Throughout my short trip in Japan, whenever I intended to visit a popular restaurant, I would go either just before it opens, or between the typical meal hours. I couldn’t stand queues, and would try to avoid them as much as possible. Despite employing these strategies, I still encountered formidable queues to overcome. I was ready to eat an early dinner after enjoying the sakura festival at Yoyogi Park. But at one of my first choices nearby, Sushi Midori, they told me they had a 2-hour wait in line (at 4pm!), which I couldn’t stomach.
I headed to my plan B, Gyukatsu Motomura. This restaurant serves beef cutlets: a raw beef steak is lightly breaded and battered, then sliced into bite-sized pieces for the customer to grill it further on a personal heated stone plate. The queue seemed more manageable at 4:40pm; about seven people in an alley before the the queue turns a corner past the menu on display into an opening to a building where I presumed the restaurant entrance was. The line moves inch by inch as one or two people leaving the restaurant brush pass me in the narrow alley. I put on a podcast to pass the time.
With enough patience, my position was approaching the opening in the building, where the menu was at. I mulled over the options:
I wanted the set with all the sides, so I decided to go for No. 6. However, the attendant told me that No. 5 and No. 6 were finished, so I had to go for the other quantities. I could go for 130 grams of beef to save money, and 260 grams does seem like a lot. But what if I ate the 130 grams and wished I had ordered more? It would be too late. But the 260 grams was twice the amount of meat, and do I really need to eat so much of it?
After some non-trivial agonizing, I decided to go for Number 4: the 260-gram beef cutlet set with all the sides. It might be the most expensive, and I might wish I had ordered less after eating, but I would definitely regret it more if I had not ordered enough after queuing so long. I held my choice firmly in my head for when a staffperson would take my order.
By this time, I was close enough to the opening in the building to peer around it. To my horror, the queue had more people than I realised; it led down a flight of stairs to the basement below, where I presume the restaurant was actually at.
The day was turning dim and blue as my time approached 6pm. My podcast episode ended and I kept my earphones. A man popped out of the door — which I was nearly in front of — and took my order. He then popped back in. I continued to wait patiently; I was so close! Ten minutes later, the man finally beckons me through the door. I am welcomed into a narrow room, with a single straight bar serving nine people and the wall so close to my back, I could lean on it from my seat. After a few minutes, I am served the set I have chosen.
The pale grated yam is soft and gooey, texturally similar to uni (a.k.a. sea urchin). I’m not sure I like it, but it’s a novel mouthfeel. I follow the instructions on the English-language card in front of me titled ‘How to eat “GYUUKATSU”‘ that tells me to mix some yam in the rice. It makes the rice just as gooey, like a vegan tamago gohan. The bright red roe next to the yam is sharp, very sharp. On the main plate, the raw shredded cabbage is plain without sauce (Worcestershire sauce is optional), which makes it a good palate cleanser for all these strong flavours. The mild potato salad could serve the same purpose.
The beef. Oof. Two 130-gram cutlets, one stacked on top of the other. The batter is a thin crust with a slight crisp, a tight coat around the tender red slice of steak. I reverently grill each slice on the small table stove, or shichirin, in front of me. Calm jazz plays as a piece of the cutlet sizzles.
After I am satisfied with how long I’ve cooked it, I try dipping it in the soy sauce, the wasabi, then the soy sauce and wasabi. I try eating it raw, eating it rare, and eating it well done. I finish my rice and request for the complimentary second bowl of rice that they offer.
My reverie is broken when the chef asks to replace the solid fuel in the stone grill. How long have I been sitting here? I realize that some guests who had come after me had already begun to leave. I notice that most people grill more than one piece at a time. I hasten the pace.
I eventually finish. I walk out of the restaurant, back up the stairs, and past the ever-long queue of other patient gyukatsu devotees still waiting for their turn in front of the shichirin. On the street, day has turned into night. I leave the place in a daze. Why does it feel like things have profoundly changed? I walk away into the streets of Shibuya.