"Just 15 to 20 seconds per side," said our server as she delivered a plate of toro beef tare to the table. One of the several meat selections that came with our course menu for two, this looked different from the rest. Heavily striated with fat, the thin strips looked a lot like bacon. When placed on the grill, they behaved a lot like bacon, too.
The instant the meat touched the latticed metal surface of the hot grill, it contracted, its edges curling and eventually attaining a crisp black char. Seconds later I dipped the still piping-hot piece in the house sauce and plopped it into my mouth, savoring the almost-instant gratification with pleasure. Its texture reminded me of just-crisped guanciale, light yet juicily unctuous; I definitely wanted more of it.
It was Saturday evening at Gyu-Kaku, the hip new Japanese barbecue place in Midtown. The popular chain, with more than 30 locations in the United States and Asia, opened its first outlet in Texas in late April to instant popularity and weekend waits of more than an hour. I'd specifically chosen an earlier seating, making reservations for 6:30 p.m. in anticipation, and it's a good thing I did. Midway through our meal, around the 7:30 mark, the entire landing space and bar area had filled with diners patiently awaiting their turn.
Japanese barbecue, or yakiniku for those unfamiliar with it, is a lot like Korean barbecue in that uncooked meats are delivered to your table for you to cook over a grill yourself. The difference is in the presentation of the meats and the side dishes. Yakiniku meats tend to be cut more precisely -- what sashimi would look like if meat were used instead of fish. There is more focus on the quality of the marbling and the particular cut of meat -- skirt steak, short rib, prime short rib, for example -- and unlike at Korean restaurants, which serve a slew of small side dishes automatically, side dishes are not included as part of the meal and must be ordered separately.
That night, instead of ordering à la carte, we had opted for Gyu-Kaku's set course "Meat Lovers" menu, which included miso soup, a delicious salad dressed in miso mustard dressing, a couple of forgettable fried appetizers, six different selections of meat, and s'mores for dessert. The first of the few meats -- filet mignon and New York steak -- had been cut into cubes and were much leaner in consistency, the result a bit too dry for my taste. The toro beef turned out to be one of our favorites for its tender fattiness, while the bistro hanger steak was the most flavorful.
It was a good starting point if you have no idea what to order, and there's a cost savings of about $10 over ordering à la carte, but to really enjoy Gyu-Kaku, the key is to order the good stuff. It just takes a bit of work to find out exactly what the good stuff is.
The menu at Gyu-Kaku can be overwhelming. The glossy, multi-paged picture list of all the restaurant's offerings was quite extensive, and, though I'd researched what to order before I came, all I knew was that I wanted to order the kalbi short ribs and the harami skirt steak. For the rest, I still had to rely on our server for recommendations.
Thankfully, one of the best things about Gyu-Kaku is the service. Servers undergo two weeks of training when they start, so by the time they get to you, they know the menu by rote. Ours were on the whole knowledgeable, patient, upbeat and pleasant. Knowing that it was my first time there, they competently walked us through the entire menu and the concept, then guided us on what to order.
Meats can be ordered with or without marinade, and there are several selections from which to choose (miso, tare sweet soy, garlic, shio white soy, basil and yuzu), though it's probably smart to stick with the default marinades until you have a strong grasp of what they taste like. If you want starters, vegetables and other accompaniments, you must order them individually, and there are several selections in each category.
We settled on a few appetizers, several cuts of meat, two fish, several vegetables, a rice and a noodle dish. Did we get a bit carried away? Probably. But it was really the only way to get a good feel for what we liked, and even with all we'd ordered, we had probably covered only a third of the menu.
It turns out the most expensive items on the menu, a Kobe-style kalbi short rib and a Kobe-style rib eye, which the restaurant calls its "best cut," ended up being the biggest disappointments. Not reading too carefully, I saw "Kobe" and didn't realize that it was "Kobe style" until I tasted the meat and found it lacking in texture and flavor. Sure, it displayed some gorgeous marbling, but looking great did not disguise the fact that it was not Kobe beef. My advice: Invest in the cuts that are really worth it, such as the kalbi short ribs.
There's a reason short ribs are the preferred cut of meat in Korean barbecue, and here, presented in small rectangular pieces, the meat slices, just off the grill, were about as perfect as they could get: elastic yet tender, lightly charred and bursting with satisfyingly rich flavor. Plan to order enough so that everyone gets at least two pieces of these beauties. Ditto for the harami skirt steak, a thicker cut and chewier than the kalbi, which has pride of place at No. 1 on Gyu-Kaku's meat menu. Though one of my dining companions complained that it was too chewy, I actually liked that quality about the meat, and could quite happily devote my meal to a plate of just these.
The pork belly is also insanely good, especially if you leave it on the grill long enough for the fat to form a crisp capsule around the meat, creating a molten center. For something a bit lighter, the miso butterfish -- served enclosed in tinfoil, to be placed on the grill so that it would steam in its own juices -- was plump and juicy, reminiscent of a scallop in texture, though firmer and more succulent, with a less pronounced salinity.
Vegetables (à la carte selections like corn, asparagus, mushrooms, etc.) are served the same way as the fish -- in foil. Placing them on the grill for two to three minutes per side steam-cooks the vegetables, which were perfectly fine but somewhat bland. This is one of the most striking differences between Japanese and Korean barbecue, and while I enjoyed the meats immensely, I did wish for some pickles or fermented vegetables like kimchi to give the meal a better contrast of flavors.
Gyu-Kaku did have cold vegetable appetizers -- an addicting cucumber and a spicy cabbage -- but unfortunately they both were so salty that they were inedible. A garlic rice and sukiyaki bibimbap rice, served in stone pots that crisped the rice, were both commendable, however, whether by themselves or as accompaniments to the meal.
Sitting in the middle of the wooden booth, right in front of the round grill, I was a little too close to the fire. Every time I leaned down to take a bite of something off my plate, the heat coming off the grill would hit my cheeks, making me unnecessarily hot.
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I suppose I should have done the smart thing and moved a bit to the side, but I had one whole side of the booth to myself, and I felt as if I had better access to all the small plates of vegetables and meats -- which were spread out all around the grill -- seated in the center position. The grill was also much closer and easier to maneuver from there as well, but be forewarned: Getting center position not only gives you access to the grill, but makes you the designated table barbecuer, and there will be work involved.
In the end, that's part of the fun that comes along with grilling food at the table. It's a communal, interactive experience -- a good time whether you're a couple on a date, or sharing a table with friends while drinking beer and sake. So sweep aside the long red cloths hanging outside the entrance, open the heavy wooden doors of Gyu-Kaku, take in the welcome shouts of "Irasshaimase!" and be prepared to feast. You may have to work a little bit, and occasional licks from the fire might fly upwards unexpectedly while you're grilling, but the reward comes each time you plop a piece of sizzling hot meaty perfection in your mouth. At Gyu-Kaku, this happens often.
Gyu-Kaku 510 Gray, #A, 713-750-9520. Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; 4 to 10:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 4 to 11:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 4 to 9:30 p.m. Sundays.
Addicting cucumber $4 Spicy cabbage $4 Harami skirt steak $8 Kobe-style kalbi $19 Kalbi short rib $8 Toro beef $5 Kobe-style rib eye $22 Pork belly $4 Filet mignon $7 New York steak $7 Miso butterfish $6 Asparagus $3 Mushroom medley $4 Spinach garlic $3 Garlic rice $6 Sukiyaki bibimbap $7