July 15, 2009 (afternoon)
On the same day that we visited the castle in Himeji, we continued back east and visited Kobe.
We came to Kobe for one reason – to try the famous Kobe Steak, which is widely regarded as the best beef in the world.
You can get “Kobe-style” beef in America, but it’s expensive and it’s not the real thing, so I was looking forward to having an authentic Kobe steak in the city of Kobe. Pnina didn’t care about it all that much (she generally prefers vegetables to beef), but she came along anyhow.
From what we read, Kobe beef is expensive even if you go to the source, but you can get by a little cheaper if you stop by for lunch instead of dinner. We were cutting it a little close because we had to wait nearly an hour for the train in Himeji (which is, like, unheard-of with Japan’s excellent train system). Also, it took us a while to figure out which restaurant to try. We got a few suggestions from the tourist information office by the Kobe train station, but when we arrived at these restaurants we found that they had just stopped serving lunch ten minutes ago (nuts!!). So we quickly looked around and rushed into the first restaurant we found that was still open for lunch: a place on Ikuta Street called Royal Mopя. It sounds like a bad name (“mopper”??) but this is actually a Russian-owned place (as you may have guessed by the Cyrillic R) so the actual pronunciation is “Royal Mouriya”, kind of like the mines of Moria in Lord of the Rings. If the fact that we ate Kobe steak at a Russian restaurant makes you wonder whether we actually tasted the real thing….yeah, it makes us wonder that too. But, whatever, it was an excellent meal.
Ikuta Road, where we stepped into Royal Mopя for our Kobe steak lunch:
Before arriving in Kobe, I’d heard a lot of stories about Kobe beef, like that that the cows are fed beer and given massages in order to make their meat as tender as possible. According to our guide book, and to the folks at Royal Mouriya, these are myths. The cows are fed various grains which are also used in beer-making, so perhaps that’s the source of the myth. But the beef is definitely high-quality and it has to meet a lot of strict criteria in order to use the brand name “Kobe Beef”: the cows must be from a particular blood line (Tajima cows), must be raised in Hyogo prefecture for many generations, and the beef must have a BMS (fat hybridization) value of 6 or more.
Our menu basically offered two choices:
- Actual Kobe Beef – the real thing, for about 10,000 yen ($100).
- Mouriya’s Special Selection – cows that come from a “cousin” bloodline to the real Kobe Tajima cows, and are raised in exactly the same way in a ranch in Yabu city. These go for 5,000 yen ($50).
We decided we take one of each. Was the actual Kobe beef any better? Could we even tell the difference? In my opinion they were too similar to tell much of a difference. Pnina’s palette is more subtle, so she could tell the difference and she says that, yes, the real Kobe beef is better. But she doesn’t think it’s worth paying this much for either of them 🙂
I’d heard that Kobe Beef steak is surprisingly small, that when you get it you think “I’m paying all that money for this little thing??” But I also heard that after you take a bite and understand how rich the steak is, you realize that even the tiny cut you got is more than you can handle. Well, the steak we got wasn’t very large (about 130 grams) but the surprising thing about it was that it was very flat; it was only a quarter of an inch thick, but it had huge surface area.
The steaks that Pnina and I ate – one was actual Kobe Beef and the other was Mouriya’s Kobe-like beef (I forgot which was which):
We sat at a bar and had our own personal chef cooking our food on a hibachi plate, right in front of us. The chef began by doing some fancy knife work to extract all fat out of the steaks. He then used these fatty chunks as “cooking oil”, first to grill the vegetables that were served on the side, and then to cook the beef itself. He cut the steak into bite-size pieces and cooked each piece individually, making sure to grill it on all sides, before serving it and moving onto the next piece. That was probably the best part about our Kobe steak experience – the meat couldn’t have been served any fresher. We ate some of these steak pieces as they are, some with salt-and-pepper, and some dipped in a really wonderful sauce made of soy and lemon.
Soup for appetizer:
And salad and bread. So far everything is tasty and served on immaculate china:
Our chef goes to work cooking the fatty pieces in preparation for grilling other things on them:
No photos of the cooked steak here – we were too busy enjoying them 🙂
A nice cup of coffee and some sorbet to finish the meal:
So was the meal worth the money? Yes, in the sense that it filled my curiosity to see what Kobe beef is really all about. Also, it was clearly a good steak, and it was easily the best service I’ve seen at a steak restaurant. But in my opinion the fillet mignon at Ruth’s Chris is just as good (partly because it’s also served very fresh on a hot plate), and it doesn’t cost nearly as much (especially once you factor the whole flight-to-Japan part into it).