As I wrote in my previous Kobe Beef post, I spent various hours researching which restaurant was most ideal to enjoy the finest Kobe-beef. I ultimately narrowed down a list of countless restaurants to two. Since I couldn’t decide between the two, I went to both. I’m glad I did as each provided very difference experiences but with the same, excellent quality of beef. Both steaks made me believe that Kobe-beef really is the holy grail of beef.
New York Grill in Park Hyatt
I dismissed the New York Grill from the very beginning. I had immediately deemed it ‘too touristy’ and thought the foreign conglomerate would not do the beef justice since Kobe-beef is native to Japan. Worse, that they would provide a very Westernized experience instead of a Japanese one. Ultimately, it kept coming up in various articles over and over for its signature Kobe-beef Sirloin. Naturally, I had to go.
I headed to the 52nd floor of the building with incredibly high expectations, not just because of what I was going to be charged, but I had already gone to Kobe Beef Kaiseki 511 and it had been the perfect Japanese experience with the best steak I’ve had in my life. Once you arrive at the 41st floor—there’s no direct elevator to the 52nd—you’re greeted by large open windows and given my 6:30pm reservations, I witnessed an incredible sunset overlooking Tokyo.
The ambiance of the hotel immediately seduced me.
When I sat down and looked at the menu, it primarily had French-inspired dishes. It didn’t seem very Japanese to me but I couldn’t say no to some fried duck-fat French fries to go with my 180 gram Kobe-beef sirloin. To start the meal, I went with a yummy crab cake and a perfectly balanced gin based cocktail using Monkey 47, my favorite.
It’s the most I’ve paid for a steak that small, but it was amazing and I’m glad I had it. It didn’t feel too fatty like the one I had before in Singapore and loved every piece of it. I even tried cutting it with the fork and after a few tries, it actually worked! The hype and accolades were justified and the steak with the rest of the meal did not disappoint, despite the price of admission.
The food was amazing, service impeccable and the ambiance was perfect. Add the views of a Tokyo skyline with foot-to-ceiling windows and you know why it costs that much. But aside from the Kobe-beef sirloin, I’ve had all of that before elsewhere. It didn’t feel like a Japanese experience. I could’ve been anywhere in the world. It didn’t feel like I was in Japan. Even the staff was a mix of Japanese with other nationalities so it was actually hard to feel like I was in Japan. I suppose I could’ve let the skyline remind me of where I was but from my seating point, there was no distinctive building or structure to differentiate the skyline once it got dark. It could’ve been any city.
I think my other issue was that they only offered one Kobe-beef steak dish and everything else was your standard non-Asian fancy restaurant fare. Yes, there were Japanese-esque dishes, but fusion food was not what I was looking for. And yes, I knew beforehand it wasn’t going to be a traditional Japanese experience, but I had to take the chance to try their lauded Kobe-beef steak even if it meant sacrificing the Japanese experience for a western one. I just didn’t think it would matter that much to me.
The New York Grill did nothing wrong, they did a lot right, actually, but it all came with a high price to match. I can easily recommend New York Grill as a great dining experience with delicious food and gorgeous ambiance. Yes, it was worth it, but only as long as that’s the experience you’re looking for.
But for a true Japanese Kobe experience…
Kobe Beef Kaiseki 511
I didn’t know what to expect besides the best steak I will ever eat, no small feat. They exceeded my expectations in terms of service, ambiance, food and of course, quality of the Kobe-beef. A pleasant surprise was that the entire meal cost less than what I paid just for the steak at the Hyatt. It’s not that I liked 511 better than New York Grill because it cost so much less, no. It’s because it was a Japanese experience through and through. The food showcased a lot of Japanese flavors but all centered around Kobe-beef. For someone demanding to learn and experience Kobe-beef as well as Japanese cuisines in general, it was perfect. It was an incredible value. A place I recommend without any caveat. Well, unless you’re vegetarian. 🙂
The restaurant is in the basement of a building but it’s hardly a “whole on the wall.” It looks fancy from the outside as well as the inside. It has minimalist decor, with subtle Japanese cues. The staff is completely Japanese and I got the impression that no one spoke English, save for the server attending all the English speaking tables.
Kobe Beef Kaiseki 511 specializes in Kobe-beef and in the Kaiseki dinning experience. It was a perfect match. A Kaiseki dinner is a traditional Japanese dinning experience where you’re presented with various small dishes showcasing traditional Japanese cuisine and cooking techniques. Their recommendation is the Complete Kobe-beef Course where all dishes, aside from desert, have Kobe-beef in them. “Yes, please!”
Stewed Bamboo Shoot and Grilled Kobe-beef
The beef here while amazingly soft, it didn’t really surpass my expectations. It was cut so thin that it was hard to tell if it was Kobe or just very good beef. But I think that the point was to not overpower the dish with beef flavor. Instead, the star of this dish was the sweet soy sauce that bathed all of the components of the dish such as the bamboo and the beans.
Although this was a very fun plate to eat, as you go from one little dish to another and back, it was my least favorite of the evening. Still, I appreciate its presence as it showed cased many different Japanese flavors in one go.
