A small beef

Pub date March 19, 2008

WITHOUT RESERVATIONS In my years of traversing the Divisadero Summit, that land of cloud-minders at the very crest of Pacific Heights, I have sometimes wondered who actually lives in all the pretty houses. Well, Danielle Steele, of course, and her bevy of automobiles, which she seems to collect the way Imelda Marcos once collected shoes. But I don’t quite know which palace is hers, nor am I sure which belongs to the writer Robert Mailer Anderson and his Oracle heiress wife. Maybe I’m on the wrong street altogether. But I can tell you that the Japanese Consulate is up there, at the corner of Divis and Vallejo, in a beautiful Italianate mansion, and I know this because I was there a few days ago for a high-end cookout that filled the terrace with charcoal perfume and the large foyer with the faintly briny scent of a whole sea bream on display.

The point of the cookout was to remind the local food cognoscenti that Japan, like Europe, has its venerated, slow food-style traditions, and while sea bream makes lovely sushi, no Japanese foodstuff is more venerated than wagyu, the famous, and famously expensive, beef. Slabs of raw wagyu — the real stuff, not the US-produced knockoff kind — were on display beside the reddish sea bream, but they gave off no odor; the beefy smells were coming from the charcoal grills outside, where slivers of the meat were being barbecued while the hungry mob waited.

But you could have your wagyu raw, too, if you preferred: arranged atop a little rice ball as a form of beef sushi. Either way, you tasted the intense fattiness of the meat. "Marbling" — strata of fat within the muscle itself — is the term often used to describe this effect, but wagyu seems to be beyond marbled. The muscle and fat aren’t easily distinguishable. Naturally, small portions are in order, since wagyu is to ordinary beef what cognac is to wine. It’s concentrated and potent, and a tiny amount is plenty. You don’t eat wagyu, you savor it.

In America, where beef is king and is generally scarfed in large quantities, selling this proposition could be tricky, but the subtle culinary wisdoms of Japan do advise us that slow versus fast food is just one axis of a multipolar conflict. Instead of big food, how about … small food?

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com