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Posts Tagged ‘yakiniku’

Ah yes, horse, the other red meat. You know, I’ve never understood why horse meat was off-limits in America. I mean, it’s an animal not all that dissimilar to deer or elk and we certainly have no problems eating them. Is it because we ride horses? Would you eat a cow if you rode it? I don’t know. I do know that many other places in the world do eat horse, and Japan is one of them. While it’s not a prominent animal in the extremely large, diverse, and interesting encyclopedia of animals consumed by the Japanese, it is featured in various areas where other meats might not be as readily available. As such, in places like Tokyo, there are restaurants dedicated to serving this animal on a platter rather than saddling it up for a gallop. The other night I finally got my first opportunity to enjoy the succulence of these animals when a friend of mine asked me if he could take me out for a horse. Not only is that the first time another man had ever asked me that questions, but that was a proposition I was only too happy to jump on. So, we headed out to the Ebisu district of Tokyo and headed to a place called Uma Yakiniku Takeshi. Uma is horse in Japanese, yakiniku is the style of grilling meat at your table, and Takeshi is the name of the proprietor of this establishment, he also happens to be a well-known Japanese comedian. Before I get to the food, one thing I love about Ebisu is that there are numerous interesting little izakaya’s serving up weird and exotic cuisine that you would never find unless you stumbled upon them. We ended up walking around for about 15 minutes before finding our destination.

When we sat down we were greeted with a cold glass of draft beer and some lightly pickled cucumbers with salted kombu. I’m not a big pickle or cucumber guy by any stretch of the imagination, but honestly, this wasn’t too bad at all. I even think my younger brother, he who has even stronger negative feelings toward pickled cucumbers than me, would eat this. At least he would if he was hungry enough to eat a horse.

We started off with horse tataki. Rolled in black pepper and lightly seared on all sides, this piece of meat (what part of the animal is still up for debate, but I think it’s the tenderloin) was covered with in thinly sliced onion and chopped scallions.

After a quick dip in ponzu (the horse meat, not me) here I am about to have my first taste in equestrian delights. MMMMMMMMMMMM! Honestly, it reminded me of kosher pastrami. I could throw this on some rye bread, slather on the mustard, and wash it down with a Dr Browns and be a happy man. Very delicious and surprisingly familiar to me. I had heard that horse tasted quite a bit like beef, but I think it’s a little more like bison as the muscles don’t have as much fat as cow does.

Next up was horse sashimi. Just think of this as beef carpaccio, except that it went nay instead of moo. A bit of fresh grated ginger and garlic, a splash in some tamari, and down the hatch. A little sweeter than beef, and much more tender than I expected. I can’t recall ever eating a beef carpaccio that I enjoyed as much.

Then we got the yakiniku going. The first plate had some napa cabbage, eggplant, the green part of the scallion, and, of course, some horse meat. This part of the animal comes from the belly/rib area. Think of it as thinly sliced ribeye.

Here’s our tabletop grill in full effect. I didn’t get a pic of it, but we each had a dish with three different dipping options for the grilled meat. There as a ponzu-based sauce that was my favorite, some sea salt, and some rice vinegar.

For the next cut of horse to be grilled my friend thought he’d throw me curveball, something I’d be hesitant to shove down my throat. He was wrong as it turned out to be one of the most delicious pieces of meat I’ve ever grilled yakiniku-style…the heart! I’m telling you, this was so tender and sweet, with a bit of black pepper it was heavenly! I’d jump a fence to get me some of this.

So good, the heart was (that’s my Yoda speak), that we had to get more on our next plate. Besides the heart and horse food (vegetables) this dish also had blood pipes. I don’t know if they were arteries or veins, but they were also delicious. A little rubbery, but after a few chews the clean flavor of the animal really came through. It was almost like eating thick intestines, but clean intestines. Very good indeed.

We put the grill aside after that and got a plate of horse weiner. No, not that kind of weiner, I don’t have that big of an appetite. This was a plate of weiner-style sausages. Again, a little sweet, but a very deep, rich flavor. It was also very juicy.

Our final dish was horse fried rice. With a little scrambled egg and some scallions this was a very typical fried rice, but with horse meat.

I have to say, Americans are a weird bunch. We shun so many different food items that the rest of the world consumes. As I write this blog it becomes clear to me that the reason we’ve not been exposed to things like horse as an edible creature is solely because of politics. If the beef lobby wasn’t so powerful I think we’d be eating all sorts of other animals…guinnea pig, various insects, horse, etc. It really is a delicious animal, and one that doesn’t contribute nearly as much to Climate Change as cows do. If we open our minds as well as our mouths, there’s a lot of tasty things out there we could enjoy. Mr Ed, sorry, but you are one delicious creature!