Clam and steamed seafood in dashi
When the plate is brought to the table, it is brought with a lid, keeping the wonderful aromas for you to enjoy upon opening the small bowl. Your first thought is “where’s the Kobe!” But it is found underneath the clam and wrapped in a soft bun. I’m not a miso soup connosseur, but I’ve had my share of them and this is the best I’ve ever had. It was very rich in flavor and yet so clear.
Seasonal vegetables, fish and Kobe-beef tempura
I was afraid to see a tempura dish with Kobe-beef. It doesn’t really make sense. Why would you deep fry expensive and delicate Kobe-beef!? Monsters! Alas, this was definitely a standout dish and one I didn’t want to finish. It was served with two ways of enjoying it: 1) a special soy sauce marinade or 2) salt and lemon. It was fun to try out the combinations but quickly, the salt and lemon were the clear winners. The beef was still very delicate and full of flavor and its tenderness and temperature indicated it was still medium rare despite the deep frying. The vegetable in the same skewer as the Kobe-beef was remarkable but unfortunately, and although I asked what it was, I don’t remember what they said. All I remember is that it’s in season in April 🙂
An extremely simple dish. Just the meat and a little rice. Sushi! The best part? The right piece of sushi on the plate was beef cheeks and the left… beef tongue! It was explained during the introduction of the dish that the Japanese love beef tongue and this was a way to show that to guests. Little did they know I love it as well! Kobe-beef tongue is extremely rare to come by and they were very proud to be serving it that evening. I was honored and supremely happy to experience it as I actually didn’t expect to have it at all during my visit to Japan.
Flame-baked Kobe-beef steak
The star of the show and the best damn steak I’ve ever had in my life. It’s hard to explain why it’s so good but I’ll try with a mango.
I’ve tried many mangos in my life but it wasn’t until I travelled to India and had an Alphonso Mango that I truly knew what a mango really tasted like. Upon my first bite of an Alphonso Mango, something clicked. It was as though every mango I ever had until that point, had been imitations. I felt: this is how a mango is supposed to taste. I haven’t had a mango that good since I was in India.
It was the same experience with this piece of Kobe-beef. It was so rich in flavor, so tender and buttery smooth that on that first bite it felt like this is what steak should taste like. It is like in the movie Ratatouille, when the nasty critic tastes the titular dish and his thoughts take him to the moment when his mom had served it to him? It’s like that except I didn’t have a vision of a moment in my childhood but rather all of the steaks I’ve had that I thought had been the best ever, were now reduced to an imitation of the real thing.
There was a very smart thing I thought the chef with the dish, and that’s pair it with a soy sauce foam. Not only does it cement the dish as containing Japanese flavors (by contrast, in Hyatt I was offered red-wine or bernaise sauces. WTF), but since it’s in foam form, it was so much fun putting it on the steak. Once in top of the beef, the foam would disappear before your eyes leaving a delicate taste of soy sauce on the steak. It was a wonderful compliment to the beef. So much that I actually preferred to eat the beef with the foam than without.
Green tea Soba noodles
At first I thought it was an odd choice to follow the beef with noodles but the more I thought about it, it made sense. All of the portions prior were quiet small and this is their way of saying: let’s get you full! This usually upsets me when restaurant do this, but given the price of admission and what I had experienced thus far, I actually appreciated it. They were good noodles and again, yet another showcase of Japanese flavors.
Dessert: Traditional red bean paste, custard and melon
Rounding out the traditional Japanese Kaiseki dinner were the red beans and curd combination. It’s barely sweet – with most of the sweetness coming from the melon. It was not fully satisfying for a sweet tooth aficionado like myself, but a nice way to close out the Japanese Kobe Experience.
Upon the completion of dinner, the chef came to my table. He wanted to meet who it was that had enjoyed his dinner so much and say thanks. The server explained to me that she had observed the faces I was making and how carefully I was savoring each bite. She had shared those observations with the chef and he wanted to come out and thank me. She then went on to explain that they were very happy to see someone enjoy their food so much. It was unfortunate that sometimes people were disappointed with Kobe-beef given their sometimes unrealistic expectations and the logistics of the quality within the Kobe range available on a given night. Sometimes the quality of the Kobe-beef available is not of the highest grade possible and can be too fatty. However, that night, I was lucky as the beef they had available was of the highest grade possible. Yes!
Given that there’s only about three thousand Kobe-beef cattle per year, I can see why the beef can be a hit or miss on evening you go to have it. At Kobe Beef Kaiseki 511, they try very hard to fulfill the promise made by their namesake: 511. Those three numbers refer to the highest possible grade of Kobe-beef: A5 is the highest quality of Wagyu beef possible and 11 is the most desired level of marbleization in Kobe-beef. I was told by the server that the beef I had was either A5-10 or A5-11. All I know it was the best steak I’ve ever had.
I was the last one to leave the restaurant that evening and never felt rushed. I was even granted a picture with the chef while they were all very busy cleaning the kitchen.
The server walked me all the way up to the first floor personally, and said goodbye with a full 45 degree bow. A sign of great respect. In a playful fashion, I waited for her to finish so that I could bow in turn. As expected, she bowed again as to show greater respect; ensuring she was the one that bowed last. I couldn’t resist, so I smiled and bowed again just to see if she would bow one more time. I felt like an ass, but my smile didn’t get lost in translation as she smiled back, bowing yet again.