Thursday, May 12, 2016

Seiromushi Pit Stop

With time to spare on our last day of the journey before catching the return flight home from Fukuoka early evening, we made a slight detour to visit the town of Kashima right near the boundary between Saga and Nagasaki prefectures for a morning stroll along the quiet path known as Sakagura Dori, or Sake Breweries Street, lined with sake breweries housed in old buildings dated back to the late Edo period.

Then we headed north and stopped by the town of Saga on our way for a quick lunch at Kira, a restaurant specializes in beef cuisine. The restaurant, with a few branches around Kyushu and in Tokyo in addition to its original Saga location, is owned by JA Saga, the regional farm cooperatives. They are the champions for fresh farm products from the region, especially Saga Beef, perhaps their best known export famous for the rich wagyu meat taste and marbled fat.

We had a memorable lunch at their Fukuoka/Hakata branch a few years ago so we had high expectation for our lunch at the original location here in Saga. While the Hakata branch has a more elegant setting inside a 3-level building by the canal in Fukuoka, their Saga restaurant looked more casual, resembling a strip mall diner with grocery and souvenir shops next door within the same complex for local goods and produce.

Since it was Saturday and the second day of the Japanese Golden Week long holiday, the place was packed even as we reached there only slightly after 11am - early for lunch by any means. Luckily, it was only a manageable 20 minute wait in the seating area of the lobby before we were seated at the back room right next to the main dining hall on the ground floor.

I was surprised that they ran a much abbreviated lunch menu compared to the Hakata branch, without the option of Seiromushi, the traditional way of cooking Saga Beef by gently steaming in a wooden "basket" with vegetables. At the end we needed to make a special request to order it under the dinner menu, because we loved it very much when we tried this unique cooking method the last time and specifically came for it.

Since it's the dinner set we ordered, the meal was more elaborate, came with multiple courses and bigger portion of meat (at a premium over the normal lunch set, of course). After beginning with a appetizer platter with four small plates of bite-sized dishes (sashimi, salad, cold slice of beef and a savory soy pudding), the waitress began to set up the wooden basket for our seiromushi main course.

"Basket" was perhaps a misleading term as it's more like a giant box made of cypress wood that took up more than half of our table set on top the sunken stove in the middle. Inside was filled with raw vegetables including cabbages, Japanese mustard greens (mizuna), leeks and Shimeji mushrooms, with the pan filled with water was placed underneath with the stove on. Meanwhile, small plates of dipping sauces were put in front of us, including goma-dare made of sesame paste and the slightly acidic ponzu sauce. And lastly, the plate of sliced Saga Beef was brought to our table.

We were happy just by the sight of the beautiful marbled raw beef slices laid before us. There were 8 slices altogether, cut thicker than one would do for shabu-shabu or sukiyaki, and quite big in size once it's spread out in one layer. The waitress helped us with our first helping of the beef by carefully placing the slices into the basket on top of the vegetables, then steamed with the lid on for 3-4 minutes. Then we took the beef out and eat with the dipping sauces along with the vegetables, which also took up some of the beef jus as they were cooked together. Later we continued cooking the rest of the beef in the similar way on our own.

While we also like the more conventional - and perhaps more popular - method of grilling the fatty wagyu, we appreciate this lighter cooking style as it brought out the more "natural" meat flavor since no oil or additional seasonings were involved. And the beef was super tender with a delicate texture, cooked above gently boiling water. We thought since we came all the way here we might as well try something different, something more unique to this region.

Rice and soup were served alongside with the beef, which was prepared using local ingredients too. And we finished with a dessert of sweet soy panna cotta.

Overall I thought the food was excellent here, right on par of what I expected, but I definitely preferred the Hakata branch than one in Saga for much better service and being more conveniently located. We were particularly put off by the Chinese-speaking staff hired as translator/liaison for foreign customers, as it soon became apparent that he's not helpful nor friendly nor knowledgeable, so he became kind of a nuisance to me. I found it strange that the Michelin Guide decided to give one star to the Saga branch but none for the Hakata branch - did we both go to the same restaurants?

More photos in my Flickr album:

When? April 30 2016
Where? Kira Honten, 3-9-16 Otakara, Saga, Japan
季楽本店 佐賀市大財3丁目9-16
Menu Highlights? Saga Beef Seiromushi
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