30 July 2016

Restaurant Review: Matsusakagyu Yakiniku M, Osaka

Since coming to Japan, beef is something that I eat quite rarely. It's pretty expensive to buy in the supermarket, and when eating out you're less likely to come across it on menus than you are pork and chicken. This is why when I choose a special meal out, I'm often tempted to opt for steak rather than something more traditionally Japanese like sushi. Eating steak definitely feels like an occasion here, whereas something like sushi is so ubiquitous that it can be found everywhere from your local convenience store right up to your michelin-starred restaurant. So when it came to having a meal on my last night in Osaka, I chose to eat at Matsusakagyu Yakiniku M

The restaurant name is quite a mouthful, so let me break it down for you. Matsusakagyu is a type of beef (gyu meaning beef in Japanese eg. wagyu which means Japanese cow/beef). These black-haired cows come from the Mie region of Japan. The lucky cows are fed beer when their appetite fails and are treated to regular massages. This results in a meat that is a grade higher than even Kobe beef (meaning the marbled beef has a higher fat to meat ratio). Yaki Niku is basically the Japanese term for barbecue - so it is a restaurant where you cook the meat yourself at a grill on your table.

I ate at the restaurant's Dotonbori branch, which was not only a convenient location but also has a sake bar underneath, the restaurant's Sake Bar M300, which seemed perfect for post-dinner drinks.

The restaurant itself is found on the second floor of a building directly by Dotonburi canal. The seating is divided into Japanese-style dining booths, so that each group is afforded some privacy from the next. The restaurant also had incredible ventilation, which seems an odd thing to praise a restaurant for, but I have been to so many yaki niku/yakitori/genghis khan restaurants that are so poorly ventilated that you come out reeking of smoked meat. Then you have to throw all your clothes in the wash as soon as you get home and have an exceedingly long and soapy shower to rid yourself of the scent. Luckily this didn't happen at Matsusakagyu, so I didn't offend the entire carriage on the train home with the scent of barbecue beef - definitely a bonus!

We opted for the Premium Set Menu which promised a selection of appetisers as well as of course a selection of beef, followed by dessert. We also went for a couple of local beers courtesy of Minoh Beer, because, you know, it would be rude not to.

Minoh Beer: Pale Ale & Pilsner

The appetiser selection interestingly enough didn't include beef. It was relatively tasty but didn't exactly set my taste buds on fire, just got my appetite going for the meal: which I suppose is the point of an appetiser.

Okra, sweet potato, omelette, chicken

The next prelude to the main event was the short rib beef with garlic sauce. This one definitely set me salivating!

The short rib with sauce, plus some fat to oil up the grill


Next in line was beef sushi... which I was really hoping I would like, but it just didn't do it for me. In fact I think it would have been fine without the wasabi on top but that kind of dominated everything. As you can see from the photos, it's quite a large dollop of wasabi for each piece, given how strong the flavour of it is. It should have worked in theory because it is essentially the classic beef and horseradish combination, but sadly it didn't live up to expectations.

Beef sushi

Luckily when the main course of various cuts of beef arrived and we started cooking and tasting each piece, it became clear that we'd made the right choice to eat here. The beef had a really great depth of flavour, and was very melt in the mouth. I think the fact that the restaurant only buys whole cows is a massive benefit, as not only can they guarantee the provenance of the beef, but it also means that they can offer a more interesting selection of cuts. This means that you get a real sense of the spectrum of flavours from different parts of the cow, from the leaner, gamier parts, through to the richer, fattier pieces.

Flap meat and Haneshita (loin/back)

Today's special (sirloin) and Kyukyoku (prime rib)

Dessert was a delicious yuzu ice cream. As delicous as it was, I always feel that getting an ice cream as your dessert in a set menu is a bit of a cop out from the kitchen -  I mean, I have ice cream in my freezer at home. I would prefer to get something a little bit more interesting: perhaps a slice of matcha roll cake or something along those lines.

