All the Best Nasty Bits Rolled Into One
Riddle: What do you get when you combine the inventiveness of Momofuku, the atmosphere of Sammy's Roumanian, the quality of Minetta Tavern, and the nose-to-tail culinary philosophy of Fergus Henderson?
Answer: Takashi, a Yakaniku restaurant on Hudson Street in New York City.
Takashi Inoue is the chef-owner who is very much the product of his mixed cultural upbringing. A self-described Korean immigrant born and bred in Osaka, Japan, he has soaked up the meticulousness of Japanese cuisine via his Korean-born grandmother, who runs a similar restaurant in Osaka, while embracing the current New York City renaissance of meat purveyors. The restaurant's mission is to combine traditional Korean grilling methods, yakaniku, with the richest locally available Japanese-inspired beef (ex. Wagyu) sourced from the current dream team of the city's meat purveyors — La Frieda, Japanese Premium Beef, and Dickson's Farmstead Meats. Like Hakata Tonton on Grove Street, which glorifies the varieties of ways to consume tonsoku — Japanese pig's feet — Takashi glorifies the cow. Every single inch.
When you walk in to put your name on the list (expect at least an hour's wait now that Bourdain declared this his ultimate date night restaurant on the recent New York City episode of The Layover), you're greeted by a little Japanese glass fridge holding traditional glass milk bottles used now to chill water for the tables. This subtle nod to the cow is unnecessary, as you are handed a menu of beef, beef, and nothing but the beef. If there is such a place as Vegetarian Hell, you've just entered it. Each tabletop and seat at the bar has above it, extending down from the ceiling, what appears to be the periscope from a nuclear submarine above a metal grill in the table, topping heating rods.
Start out with the special cooked appetizer of schmaltz crostini. Any Japanese-Korean chef who puts "schmaltz" on the menu is worth paying attention to. This schmaltz, of course, is not chicken fat, but beef fat, melted atop some toasted whole-grain bread (note to Takashi: rye bread would be better) with truffle oil and wasabi greens to cut the fattiness. The cold appetizers are the pinnacle of Korean and Japanese small bites. The yook here is still erroneously labeled by every food critic as steak tartare, but we know Korean yook hwe when we taste thickly shredded raw meat — in this case redder than red chuck eye, garnished with sesame seeds and quail egg — and it's vastly superior to any standard French steak tartare. Then, Takashi seeks to overthrow Michael White's uni crostini con lardo from Marea as the town's most decadent uni surf-and-turf dish with the niku-uni. Here, four pieces of luscious uni are perched on top of raw wagyu beef sashimi, which itself rests on a bed of shiso leaf and sweet seaweed. Gently fold the nori and shiso around the beef, enveloping the uni, dip in soy sauce, pop it in your mouth and, thankfully, repeat.
Now it's time for some horumon — literally the discarded pieces, the nasty bits, the offal. The heating rods in the grill began to glow orange and I worried that the 800-degree heat was going to singe my eyebrows. Then I restrained myself from yelling "Dive! Dive! Dive!" as the helpful waiter pulls down my periscope, which I finally learned is a telescoping exhaust hood made only in Japan. Now, what to choose? Achilles' tendon? Liver? Clearly, Takashi's wry, tongue-in-cheek humor is infectious, as I picked a selection called, naturally, "The Tongue Experience" — a variety of cow tongue consisting of the tender tips, the meaty center, and finally, the sinewy back of the tongue. Can't order that at Katz's. The raw meat is pristine and each part of the tongue has a completely different texture and requires a slightly different cooking time, since we're now in the DIY phase of the meal. Metal tongs allow you to work the meat on the grill, which is now super hot and which is designed to replicate a charcoal heat source without the negative environmental effects. Clever. The tongue was marinated in a garlic sauce and you are given a little pyramid of hot chiles combined with dried shrimp, fish sauce (perhaps), and other ingredients that my palate could not discern. A salad of scallion vinaigrette with soy sauce perfectly complements the grilled meat.
Keeping up with the tongue-in-cheek attitude, I ordered the beef cheeks to follow, which are sliced paper thin and require only seconds on the grill as compared to my final dish of lardaceous beef belly, which had to cook well over a minute to allow for some fat tenderizing. Each piece is dipped in Takashi's secret sesame sauce.
So the next time someone asks you "Where's the beef?," the answer must immediately be "Takashi."