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The other night Yuki and I met up with a bunch of her ex-coworkers who have moved back to Tokyo. They got a table at a modern, hip Yakitori joint in the Hibiya neighborhood. If you want to buy a brand new Hermes bag, Hibiya is the place for you. It’s a very swanky area filled with great food. The place they met us at is called Yakitori Akira. It’s in the basement of a large office/shopping building along with a handful of other slightly upscale food joints.

When you walk in you take your shoes off and walk past the open counter where the chefs prepare the chow. The tables are sunken. I was a little nervous at first because the tables were floor level and my knees are terrible. But, the floor was recessed making them regular table height, something that is becoming more common in newer restaurants, sort of fusion if you will.

The first dish, after a cold draft beer of course,  was a salad of raw Nappa cabbage swimming in a mayonnaise-based dressing and topped with sliced kombu.

After that came some natto topped with sliced green onions and nori seaweed. Natto is a love-hate food. You either love it or you hate it. It’s a type of fermented soy bean and has a really pungent odor, like ripe armpits. It also has a very sticky texture. It’s commonly eaten with Chinese-style mustard to mask some of the smell. Yuki loves it, I don’t prefer it. Very few Westerners can tolerate it and, these days, not so many of the younger Japanese do either. But, I had to try it since they put it in my face. Needless to say, I took one bite and the quickly proceeded to chug some beer!

Then we had some chicken karage, Japanese-style chicken nuggets. Unlike your McDonald’s variety of processed crap, this is big juicy chunks of thigh meat. I have no idea what kind of sauce this one came with, but it sure was tasty!

This here is the dish I was most looking forward to…rare chicken meat! The meat from the neck was quickly seared, almost completely raw (the pink you see in the picture is indeed raw chicken), on a hot skillet and served with some yuzu kosho. Rare chicken is extremely controversial, for obvious reasons, but given the upscale atmosphere I was certain they were using fresh, high quality birds. Since I have yet to get diarrhea or vomit profusely, I’m pretty sure the meat was clean. Flavor-wise it tasted like chicken, oddly enough. The texture was a little chewy, chicken al dente. Honestly, it’s nothing really special, it’s just chicken meat.

Avocado sautéed in some sort of shoyu sauce came next. Coming from Chicago I’m used to Mexican preparations of avocado. This was a nice change to what my taste buds are used to. The sauce carmelized a little while the avocado stayed nice and soft.

After the Avocado we spiced things up a bit with some kimchi. It was served with some chopped green onion, julienned daikon, and a shiso leaf.

Next came what is probably my favorite snack of the night, deep-fried chicken skin. Japan’s answer to chicharones. Crispy, buttery, all-around chickeny goodness! I may have to make this a staple of my future diet.

What tour around the bird would complete without some chicken wings? These were deep-fried with either basil or shiso in the batter, I couldn’t really tell. With a squirt of lemon they were delicious.

The main course of the night was the table-top charcoal grill. Instead of eating yakitori style (chicken on skewers) we ate yakiniku style (grill yourself). The first pieces we grilled were breast meat wrapped in shiso leaf.

The other pieces of chicken we got were neck meat, 2 parts of the heart (heart skin and heart meat), meat that was dangling off a piece of cartilage (I think the breastplate), and skin. We also had a few pieces of okra to grill.

Once the meat was grilled we dipped the pieces into an onsen egg. Basically it’s just an egg that’s been barely soft-boiled to the point where the whites were just set and the yolk is still runny. To me, this is natures most perfect sauce.

After all of that chicken we decided to get a few cuts of pork for shits and giggles. We got shoulder, cheek, and side meat and grilled them all the same as the chicken.

As Yuki and I were leaving due to having Otis back at grandma and grandpa’s, everyone else ordered up some soup. I really have no idea what was in the soup, but I imagine it was miso. From the pic I took here as I left I can definitely tell you it was topped with nori and had a shtickle of wasabi.

All in all, I thought Akira was a great izakaya. They call themselves Yakitori Akira because the chef’s specialty is chicken, but to me it’s not a yakitori restaurant at all, even though they do serve yakitori. The menu is much too diverse to be called yakitori. Since they serve up numerous small plates and whatnot with a nice beer and sake list, its pure izakaya to me. That said, what’s in a name? An izakaya by any other name’s chicken would taste is sweet.

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So, yesterday one of Yuki’s supervisors decided to take her crew out to dinner at Gyu-Kaku, a yakiniku joint downtown. That left me by myself to eat, drink, whatever. My plan was to meet up with a buddy of mine from the Playboy Pilot at Five Star for a couple of drinks, then pick Yuki up around 7 or so and grab a jumbo char dog from Portillo’s on the way home to absorb the alcohol in my stomach. Things didn’t work out as planned. About 7 I got a text that they JUST got to Gyu-Kaku! What? How long would I have to wait for a friggin char dog! Hungry, I took a couple of Chinese Steam Buns out of the freezer to tide me over for a couple of hours. Shortly thereafter I got a text asking me if I wanted to join them. Absolutely! So I cruised on down and got there as they were about to order dessert. Oh well, that didn’t stop me from eating some beef.