The main star of this restaurant, the beef, is truly excellent, so I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to try some wagyu in Osaka. I would recommend skipping the set menu and simply ordering whatever beef and sides you want a la carte. The restaurant is really reasonably priced as well (in comparison to a lot of restaurants I've looked at that serve Kobe beef), so it's a good way to try some great quality Japanese beef without completely breaking the bank. I also thought that the beef tasted much better than the Kobe beef I'd tried. Admittedly the only Kobe beef I've tried was at a market stall in Kobe during Golden Week and wasn't what I'd call expertly prepared... but then again we cooked the Matsusukagyu ourselves at the table and we're not chefs, so I think the fact that the result was more delicious is certainly a result of the quality of beef. It just had a much more interesting flavour, and the cuts with the rich, melt-in the mouth fattiness were just amazing!

The sake bar downstairs is also not to be missed - you can try a range of different types of sake from around Japan for just 300JPY a shot! The menu also helpfully advises you as to how sweet/dry each sake is, and the knowledgeable staff are also on hand to explain the sake to you. All very helpful if like me you like sake very much but don't know the first thing about choosing one.

All in all I was happy with my choice of Matsusakagyu Yakiniku M restaurant to celebrate my final night in the city of Osaka. I doubt I'll have the chance to eat beef that delicious again for quite some time!

Have you tried wagyu beef?

09 July 2016

Osaka Sights: Day & Night

I realised that, despite having posted about a few things around Osaka, such as Universal Studios, the suburb of Sakai, and the Taishi Shotoe festival of lights, I hadn't actually posted anything about Osaka city itself yet. Although I spent far more time exploring other parts of the Kansai region during my stay in Osaka, I think it's worth mentioning a handful of things I visited in central Osaka. Although I didn't do all of these things in one day, this could easily be a one-day itinerary for a day and evening in the city.

Osaka Castle
Every Japanese city worth its salt has a castle and Osaka is no exception. Having said that, I think Osaka's is certainly one of the best, boasting not only a huge moat and extensive grounds with gates, turrets, and huge stone walls, but also an excellent and informative museum within the castle itself, and a viewing platform on the top floor, which affords views of the urban metropolis that is been built up around the castle.

The moat separated the castle from its urban surroundings

The castle boasts impressive gold ornamentation

Although the current castle is a 20th century reconstruction, the origins of the castle lie in the 16th century, and the museum inside the castle is dedicated to this history. The museum contains artefacts relating to the museum's history, ranging from armour to folding screens illustrating battles that surrounded the castle.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi began construction of the castle in 1583, on the former grounds of a large temple called Ishiyama Honganji. Much of the museum is dedicated to Toyotomi Hideyoshi's era, and a whole floor is dedicated to the Summer War of 1615 during which the castle fell into the hands of the Tokugawa shogunate. The exhibition area uses the folding screen as a starting point to tell the story, explaining certain sections of the screen in more detail with blown-up versions of the images and figurines.

The top floor of the castle offers a 360 degree view around the castle, including its surrounding grounds and the modern high rise buildings that lay beyond.

If you are visiting the castle and its grounds I would leave at least 2 hours to do so. You could even spend longer there if it's a nice day (as I'm sure you can tell from the photos, it wasn't when I went!) and have lunch in the grounds. There are various stalls selling food and snacks such as takoyaki. The castle grounds are particularly popular during cherry blossom season, when the park is filled with the attractive pink flowers.

Osaka Museum of History
The museum is a stone's throw away from the castle, and you can buy a combination ticket if you are visiting both on the same day, which will save you a few yen.

Osaka Museum of History as seen from Osaka Castle Park

As I've found with many museums in Japan, the route of the permanent exhibition starts from the top floor and works its way down. The top floor is dedicated to the Naniwa Palace, a palace that was built in Osaka during the city's early history. It acted as the country's seat of government before capitals were later established in Nara and Kyoto. There is a reconstruction of the interior of the palace on the top floor of the museum, and you can also see the original site of the palace from the museum's huge glass windows, which offer views across the city from various floors.

