Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Japan 2012 - Kobe Mouriya

I will be back.

It's what I say almost every time I visit a new city, but never have I lived up to that promise so soon.

Kobe was on our itinerary for the second-last day of the Japan holiday. Being all guided by the stomach, we went for the beef, and pretty much only the beef. There are many, many other merits to the city, such as its architecture, but I must apologise - our sole purpose in going to Kobe was for the beef.

And have I mentioned the beef?

Having missed out on eating Kobe beef my first visit to Kobe (long story, still can't believe it happened), I learned my lesson and did my homework this time. And by homework I mean watching way too many Japanese variety shows and DVDs in every single spare moment for the sole purpose of finding restaurants to try out. In this case, the blood, sweat and tears was worth it. (There is no way you will get an admission that all the videos I watched was actually for fangirling and not travel purposes. Oh, did I just say that out loud?)

Surprisingly (or not), our first stop in Kobe was actually the Ikuda Shrine, about 2 blocks from Sannomiya Station, because we felt it necessary to include a Shinto shrine on this trip. It was quite nice, we happened to be there as a corporation (we think...could've been yakuza for all we know!) were there for their hatsunode, the first prayer for the year. It was interesting to watch the ceremony from the side, with the theatrics of bowing, presenting leaves, and chanting...

As interesting as the ceremony and the Shrine was, we really were in Kobe for the beef... so it was off to Mouriya, literally on the doorstep of the Shrine.

Mouriya, established in 1885, serves top grade Kobe and their own selection of wagyu beef from selected bloodlines, all descended from the Tajima bloodline. Their cattle is carefully selected and bred, to minimise inbreeding, and the meat served at all three Mouriya restaurants are usually A4 or A5 grade, with the fat hybridisation (BMS) value of 6 or above. In basic terms: it's bloody good beef.

With a group of 7 and no reservation, getting there early meant we got top seats on the third floor - the best option if your party members all have strong knees. Counter seats are also the way to go - full view of the chef, the cooking, and a chance to have a little chat too. The lunch menu ranges from 4900-9800 yen, with Kobe beef and other Wagyu of all grades. They have half the menu dedicated to Kobe beef, and the other half for Tajima beef - the Tajima breed being the ancestors of the modern Kobe beef variety. The menu also explains the grading system: beef at Mouriya not only have the usual A1-5 grading, next to each there is also a BMS number. The higher the BMS value, the more evenly distributed the marbling. Mouriya serves mainly beef with a grade of A4 or above, with BMS No. 6 or above. In other words, top quality stuff.

On our first visit, we had both Tajima and Kobe varieties, just to compare. We had one Shigekanenami sirloin (茂金波, Kobe beef A5BMSNo.8-10, 9500 yen), one Yasumidoi sirloin (安美土井, Tajima beef A5BMS No. 10-12, 9800 yen), and two Kikuyasudoi fillets (菊安土井, Tajima A4 BMS No. 6-7, 6500 yen). One of the advantages of going to Mouriya in a group is that because the steaks are cut to order, if you have 2 (or more) of the same they will give you a thicker piece of meat. And you can also opt to share the different steaks in a group. For carbs, there's a choice of rice or bread rolls.

After your order is taken, for counter seats you are presented with a plate, and the chef then starts distributing the condiments: salt, pepper, wasabi, fried garlic and two types of dipping sauces - miso and a tangy yuzu shoyu. Pumpkin soup is then served. Thick, creamy, and yellow, it went down like velvet, and really warmed the body. A great start.

Soup was followed by a light salad: refreshing leaves with a wafu (Japanese-style) vinaigrette. Something I managed to not take a photo of on both visits.

Then comes the meat. Slabs of beautiful Wagyu beef, presented on wooden geta. This is the opportunity for the obligatory shot by the waiter, of you holding up your prized meat before it ends up in your belly.

Top right: Kikuyasudoi double serve (Tajima, A4 BMS No. 6-7), middle: Shigekanenami (Kobe, A5 BMS No. 8-10), front: Yasumidoi (Tajima, A5 BMS No. 10-12)

The chef will then ask how well you want your steak done. I went with whatever he recommended, which was rare. And yes, the system is the same in Japanese as it is in English - rare, medium rare, medium, well-done. They will actually understand you if you speak English at this point.

Then the theatrics begin. The chef decides which piece of meat you have first. I believe our order was the Yasumidoi, then the Shigekanenami, then finally the Kikuyasudoi. Starting with the "best" piece of meat actually meant that by the end, your palate actually feels "cleansed" by the less fatty piece of steak. Personally, I found the Kikuyasudoi - the cheapest one - was my favourite. It was meaty, juicy, but not too oily and overpowering. The yuzu shoyu and wasabi cut through the greasiness surprisingly well.

As the meat course comes to a close, the chef will roast some vegetables (pumpkin, eggplant, capsicum) and use the offcuts to render fat, then toss bean sprouts. All of that goes really rather well with the steaming bowl of rice, and the miso dipping sauce really shines through with the vegetables...though the pickles might be more of an acquired taste.

To close, as the chef cleans up the hot plate, a steaming cup of Japanese green tea, followed by coffee or black tea. The conversation between the group then turned into something like this:

A: That was so good, but I want to try the other Kobe and Tajima cuts.
B (who holds the wallet): We have enough money to come again tomorrow if you want.
C: Hey that's a great idea! (To me) Ask them if they take reservations!
Me: Hahahaha I'm sure they do... oh wait you're serious about coming again tomorrow?

...And yes, we did end up at Mouriya for lunch again. The next day. Before our evening flight.

What really surprised me on the second visit was the consistency of service and the level of quality. We were offered some cuts that weren't on the menu by the maitre d', an offer we gladly took up. Amazingly, the steaks were even more delicious than the first time, something none of the group had expected at all.

As I was paying the bill, the reason for this became clear. The maitre d' had arranged for the Head Chef, Mr Yamamura, to come in especially for our group. Something none of us had expected, and true sign of excellent hospitality and service. Apart from that, he had also noticed one of our group had some trouble climbing the flights of stairs on the previous day, and arranged for ground floor seating. Honestly, it was attention to detail to a point beyond expectation.

Which is why I would wholeheartedly recommend Mouriya for great Wagyu steaks, and wonderful service too.

Mouriya モーリや
Head Restaurant: Yamanote To-ri 2 Cho-me 1-17, Kobe City, Kyubei Prefecture
(Outside Ikuta Jingu, near Sannomiya Station)

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