Since they were already drunk and I was a little drunk I didn’t really care what I ate. Doug, one of two white guys in Yuki’s group, ordered one of the Kalbi’s for me along with a beer. They’re having a Sakura Festival (Cherry Blossoms) special with $3 beer and 50% off harami skirt steak so I’m sure that’s what I got. All I know is that a dish with some beautifully marbled beef covered in sesame seeds showed up alongside a nice cold draft beer.

Then, the waitress showed up with some white rice, red leaf lettuce, and red miso so that I could eat the beef properly.

Since I was too busy helping Doug make fun of Eric, the other white guy in the group, Yuki grilled my meat for me. That’s how you know you got a good one…when she grills your beef so you can drink and have a laugh.

I took the lettuce, smeared some miso on it, topped it with the beef, and chowed down! Oiishii!!! No offense to Koreans, but the quality of the meat is so much better than anything I’ve had at a Korean BBQ. Tender and juicy, the way a good cow should be. I do have a groupon for Gyu-Kaku that I can’t wait to use so that I can eat other cuts of beef along with different animals, both with legs and with gills. Oh, some veggies too. Yuki told me that their ramen was pretty good too.

At any rate, the dessert they ordered were a bunch of different doriyaki ice creams. Bowls of ice cream with red bean paste served with pancakes and mochi that you grill. Good ice cream, but they burnt the mochi. (No Eric, it didn’t taste like shwag, it just tasted burnt)

As we were getting ready to leave another co-worker of theirs who wasn’t part of this group sent over two little bottles of sake for us. Between Doug, Eric, and myself it didn’t take long to polish those babies off. Mmmmm, sake!

The best part about Gyu-Kaku is that they use really strong down-draft ventilation systems for each grill. Those things suck that smoke right down. Unlike Korean BBQ’s what have over-table hoods, you don’t have to hop in the shower and wash your clothes immediately when you get home to rid yourself of the smoke. If you have a Jewfro sponge on your head like me, your hair will definitely appreciate that!

I do have a back story regarding Gyu-Kaku. It’s a chain that started in Japan and there’s one off of the train stop near Yuki’s parent’s house. A few of years ago Yuki and I had dinner there with her sister and brother-in-law. I remember the basil marinated chicken to be fabulous. I thought that this would do really well here in Chicago because all we had were Korean BBQ joints up on the northwest side of town. There wasn’t anything downtown. So, I went to their website and saw that they’ve already hit the west coast, that really got my hopes up that I could bring them here to Chitown. I sent them a nice long e-mail letting them know about the niche they could fill here, yada yada yada. I hear nothing back from them at all. A couple of years go by and Yuki texts me, “Gyu-Kaku is coming to Chicago”. Eh? Those bastards cut me out of the deal! That’s my idea! I felt like Kramer with his ocean cologne. The least they could do is feed me for free for life since coming here was my idea from the start. Oh well, what can you do. The food is good so I will definitely go back, especially since I’ve already paid for a groupon.

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Alright, going back to last November in Japan, I wanted to show you the dinner we had in Kobe. My buddy Tom lives in Osaka which is a short 25 minute train ride from Kobe. On our way to the Chinatown section to meet up with him we walked by a sake tasting. We knew right away that we had found our appetizers! So, we grabbed Tom and headed back for some sake.

For 500 Yen per person (about $5) they give us each 3 different kinds of sake, a bag of mixed salty snacks, and a tube of sausage. The sake was great, the sausage….not so great. We ended up drinking with a bunch of businessmen that were already hammered and a lot of fun. One of them recognized Tom from a wedding he did (Tom performs weddings in Osaka). Once we were finished with the sake we needed some dinner. Being in Kobe, it had to involve beef! So, we ended up at a Yakiniku joint.

You can probably tell from Tom’s eyes that the sake already had a hold on us when we sat down for dinner. I honestly don’t remember all of the cuts we ordered, but I do know that there was some beef tongue, rib eye, and short rib.

Yakiniku is great. It’s the Japanese version of Korean BBQ. You have the grill in the middle of your table and you order up various slices of meat to grill at your leisure.

Once the meat is grilled you wrap it in lettuce leaves and top it with sauce, and scarf it down.

They also give you little pickled items to eat. I don’t remember what we had that night, but everything was fantastic! Not Kobe’s highest quality beef that made them famous (that would have cost 4 times as much), but still great beef nonetheless.

After finishing up the grilled beef we ordered some Bibimbop, a Korean hot stone rice dish. The stone is heated up super hot, then rice is put in and topped with vegetables and an egg. You stir it all up and eat it down. The best part is the rice that almost burns at the bottom. It’s a great way to finish off a Yakiniku meal.

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