When Kenichiro Okada worked at a grilled meat restaurant in Tokyo’s Nishi-Azabu neighborhood, customers would often ask to sit at the counter right in front of him where they could watch the diminutive chef wield his knife and expertly slice choice cuts of meat while offering nuggets of culinary insights.
Those loyal customers coined a phrase for that special spot – Okadamae, or “in front of Okada.” As chef Okada tells it, when he decided to open his own restaurant in the heart of Azabu Juban this year, he knew exactly what to name it.
Okadamae, which serves Japanese wagyu in ways most of us would never even imagine, is strictly for carnivores. Yet none of the dishes chef Okada serves are overwhelming, in the way some rich, marbled wagyu beef can be, and each offers a surprising twist on how beef might be consumed.
On a muggy summer evening, we descended the steps to the basement of The Lively hotel in Azabu Juban, where Okadamae is located. Dinner was to start at the unusually early hour of 5PM, due to Tokyo’s Covid-19 restrictions which called for restaurants to close their doors at 8PM.
The room was divided into two sections, each with a counter seating eight people for a total of 16 seats. All the diners at the 5PM seating were seated at one counter, with the other reserved for those coming in for the 6:30PM seating.
The decor at Okadamae is a combination of western chic and Japanese austerity. Surprisingly, given the understated atmosphere, the dinner plates set along the counter to greet us were Wedgwood’s flamboyantly patterned “Florentine Turquoise.”
Almost as soon as we sat down at the counter and ordered drinks, we were served the first of many surprises to come – chawan-mushi or a savory egg custard made with beef broth and topped with a heap of shaved truffle. The aroma of the truffle complimented the umami of the egg custard and made for a satisfyingly delicious match.
While we were enjoying the delicate texture and aroma of the chawan-mushi, chef Okada was busy working with a batch of dark orange uni, or sea urchin, like a lab technician carefully handling a rare and delicate organism.
He placed a generous mound of Bafun uni from Hokkaido on what looked like and was, indeed, a deep-fried chunk of meat. I had never imagined eating sea urchin with what turned out to be a minced cutlet of Kobe and Matsuzaka beef.
Unexpectedly, the cold sea urchin complimented the piping hot beef cutlet stimulating my taste buds with different tastes, textures and temperatures.
Beef tongue, our next surprise dish, is a delicacy beloved by many Japanese, who, according to chef Okada, are the biggest consumers of beef tongue in the world.
But this being a restaurant specializing in unusual ways of beef consumption, we were served not with the usual grilled tongue but raw tongue topped with yet more truffle and eaten with a sauce of ponzu, a tart and tangy citrus-based sauce, salt and wasabi.
I am not particularly fond of tongue, mainly because I dislike the chewy texture of most tongue dishes, but this tongue with truffle, which is an Okadamae specialty, was soft and succulent.
The next course was a cold shabu-shabu of asparagus from Hokkaido, edible pentas flowers and Matsuzaka beef with a sesame sauce. Cold shabu-shabu is made by dipping super thin meat and vegetables into a hot broth until it turns a pale pink and then cooling the food immediately by dipping it in ice cold water.
“Matsuzaka cows are all girls so they want us to turn their meat into a pretty pink color,” remarks chef Okada, in total seriousness.
The meat is buttery and very tasty but not heavy and goes well with the sesame sauce.
Dobin-mushi is a clear soup usually made with a broth based on dried, shaved katsuo (bonito), or konbu seaweed or both. It generally features matsutake, a mushroom treasured for its distinctive aroma, gingko nuts, some green vegetable and occasionally a slice of fish, such as hamo, and a wedge of sudachi (a green citrus fruit) to provide a bit of citrusy tang.
At Okadamae, the dobin-mushi broth was made, naturally, from beef, specifically, ris de veau (sweetbread) and consommé of Kobe beef. Despite generous use of fatty beef the consommé was light and full of umami.
Yukké is a Korean dish made with raw beef and raw egg. Chef Okada’s version came with a generous mound of caviar on top of Matsuzaka beef tartar mixed with egg from Aomori and heaped over white rice.
After mixing the ingredients well, as instructed, I took a bite and tasted the creamy beef and egg mixture nicely complimented by the saltiness of the caviar and sweetness of the rice. Several bites later, the various tastes and textures combined and melted in my mouth like ice-cream.
Next came more tongue, this time grilled over charcoal and paired with a slice of matsutake and tangy sudachi, which gave the meat a pleasingly fresh taste.
Finally, we were treated to a simply grilled round of beef from Matsuzaka and sirloin steak from Kobe accentuated by fresh black Cambodian pepper. Much to my surprise, I was actually able to eat this last dish with relish. Although most of the dishes comprised beef, the meat was prepared in such different ways that we never tired of it.
The “shime,” or closing dish, was cold soba made in-house from Senkawa buckwheat, which was perfectly al dente and demonstrated that chef Okada was not just about meat. To top it all off, we were served a dessert of truffle ice cream paired with apple compote. Both dishes provided a light but satisfying end to a meal that might sound heavy but was definitely not.
Okadamae is purely for meat-lovers. But the unexpected, creative combination of ingredients and the care and attention that chef Okada lavishes on his dishes is an experience that anyone with an appreciation for good food will enjoy.
1-5-23 Azabu Juban
Open : 11:00-20:00
Closed : Sunday
Meals start at the same time for all guests so be sure to arrive on time.
website : okadamae.jp