are better eaten with tare sauce.

With our counter seats, we had a ringside view of  the chef as he worked  -- here he lightly drizzles the skewers with salt (usually also mixed with a bit of ground pepper).

The sticks are placed on the grill for just a minute or two. The skewers are frequently turned so that a 
good sear can trap in the juices.  Yakitori is never dry but always moist and juicy.

Our omakase set  started with sunagimo or chicken gizzard which is one of my favourites.  
The other skewer looks like tsukune or chicken meatballs but the chef said it was made of  both ground chicken and pork. 

Our next skewer was sinful but scrumptious pork belly with negi or japanese leeks, a riff on the classic negima.  
Some poor octopus lost a few of his eight legs, giving it up for this tako yakitori -- it was soft but still firm and just so delicious.  
Check out Yakitori Zen's special chopsticks at the top of this photo. Rough hewn twigs that looked like they had  been taken straight from the tree.   

Reba or chicken liver, alternated with bits of scallions, is brushed with tare sauce and dredged through sesame seeds.  The sesame seeds and the bits of crunchy char work together to remove the mineral-ly, metallic  taste of chicken liver that I normally do not like.

We have a few more skewers -- mune or chicken breast is paired with sliced white onions. 
We also get chicken with asparagus stalks -- the chef's healthier but no less tastier version of the 
more common  aspara bacon (bacon wrapped asparagus). 
And I finally get to taste the chef's excellent tsukune or chicken meatballs glazed with tare.   
Motto biru kudasai! (one more beer please!)  
Full disclosure -- we had double orders of the tsukune right after we tasted it.  

Our chef was rather shy but not unfriendly.   I liked his twists on the normal yakitori varieties --  
his "zen" focus resulted in perfectly matched ingredients and flavours.
While there was an assistant to slice the meat and deliver the orders to the tables,  the chef himself  attended to us seated along the counter while at the same time, cooking up the orders as they came in.

At the other end of the counter, our seat mates were obviously enjoying an evening of beer-y banter and what seemed to be a steady supply of yakitori

Izakaya fare includes other items besides yakitori -- agedashi tofu is a popular order.  
Silky tofu is dredged through cornstarch and lightly fried till a crisp golden crust covers the creamy block of soybean softness.
Set on a light dashi and shoyu sauce,  the chef's version comes with thinly sliced nori and grated daikon topped with a smudge of pickled ginger.  
Lightly simmered shishito peppers remind me of my favourite Galician treat - pimentos de  padron -and provide just the faintest sweetish heat. 

Yakitori Zen offers sashimi but only chicken,  duck and the specialty of Kumamoto  -- basashi or sakura yukke aka horse meat sashimi.  
Before you condemn me for eating My Little Pony,  please let me tell you that horse meat is part of the culinary traditions of  the Japanese and I was in no way eating something taboo. 
I had first enjoyed sakura niku (as horse meat is called) many years ago in Tokyo and remembered how much I was surprised by the delicate taste of the meat.
Sakura yukke is often served with a mild and sweet shoyu  sauce.  A small raw quail's egg 
yolk is placed on top of the meat  -- everything blends so well together that we finish the dish in no time at all. 

We took our sweet time at Yakitori Zen, enjoying the "zen" like feeling of being completely 
at  peace.   Or was it merely a yakitori and beer induced stupor? 
If you are ever in Fukuoka,  don't miss out on ascending to this "zen" state of mind.  
Look for  Yakitori Zen along Meijimachi dori, somewhere off the Sumiyoshi-jinja.  
The door is marked by this simple piece of wood that looks somewhat like a walking stick (or the rough chopsticks you'll find inside).

N.B. Thank you to my son Gani for some of his photos used in this post.