Whether in Kobe for hours, days or years you simply cannot leave without sampling the city's most famed product. I am, of course, talking about Kobe beef. The mere sound of it conjures up images of opulence and exclusivity. As 'true' Kobe beef is not exported from Japan, it is imperative to taste the marbled meat in its home country - where better than its namesake city? Arrive at Sannomiya in central Kobe and you see signs galore for steak restaurants, including a range of budget options. However, if you want to sample it without any gimmicks in a refined environment, Wakkoqu is the place for you.
Well established in Kobe, Wakkoqu has two branches; one in the European-influenced area of Kitano, the other by Shin-Kobe station, perfect for a quick lunch before hopping on the bullet train for an adventure. The Kitano branch has simple charm; wood panelling and mood lighting create a relaxed, luxurious atmosphere where tourists and businessmen quietly rub shoulders, engrossed in their meals.
Seated in front of a pristine steel cooking surface, you become the audience for a superb cooking demonstration, but don't worry: Wakkoqu isn't about juggling utensils or flaming your meat and eyebrows in one. No, this restaurant celebrates the chefs' prodigious skills without turning them into performing monkeys. Here, it is all about quality. Once you have chosen which cut of beef to devour, you can relax and enjoy a master at work.
It begins with the garlic. Never say no to the garlic. Tiny slivers of flavour are placed methodically on the cooking surface then transformed into golden brown crisps of beauty. By this point you are salivating, so it's high time to dig into the starter, a light something to keep your stomach from grumbling, while the chef continues his travail.
As the chef shaves fat from the slab of beef, the course meal continues with a light soup and salad - but you could be eating sawdust and you wouldn't notice, the meat preparation is that engrossing. With understated ceremony your chef caresses the hunk of hand-reared, beer-fed, sake-massaged beef (doesn't that sound like the life!) with knife and spatula, searing it to seal in the juices. Beef cooked to your preference is delivered in bite size morsels with a recommendation of what condiments to try with each mouthful. Choose from Japanese rock salt, black pepper, mustard, garlic chips, soy sauce and a special vinegar. My personal favourite was mixing garlic with salt, but mustard with soy was a delicious new discovery.
And how to describe the meat itself? It would be a cop-out to say indescribable. But how to express the feeling of meat melting on your tongue? The delicate nuances of flavour as the beef becomes increasingly fatty...the desire to chew for another wave of taste only to discover it has already dissolved away. Your taste buds will sing in ecstasy as each soupçon arrives for your delectation. It will be a quiet meal, interspersed only with sighs of rapture.
Meat is definitely the main event, but the dedicated chefs pay no little attention to the sides. Vegetables and tofu all receive the same loving treatment, cooked in steak juices. Nothing goes to waste and the smallest pieces of meat and fat are crisped up with garlic to make a delicious rice dish or a bean sprout mess to truly get your money's worth.
With lunch sets starting at ¥3280 and dinners from ¥7800, it's certainly no cheap date, but the Kobe steak experience is a far cry from the rushed dining of a noodle restaurant or standing bar, and essential for any culinary aficionado or carnivore.