Saturday, January 8, 2011

Kotora, Sendai (仔虎)

So you go up to Sendai, and what's it famous for? Well, of course there's Matsushima Bay, but after half a day of getting up there, poking around, and getting back, you're left with plenty of time. The other thing that's famous in Sendai is beef. Specifically, beef tongue. Now, you can get tongue in any barbeque place in Japan. It's really a staple, especially something like 'tongue with salt and onions', which fries up a treat, and is less gross than foreign viewers may be thinking. But it's not a luxury item.

At Kotora, it's a luxury item. Oh yes. Located in the newish, stylish Herbs building across from the station, Kotora is Tabelog's #1 recommendation for yakiniku in Sendai. And there we were.

For some reason they seemed apologetic about seating us at the counter. It's a mystery to me why anyone would want to sit at the interior booths, or the private rooms, when they could have a nice view out to the station and the city. The cooking is done on gas, too bad, but I only got a whiff of it once or twice. The menu is your basic yakiniku-Korean thing.

Which is why we had a kimchee assortment to go with our starters. The cabbage was quite good here, and you should also note that the squiggly bit in the right-hand toshi dish is fancy beef, boiled up. I can't remember what the shumai-looking thing on the far left was - maybe spiced-up potato salad - but I remember thinking I should make it at home. If only I could figure out where to buy spiced-up potatoes.

You can't avoid beef here (and you'd be silly to be in this restaurant and not want to eat a lot of beef). If you get a salad, it'll have beef. The pink bits (and I use that term advisedly) are raw beef, just a smidgen to get you started.

Because you'll quickly slam into the main event!!! We got one plate like the front section here (rosu) and then had to get another serving because it was so mind-blowing. That, too, I say advisedly. I've had some pretty good beef, but this was right up there. (Actually my favorite beef to date has been a Sendai steak bought from my local butcher and grilled at home; all the beef here is Yonezawa, from just over the mountains, more or less the same.) The stuff in the back is kalbi, I believe, and I'm still not going to trouble to learn where that is (although I was interested when someone and I managed to piece together through our combined linguistic skills that halami is in fact onglet or hanger steak). Something quite nice about this place - it's very fancy, but it serves all levels. For the main cuts of meat, you can choose plates with the same volume but different quality levels, priced at roughly Y800, Y1800 or Y3000+

With that, a hush fell over the restaurant, because we went the whole hog...the whole cow, rather. The whole cow tongue, rather. More appropriately, five slices of cow tongue. Priced at very nearly $7 each at today's exchange rate.

This photo almost looks spotlit, doesn't it? It was probably just me that had my heart in my throat over ordering this. Actually I was advocating a plate of the other cuts at this quality level, just to see...but I was sensibly reined in.

[Insert joke like 'heart in throat, tongue in mouth' here]

There it is, folks. Sendai's famous item, famous restaurant, best quality, best single slice. If you were ever going to eat a piece of barbequed cow tongue and love it, this would be the one. Right here.

I was taken aback by the thickness of these slices. Usually when you get tongue it's a bigger plate with much thinner slices, and they still get chewy when grilled. But we grilled up one each and they were...

Right there, baby!

Part of this is textural, and if you've ever bit your tongue you know something like the texture of cow tongue - firm but spongy. In this case, in the most delightful way. With the perfect taste of beef and marbled fat.

I'm close to breaking my own rule about describing the taste of things. So I'll stop there. But don't let that stop you. You could make a pleasant evening out of Kotora without breaking the bank; the lower price levels are just like going to Gyu-kaku or your favorite chain, and I'd like to hope the quality is all different.

And when I say different, I sure as hell don't mean bad. That ain't my bag, man.

After dinner, how about a pleasant ride up the elevator to the free outside deck of the AER building, right across the street? At 31 stories, this is the highest view you're going to get in Tohoku. Oh, unless you do something silly like climb a mountain. Wait 'til you see the mountains a couple posts from now. You wouldn't climb more than a few meters before retreating to the car in snowy defeat.

Sendai was honestly a bit dull as a city. I'm not sure what I was expecting, considering how many places I've been and how similar they've all been. At just over 1 million people, it's Japan's 12th largest, and that means it's big enough for a lot of national / international chains to have stores here. The huge covered shotengai is distressingly familiar as a result. One thing that's not familiar is the sake selection - it really seems like there's a better selection of shops offering good nihonshu, and when they have multiple bottles of Juyondai in the window, I think they really mean it. Yamagata is just over the hill in this picture, after all.

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