THE CURIOUS COOK
I’M sitting with strangers at the bar of Melbourne sushi restaurant, Jamon, when chef Charles Greenfield begins a reminiscence about Kobe beef. It’s 1968 and Greenfield is supping beer at a sushi bar in Japan when he first tries the delicate, fatty Japanese steak.
That was it,'' he says, savouring the memory of that first taste, after which he rolled up his sleeves and became a dishwasher at that very restaurant while keeping his day job in the jewellery trade.I ended up there every night at work. I spent 10 years in Kobe and Tokyo doing that. I wasn’t an apprentice but I was.”
Now at his own miniscule 14-seater sushi bar in South Yarra, Greenfield has recently become frustrated with the way wagyu beef _ that local variant of Kobe _ has become a generic term. Walk into restaurants anywhere in the country and it is on the menu, often without the cut being mentioned.
To counter the trend, Greenfield draws people into Jamon to take them on a journey of texture and taste using varying cuts of wagyu. He isn’t constrained by the Japanese demarcation between fish in sushi and vegetables and meat. With him it’s a bit like jazz most days _ but only if you sensibly allow him to serve the best ingredients available that day.
Today, Greenfield is conducting a culinary adventure using the Tajiri wagyu bloodline _ the same as the Kobe bloodline _ particularly prized for its refined flavour and marbling. This is the closest one will get locally to the the real thing (like champagne, Kobe meat must come from that part of the world to receive that name). Although fat marbling scores officially stop at 9-plus, this beef from producer Blackmore Wagyu is rated 12.
Our first taste is a tartare of chopped fillet sitting on top of a single upturned shitake mushroom. Easy.
The next dish is more of a challenge: cooked tongue cut from the tip as well as a slice from further down the organ. Generally, wagyu doesn’t taste beefy, yet the firm tongue tip is just that. The other cut is softer. We are also given chunks of muscle from the tongue’s root, which has the texture of left-over roast beef.
Tongue also flavours a light simple stock cooked with leaks, ginger a few other ingredients. “Quite simple, really,” Greenfield tells us.
Time for chuck steak but not in a stew, as one might expect. Greenfield painstakingly slices this cut raw with his handmade Japanese knife. The fat protecting the meat is already melting under the knife. What’s amazing is that Greenfield serves the raw meat nigiri-style _ in other words, he simply tops a warm, sticky football-shaped clump of rice with a slice of the meat (pictured). The meat shines; it has an appearance and texture similar to tuna.
Appreciative noises fill the room. Meanwhile, Greenfield’s chopsticks pluck cold soba noodles and fold them into bowls with seaweed and jellied ox-tail soup. Cooked tail contrasts with sashimi of rib and the slime of woodear mushrooms. Each ingredient retains its flavour. The first bite of noodles _ almost al dente but not quite _ is crunchy. The cooked meat is soft; the raw, chewy.
More noise and Greenfield hits us with another dish. He is improvising now with a handful of morels, lightly poached. He chops raw eye fillet to stuff the hollow mushroom _ another simpler version of tartare. Into 300-year-old Japanese cups, he places the stuffed fungi with a little mushroom flavoured stock.
Next, out comes an impressive marbled porterhouse fillet, surrounded with pure white fat. With its omega-3 oils, it is claimed that this is healthy fat, the kind found in oily fish like tuna. Its texture is similar to the cooked woodears. Slimy _ in a good way _ with flavour on the melting on the back of the tongue.
Greenfield’s nori mat emerges in preparation for futomaki rolls, the centres filled with strap and tail fillet.
Finally, the fillet and porterhouse are sliced for tataki. The surface of the meat is sealed evenly, leaving the melted fat inside to transport the flavours. The cooking smell, Greenfield tells us, is the smell of Kobe, a smell we should never forget, and never will.
Jamon Sushi 3 Murphy St South Yarra, Melbourne. (03) 9804 5710.
THE CURIOUS COOK