THIS SENSE OF CULINARY ECONOMY is also experiencing a global renaissance—witness the popularity of nose-to-tail places from London to Bangkok—and informs another distinctively Osakan food style: horumon-yaki. Horumon means things typically discarded (the third stomach, the base of the tongue, even the aorta) and yaki means grilled. In Osaka these things are prized in all forms, whether sautéed and served as street food or marinated by hand with meticulous care at high-end horumon-yaki restaurants. Three years ago, Takashi Inoue, a native Osakan, established his eponymous horumon restaurant in Manhattan's West Village. His faith in the food of his hometown paid off: Takashi is packed most nights and has received the highest praise from critics and scores of New York foodies. Around the same time, another Osaka-related restaurant hit the ground in New York, doing something completely different: Brushstroke, a collaboration between David Bouley and the Tsuji Culinary Institute—Japan's finest cooking school, originally from Osaka. While Takashi serves a high-end, modern version of old-school, working-class Korean-Japanese food, Brushstroke serves sophisticated and modern kaiseki cuisine—an elaborate fixed menu with preordained categories like sashimi, boiled dishes, fried dishes and tea.
When I asked Inoue where I should eat in Osaka, he recommended Tsuruhashi, the Korean-Japanese enclave in the southeastern part of the city, for a taste of Osaka's distinctive Korean-Japanese subculture. Tsuruhashi feels like the '60s never ended. In an alleyway near the back entrance to the train station, dozens of grilled meat restaurants are filled with large parties hunched over flames that shoot up from the middle of their tables. In the past, the Korean-Japanese had been treated as second-class citizens and the horumon cuisine that developed in places like Tsuruhashi reflects that: Zainichi, as the Korean-Japanese are called, often had to make do with the cuts of meat that the Japanese didn't want.
But now horumon has been transformed into gourmet cuisine. Tsurugyu, recommended to me by Yoshiki Tsuji, president of the culinary institute of the same name, uses only the finest grades of beef and serves horumon alongside choice cuts. This restaurant looks different from the grilled meat places in Tsuruhashi; it's decorated in deep-red and lacquered black, with ikebana floral arrangements positioned around the place. I sit down at the counter and Hiroto Fujiwara, the Korean-Japanese chef owner, pulls cuts of beef from a beautifully lit glass display case behind the bar. Despite the fancy décor, it quickly becomes clear that this meat locker is, in fact, the focus of Tsurugyu. After slicing a few thin, long pieces from an enormous slab of tongue, he places them gingerly in a shiny metal bowl and sprinkles on salt flakes, mixes in red pepper paste, kneads in grated ginger and then massages the meat and marinade with his bare hands. "You have to use your hands to make this properly," Fujiwara tells me. "That's the Korean way." He proceeds to cook a feast of the finest Japanese beef, which he sources from a small town in neighboring Hyogo prefecture. The horumon elements are crunchy, chewy and varied in taste; the conventional cuts are some of the most tender beef I've ever tasted, so heavily marbled with fat that they barely need to be chewed.
Across the river, in a nightlife district to the north, amid a warren of streets filled with pricey hostess bars and soused salarymen, you'll find Kahala, a classic, small steak house with a tabletop teppanyaki grill in a room with décor that looks straight out of the early '70s. But first impressions are deceptive, for this is the Osaka restaurant most lauded by foreign chefs—a place that has directly influenced Tetsuya Wakunda, the famed Sydney chef, and wowed restaurateurs of international renown like Daniel Boulud and Bouley.
Kahala opened in 1971 as a straightforward steak house catering to the executive crowd that came to dine and drink in the area. Before cooking a steak on the grill in front of diners, chef Yoshifumi Mori would serve a small selection of appetizers, called zensai. Gradually, during his first six years in operation, he became more interested in those appetizers than in the main course until, in 1977, he changed the restaurant into something resembling its current form: a course-menu place using the finest, most expensive—and often most obscure—regional Japanese ingredients prepared in a style that is decidedly open to international influences. Kahala's steak is still the heart of the meal, but it's morphed from an ordinary piece of grilled beef into a five-layer meat mille-feuille made of thin slices of heavily marbled beef grilled rare and then delicately stacked and dipped into soy sauce mixed with daikon radish or wasabi.
Before our first course, chef Mori passes around a large, dense apple from Hokkaido, then proceeds to serve a baked brown slice of it alongside a fluffy bed of finely grated Okayama cheese, glistening grilled mushrooms and a wisp of deep-fried ginger root. There are fat and fleshy oysters from Hokkaido atop a bed of Southeast Asian–style bee hoon noodles with a squid ink sauce. A tiny round roll comes out on a piece of lacquerware the chef has crafted himself—his take on the classic snack kare-pan, a bread roll filled with curry, which he's glazed in sweet-smelling coffee oil. An ink-black seaweed soup—a Japanese classic—has a melted morsel of white, locally made Caciocavallo cheese swimming in its depths.
Kahala is not a kappo, but its arrangement of eight seats before Chef Mori's eyes makes the dynamic similar. "I can see my customers' faces when they're eating," says Mori. "And I can gauge their reactions when they taste each dish." Over the years Kahala has moved from being more French-influenced to its current form, which is very creative but distinctively Japanese. He has also changed the number of seats. "We started with 10; now we're at eight," Mori says. "Chefs who have small restaurants will tell you that the difference between eight and 10 seats is profound. In the future, I want to get it down to six."