In the world of wagyu (marbled Japanese beef), Kobe beef is king. However, the demand for this fabled fatty meat has so far outstripped the supply as to send prices forever skyward. Yet lesser known varieties can be every bit as good as, if not superior to, the more celebrated Kobe cuts.
As with Kobe beef, the Yamagata variety is named after a place, in this case the mostly mountainous prefecture of Yamagata, which abuts the Sea of Japan in the country’s northeastern Tohoku region. But in order to be certified as Yamagata beef, simply being raised in the prefecture isn’t enough. True Yamagata beef can only come from castrated males of the Kuroge Washu (Japanese Black) breed of cattle raised within the prefecture. Luckily, you don’t have to visit Yamagata to eat it.
Opened in 2005, Han no Daidokoro Dogenzaka in Tokyo is the tenth of twelve Kanto-area yaki-niku (grilled meat) restaurants, each with its own specialty and spin, owned by Yokohama-native Yukikazu Nobuta. This particular restaurant specializes in Yamagata beef served in swank and sprawling rooms on the seventh floor of a building in the heart of Shibuya. When we arrived one recent Friday night for a 7:30 p.m. reservation, the hostess led us down a maze of angled corridors to a beautiful private room complete with an ikebana flower arrangement and, more importantly, a gas grill built into the table.
The beauty of a coursed meal of Yamagata beef is surrendering control.
After a quick perusal of the menu, we opted for a mid-priced course of Yamagata beef and hit the call button on the edge of the wide table. A moment later, our server materialized to take our order and we settled back for a preemptive belt loosening.
The first course included a strip of Yamagata beef sashimi to enjoy as the grill heated up. The marbled beef, even raw, was a perfect balance between lean and fat meat, and portended of good things to come. Next came the first cuts of beef for us to cook on the grill to our liking. These could be dipped in one of three sauces: soy sauce, a konbu dashi (broth made from seaweed and katsuobushi, fermented skipjack tuna), and a traditional yaki-niku tare sauce made with soy sauce, sugar, mirin (a type of rice wine), garlic and sesame oil.
All the meat on the table was quickly grilled and gobbled up, but the feast was just getting started. Old hands at yaki-niku, we turned each piece of meat just once on the grill and didn’t let them sit too long. Periodically, our server would enter the room to change out the dirty grill for a clean one. The beauty of a coursed meal of Yamagata beef at Han no Daidokoro Dogenzaka is surrendering control. Each cut of meat is served at a pace determined from many years in the trade. The break after one small course whets the appetite for the next, continually exploiting that greatest of natural spices, hunger itself.
Of course, the kitchen is happy to satisfy should your hunger outpace the rate of consumption. Such was the case after our first bite of the Yamagata ribeye roll, so soft when eaten straight off the grill that the rich flavor melts over the tongue. We ordered seconds of this particular cut, and then thirds.
The meal concluded with a lychee sorbet, and we were startled to see that our epicurean reverie had lasted nearly three hours. Time flies when you’re grilling (and eating) some of the best beef Japan has to offer.