Replicas of the palace's vermillion pillars

Mannequins in period court dress

The site of the palace as viewed from the museum

Each floor of the museum works its way towards the present chronologically, via the Edo period to the modern period. During the Edo period Osaka became one of the largest cities in Japan: it was a busy port city and also developed a culture of Kabuki and Bunraku (puppet theatre) theatres. Today Japan's National Bunraku Theatre is located in Osaka, in the Dotonburi area, which I will mention again later in this post.

Osaka was a major port town in the Edo period

The final floor dedicated to the city's history allows you to walk through Osaka in the modern era, recreated using slightly creepy looking white plaster mannequins.

This is a pretty good museum with enough English information to learn a good deal about the rich history of one of Japan's oldest and largest cities. It is definitely worth a visit to explore Osaka's past, which isn't immediately obvious from its current appearance as a hectic urban metropolis. It's a fairly new museum (opening in 2003) and seemed to be popular with both tourists and locals alike.

Dotonburi is a popular tourist street which runs parallel to the canal of the same name, and is a great spot to watch the city go from day to night, as the street comes alive with hundreds of neon signs. The area is, as I mentioned earlier, the historical centre of Osaka's theatre culture, and still has theatres today. Although I didn't visit a theatre in the area, I did visit the Kamigata Ukiyo-e Museum. Ukiyo-e broadly speaking are wood block prints produced during the Edo period, and those produced in Osaka were generally of Kabuki actors. I love ukiyoe so the museum for me was a must-see, but I was slightly disappointed at how small it was and how limited the English explanations were. So perhaps this is one for those with a particular interest in these kinds of prints. I think next time I visit the Dotonburi area I will go to the Konamon Museum instead which is dedicated to Osaka's gastronomic history as an area famous for okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) and takoyaki (octopus balls). The museum is free, looks like fun and has a giant octopus on the front so I simply can't imagine it being disappointing!

The Dotonburi street itself is chock-a-block with food vendors, selling all the things you'd expect in Osaka, including okonomyaki, takoyaki, ramen and even the deadly pufferfish, 'fugu' if you dare. You can snack on different specialities from various vendors as you walk along the street, or you can have a sit-down meal if you prefer.


The restaurant signs are over-the-top!

Karaoke, Okonomyaki

The view of Dotonburi canal

Neon signs above the night-time crowds... like Piccadilly circus but on a much larger scale!

Feeling thirsty?

I really enjoyed walking through this area on a couple of evenings, but it also made me realise how glad I was not to have stayed in central Osaka for the month I was there. I don't enjoy walking out the door into throngs of tourists and commuters every day, and this part of town always seems to be busy and certainly never sleeps!

Smoke House Ape
Osaka, as you would expect from a big city, has plenty of choice in terms of places to drink. I don't go to bars that often, but when I do, I do enjoy going to a place that takes pride in the drink and food it offers, and has an ambience that's a bit more interesting than one created by music and sofas that could just as easily be found in your local generic coffee shop chain. Craft beer pub Smoke House Ape definitely offers something more and is ideal for the more curious drinker.

Found on the first floor of a building opposite JR Namba station, this is a small but perfectly shaped bar which also boasts a balcony: great for people-watching with a beer on a fine evening. As the name suggests, the food from the kitchen is smoked in-house. Sadly as I came here straight after dinner I didn't try the food! But I would love to come back here the next time I'm in Osaka and arrive with a hungry belly.

The beer selection is impressive and not only covers local brews from the Kansai region and from around Japan, but also from around the world (the selection varies regularly). Whether you want to go for a lager, ale, porter or IPA, there'll be something interesting on the menu. The evening I went I had a super-local IPA from Minoh Beer, Osaka, and a gose-style beer from the Ushitaru Brewery / Kyoto Brewing Co. The latter was quite sour and fruity and not like anything I'd had before. The beer shown below is actually Fist City Chicago Pale Ale, which wasn't my drink but the glass was more attractive than mine so of course I had to take a photo!

A corner of the bar's balcony

Bottoms up!

There really is a lot to explore in Osaka. The city certainly has its own character and is distinct from other Japanese cities such as Kyoto and Tokyo. I hope to spend a few more days in Osaka before I finally leave Japan next year.

Have you ever been to Osaka? What other sights should I visit?