Ginza Cobau (コバウ) – Tokyo
Rapel Building, 5F,
Tel: +81 3 5568 5510
(nearest Metro: Ginza
BY NEAL MARTIN | APRIL 5, 2019
Bean sprouts, kimchi and pickled cucumber
beef loin, tongue, sirloin, kuri
(chuck eye) and togarashi (chuck
Umeboshi soup with
Grilled king prawn
shiitake mushrooms, tofu served with raw egg
|2016 Dopff au Moulin Riesling
|2012 Pichon Baron
|1985 Vieux Château Certan
kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?” – Bob Harris (Bill Murray) in Lost
in Translation (2003)
If I could eat only one type of Japanese cuisine for the
rest of my (hopefully long) life, it would be yakiniku (焼肉). Originating from Korea and
popularized in Japan during the 19th century, its literal translation is “grilled
meat.” Those two words sum up everything you need to know, so vegans can stop
reading now. Thousands of yakiniku
restaurants are scattered around Japan, from the tropical islands of Okinawa up
to the snowy tip of Hokkaido. Customers gather around tables equipped with
sunken grills heated by gas-fueled carbonized coals. You choose your set menu,
sling in a few vegetables or noodles in a futile attempt to feel less
carnivorous, and then grill away to your heart’s content. You are the chef.
Let me state for the record that Japanese beef has no equal.
Nothing I have eaten outside Japan approaches the same quality. The thinly sliced
beef is so melt-in-your-mouth tender and flavorsome that you might assume it
comes from a different animal altogether, one that roams around some idyllic
pasture in heaven. Allow me to explain why.
You have probably seen wagyu
(和牛肉) on many menus. It translates
as “Japanese cow,” which doesn’t sound quite as tasty. Wagyu comes from four breeds of cattle: Japanese Black (which
comprises 90% of the bovine population), Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled and
Japanese Shorthorn. High fat content gives wagyu
its famous and distinctive marbling, and it’s the result of centuries of breeding
cattle to toil through rice paddies (picture those poor Japanese cows struggling
to extricate hooves from glutinous terrain while their Occidental cousins mooch
about blissfully chewing the cud). Generations of working under demanding
conditions increased the animals’ intermuscular fat cells so that Japan
unwittingly bred the most delicious beef known to humankind. Gustatory virtues
apart, wagyu is healthier in terms of
both its monounsaturated-to-saturated fat ratio and also the kind of fat it contains, which is higher
in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and has less effect on cholesterol levels.
Yukhoe, pictured here, is usually eaten raw.
Each region, or prefecture, has tended to isolate its own
strain of cattle, but Kobe is the best-known – and the most misappropriated. It
has become a generic term to inveigle customers into paying more for ordinary
beef. In any case, the best wagyu arguably
comes from further south, around Miyazaki, since this prefecture tends to perform
better in domestic competitions. And while we’re here, disabuse yourself of the
notion that across Japan’s countryside, farmers massage their cattle more than wine
critics massage their scores. Mollycoddled cows suckled on the finest beer or
saké? No doubt a tiny handful of caring farmers have given the odd shoulder rub
to relieve stress, but really the pampering is a myth, which probably is why The Times rehashed this fallacy the weekend
before I filed this piece. The Japanese have an alphanumerical system to classify
quality of wagyu, the highest being A5
and the lowest C3, though it is rarely mentioned on a menu unless it is A5. The
letter refers to the yield grade – basically the proportion of meat obtained
from that part of the cow, “A” being the highest. The number signifies the
level from one to a maximum five in terms of marbling known as sashi, the brightness/color texture and
the quality of fat. To rate an A5, the meat must score a five in all categories,
otherwise it is downgraded to four or even lower.
You may well have eaten wagyu
outside Japan, from herds in Australia, the US and the UK. However, it is not
the same as domestic Japanese wagyu because
hardly any non-Japanese herds are purebred. Since government export bans were lifted
in 1997, you can import a couple of Japanese bulls, allow them to have their
wicked way with your herd and then baptize all the calves “Wagyu.” It is slightly
deceiving but legal, ergo the proliferation of Kobe burgers. Scrupulous
breeders will be selective so that their meat has some verisimilitude to genuine
wagyu; however, in my experience,
there is always a tangible difference, not so much in flavor, but rather in texture
and hardness of fat, and most definitely umami. Wagyu is huge business because of worldwide demand and the premium
it commands overseas. Testifying to how far some people will go to obtain wagyu, the aforementioned Times article concerned a Japanese man illegally
smuggling a container of fertilized wagyu
eggs into Shanghai. He was caught, but many must make it through undetected.
Beef loin served on bread. Even the bread is utterly delicious.
