What better way to return from an impromptu and rather long hiatus than with a big beefy bang! The end of July is approaching and I must say I’ve had some rather fantastic, one for the history books kind of meals in the past 30 days or so. This includes our dinner at Wadakin in Matsusaka, Mie, at the beginning of the month to celebrate Amos’ birthday.
Funny thing is, early in the year we had borrowed a book of handdrawn maps from the National Library which we first saw in San Francisco but could not bear to purchase (it’s beautiful, but also costs a pretty USD 60 or so). Spread across two pages was a lovely portrait of Japan, adorably illustrated with everything that glows under the rising sun – temples, shrines, kimono, momiji, sakura…you get the drift. We had a little laugh that the next trip would have to be a beef focused food trail, considering how we’d already covered so many of the other must-sees during my year abroad there…all I can say is, be careful what you wish for!
Matsusaka is a tiny town approximately 1.5 hours drive from Nagoya. We stayed overnight near the train station, Amos exhausted by the day’s drive since we’d started out from the Kiso Valley, which was pretty far north east. This rather large detour and extreme expense of effort for what is reputedly the best wagyu in the whole of Japan…! So much so that barely any of it is exported, and that which is is priced quite exorbitantly. Needless to say we were pretty psyched despite the fatigue – perhaps there was some undercurrent of reverence that we were in the hometown of black-haired cows which drank beer and received daily massages to maintain their status as some of the world’s prized cattle.
As far as birthday dinners go, Wadakin is really a treat. It starts from the fact that all their (award winning) beef is supplied by their eponymous farm, to the restaurant which occupies an 7-storey building that leans more towards a hotel or day spa. Two male staff were waiting outside, looking anxiously out for us as the time of our reservation approached. Inside, an elegant kimono clad hostess invites you to don slippers, with which you obediently shuffle behind her across a maroon and gold carpeted lobby to a lift, poised to whisk you to one of the many private banqueting rooms which line the upper floors of the building.
Depending on what you order, the entire layout and table setting of the room varies. We were first seated in a sukiyaki-only room, but upon learning that we wished to try their yoshoku as well, were asked to change to a larger room with tables and chairs to accomodate the plates upon which the steak would be served. (For sukiyaki-only meals, the meat is cooked over the dying embers of charcoal placed in a well in the middle of a low round table, and served in little bowls of raw egg. When we moved to the larger room, this was done over a portable charcoal well placed at the side of our table.) I guess it’s not often that steaks are requested; Wadakin’s sukiyaki is their house specialty and basically everyone who comes here orders it. I don’t blame them because it is DIVINE.
I repeat: DIVINE. I think I’ve been spoiled for life when it comes to sukiyaki! And it’s not the meat alone really, but the combination of the soya sauce, salt, and raw egg. I’m obviously not going to be able to get my hands on their house-brewed shoyu, and neither am I going to be able to describe its taste successfully enough. As the hostess rained salt all over the gently curling slices of beef, I couldn’t help but think that I was going to need a lot more glasses of water, but the salt cover appeared to have the greater function of keeping a greater amount of moisture in such that the meat wouldn’t dry out too fast. Of course, one would be hard-pressed to find any other country in which one would be comfortable enough to eat eggs raw, even if apparently cooked a little through the residual heat emitting from the meat.
These elements combine to leave a wonderfully hearty, rounded flavour on the palate – a fine balance between sweet and salty, with an intense beef flavour brought out by the smoking charcoal. Amidst all this, the beef retained its star power: an incredibly silky, melt in your mouth texture without being too cloying given its fat content, nor too chewy or stiff as thin cooked beef is wont to be. But what really stood out for me was how sukiyaki came across as so traditional, yet so refined. I could easily imagine this as a communal dish on a winter’s night, haphazardly throwing thin slices of beef onto a hotpot, not quite intentionally but with an exuberance propelled by one too many pints of beer. It’s a lovely experience, either way.
We also opted to have our rice course changed to their new dish – grilled beef ochazuke! I must confess that this is my first ever ochazuke, having always been adverse to whole rice grains swimming in my soup (here’s looking at you, teochew porridge). But it’s not quite the same when, instead of being clashing textures, the tea-soup instead brings out the amazing umami-ness of the grilled beef slices, now melded with the seasoning of the rice. Slices of sweet tamogoyaki add a refreshing flavour contrast. Love.
It’s not all beef, though – a course here includes appetizers, grilled vegetables along with your beef main, a carbohydrate, as well as a dessert to round off. Our sukiyaki course ended in grilled mochi with adzuki paste, and two slices of ridiculously sweet melons. I’d like to think they were the close relatives of those 16 000yen ones you see in the depachikas, because that would be absolutely worth it. The steak course closed with a beautifully wobbly raspberry and rose jelly, which quickly brings to mind Pierre Herme’s ispahan combination. I wonder which came first…
I think this is one of the longest posts I’ve done. And well worth my time, this being one of the best meals I’ve had yet, with one of the loveliest souls I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of meeting. Happy birthday Amos! Here’s to many more marvelous munching memories we’ll make together.