Wagyu ‒ Japanese beef — inspires awe in meat lovers across the world. For those in the know, though, there are three more names that mean even more: Tajima-ushi, Kobe and 511. Add them all together, and you can bet you are sitting down for one serious meal.
Kobe beef is not a breed of cattle, it’s a classification of the quality of meat that is produced by the Tajima cows indigenous to Japan. Four days after the cows are slaughtered, inspectors view the cuts, and if they are up to their exacting standards, they are judged to be “Kobe” beef. There are two scales that further refine this definition, one the grade of meat, which rises to a high of A5, and another that judges fat(sashi in Japanese) content =beef marbling standard from 1 up to 12.
You will rarely see beef grade A5/12. You will rarely eat beef graded A5/12. If a cow produces such a high level of beef that it is graded A5/12, it will rarely leave the inner circle. But you can delight in steaks and more unusual cuts of A5/11, the highest commercially available grade of Kobe beef, anytime you want, here in Tokyo.
511 in Akasaka, by its name alone, makes it clear its purpose. Head chef Michihiko Saito was only 20 years old when he first started working as a butcher in a Kobe restaurant that served both Chinese food and yakiniku. Though he says now that his first love is still the work of cutting, he moved on to become a chef there before
heading to Tokyo to work at the world class Sumiyaki (charcoal grill) Kobe Beef Ikuta in Yoyogi, a sister restaurant of the new 511.
Saito estimates that the amount of possible Kobe-grade beef available at any time is around 10 grams per Kobe city resident and says that the fat of the Tajima-ushi breed of cow, a smaller breed of cow than foreign imports and that is very few in number, is different than the fat of other breeds, containing “good” cholesterol due to the local breed’s pure-bred DNA. The still young chef, who is professionally licensed to bid on Kobe beef, buys whole cows for the restaurant, and 511 goes through an average of one or two cows per month at 400 kg of beef per animal (some of the meat is shared with Sumiyaki Kobe Beef Ikuta in Yoyogi).
Needless to say, charcoal grilled steak — cooked in a brick oven that reaches temperatures of up to 1,000 degreesC– is the house specialty. A high-powered fan is directed at the beef to fire up the charcoal, circulate the heat and give the beef that charcoal flavor. We tried a sirloin seasoned with naught but salt and pepper and served with whipped soy sauce foam and horseradish. Firm but tender, it was a unique Japanese taste experience ‒ perfectly cooked, juicy flesh with visible veins of fat that added pleasantly chewy textures.
Besides the exquisite steaks, 511 has several unusual presentations of beef that mimic other common Japanese dishes. One is a tempura that uses mino ‒ stomache ‒ rather than seafood, with oyster mushrooms and other vegetables. Another is a selection of beef sushi: Haneshita, a cut from the shoulder, thinly sliced and served raw over rice as negiri; roles of kuri, a cut from the upper part of the front legs of the cow, paired with daikon, carrot and avocado; and ka i no me, a small bowl of diced short rib with chilled egg, cucumber, lotus root and seaweed over rice. The Haneshita negiri was tender, melt in your mouth buttery, while the short rib provided a nice contrast with its firmness.
The backers in Akasaka’s 511 wanted to reach out to the local business crowds in the area, so Saito has specially created lunch sets such as sukiyaki. These too are made from wagyu beef, though not the kind that Saito reserves for his specialty dishes (511 steaks and other cuts are available at lunch, but naturally for a higher price than the wagyu sets). The sukiyaki lunch presents a full to the brim bowl of delicate, razor-thin beef, spring onions, shitake and enoki mushrooms, hefty chunks of cabbage and the softest of momen tofu; raw egg on the side completes the flavor of the dish, which comes in a light broth that is much less sweet than your usual sukiyaki blend.
Whether you go for the lunch specials ‒ and really special here means something different than special in any other lunch joint ‒ or for the full deal with their dinner courses that show off the best of what Japan has to offer, 511 is a great place for entertaining out of town visitors with the legendary Japanese take on beef.