So, you have traveled far to reach magical Japan. Given
everything I have written so far, should you demand the finest A5 wagyu? In my experience, unlike sushi or
sashimi restaurants, you can dine at some of Tokyo’s best yakiniku restaurants without the eye-watering prices demanded by celebrity
sushi chefs glowering from behind their counter during a 19-course meal suffered
in holy silence. Even at entry-level yakiniku
restaurants, I find that the quality of wagyu
starts at a high base, simply because so much Japanese beef totally rocks,
notwithstanding that yakiniku
obviates the need for a skilled chef; there is no feckless trainee turning your
sirloin into ash in the kitchen. You can pay less if you wish. Personally, I
find a sweet spot at around ¥8,000 to ¥12,000 per person (between $70 and $110)
for a multi-course set meal where your taste buds will confirm that you are
experiencing well-bred wagyu without selling your priceless Pokémon card to pay
the bill. There are different ways of cooking the meat – for example, boiled,
as in shabu shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ), or in sukiyaki (すき焼き),
where it is part of a stew. In my opinion, yakiniku
is the purest form, though menus like the one I chose at Cobau incorporate both
shabu shabu and sukiyaki.
On Vinous Table, I will introduce two yakiniku restaurants from the vast ocean of thousands. Of the two, Cobau
Ginza, the subject of this article, is more straightforward in style and one of
the few accepting corkage, while Yakiniku Futugo shows more culinary flair. Cobau
is my go-to yakiniku restaurant in
Ginza. Restaurants in this salubrious part of Tokyo can be jaw-droppingly
expensive, but Cobau is reasonably priced for its quality. Like many Tokyo restaurants,
it is almost impossible to locate, since this metropolis gets by without street
names, and innumerable establishments are hidden up on the nth floor of nondescript buildings. Plan ahead to get your bearings
according to Ginza’s retailers and work out the correct block first - finding
it is part of the fun.
Kuri and togarashi cuts, left and right, respectively.
Cobau is a basic-looking restaurant with separate rooms for
individual parties, each with a buzzer to call your young server. This is Japan
and therefore service will be impeccable. We opted for the mid-price set menu at
¥8,500 per person, though you can spend more for additional courses. I am not
going to break down the anatomy of every dish because there is no point. You
are basically on a gustatory tour of a cow, although I find it best to
interpolate courses with non-beef dishes.
We freshened our palates with starters of kimchi and pickled
cucumber and opted for some stunning king prawns. The first course was eaten
raw. Yukhoe is basically Korean steak
tartare seasoned with black pepper and sesame. It is sometimes served with egg
yolk, although here it was just dipped in a light soy sauce.
The exceptional beef loin was served on bread with egg yolk.
Cobau Sukiyaki with shiitake mushrooms, tofu served with raw egg.
Kuri is a lean cut
from between the shoulder and the upper part of the foreleg, usually a little
tougher than togarashi. It features particularly
intense umami, so we were advised to cook it rare. Togarashi is a rare cut of beef taken from near the shoulder blades,
above the front legs. It is named after a chili pepper (because the shape of
the cut can look similar) and renowned for its juiciness and intense umami.
As I mentioned, I chose this set menu because it included shabu shabu and sukiyaki courses. The waiter simply reorganized the table so that
the grill was replaced by boiling water. The sukiyaki, pictured below, was served the traditional way, with tofu
and shiitake mushrooms, and was an absolute joy. After it was cooked, the meat
was again dipped in egg yolk.
Cobau beef with egg.
The shortcoming of many yakiniku
restaurants is the tendency of their wine lists to be brief, conservative and
expensive. Cobau has a decent array of Bordeaux, including one or two First
Growths. Fortunately, they accept corkage, but out of courtesy I ordered a
bottle from the list. The 2016 Riesling from Dopff au Moulin is a
satisfying entry-level Alsace from this well-known producer. It delivers refreshing
pineapple and lemon curd on a nose that is not too blowsy; the palate is clean
and fresh, offering ample passion fruit and grapefruit notes, and lightly
honeyed on the finish. A well-made quaffing Riesling – commercial, but sound.
The 2012 Pichon Baron
is a magnificent wine that exudes freshness on the nose, with razor-sharp
graphite notes suffusing the black fruit. The structured, linear palate just
“sings” Pauillac; it is not as bold or as ambitious as the 2009 or 2015, yet
there is perfect dryness toward the finish that urges you to take another sip.
Granted, it is far too soon to broach this wine – I just couldn’t help myself.
The 1985 Vieux Château Certan is
perhaps nearing the end of its drinking plateau. The mellow, loam-scented nose
is a little loose-knit, and perhaps it can be seen as a lesser version of the
1989. I want more intensity, but make do with gravel and dried blood aromas that
develop with aeration. This is not a deep or powerful Pomerol, but it conveys a
sense of warmth, with a hint of black truffle on the finish and melted tannins.
The 1985 is perfect to drink now, I would not be inclined to keep it too much
I hope this Vinous Table has enlightened readers about yakiniku and wagyu. In a companion piece, I visit another yakiniku restaurant, this one with a bit more theatre.