New York Yakiniku
Gyu-Kaku, a chain of yakiniku, or table-grill barbecue, restaurants with hundreds of outlets in Japan, has established a U.S. presence with a number of locations in California, one in Hawaii, and two in New York. I was recently taken to the midtown Manhattan branch, at Third Avenue and 50th Street, during their first-anniversary week, when they were offering all beef items (except Kobe) at half price. Though they do offer seafood, poultry and pork, as well as vegetables, for grilling, beef is the real focus. One orders various small portions of different cuts with a choice of marinades (the servers will help you match marinades, such as yuzu, shio, ponzu or spicy miso, to your selections). Selections range from about $6 on up (considerably up for Kobe beef), and you'll need about three per person, in addition to any appetizers or side dishes, not to mention drinks (they do a shochu version of the mojito, by the way), so your tab can add up quickly (especially if you go for the $40 Kobe filet).
Charcoal grills are built into the table, and cuts are very thin and cook quickly. The quality of the meat is really first-rate, and while I don't normally love cook-it-yourself restaurants, the results are so good as to win me over. We tried a number of items, including a couple of vegetables (corn and eggplant) and pork sausage. The plain, dry eggplant was a disappointment, but the corn, cut into sub-cobs, is a good side bet (though you have to pay attention and keep turning it). The sausages were smoky, looked like Vienna sausage, and tasted like upscale hot dogs, which isn't a bad thing.
We tried a number of cuts of beef, including the standard and premium versions of kalbi (short rib) and rosu (rib eye). The more expensive premium cuts (almost double for some) were noticeably better, but if you want to keep costs down the standard cuts are just fine. The skirt steak (harami) was also very good, but I don't think the brisket (yaki shabu) really holds up on the grill. One thing you must order is the tongue (gyu-tan, shown in the photo). Even if you think you don't like tongue, you'll love this. The thin slices are exquisite the recommended way, with a squeeze of fresh lemon and some salt. On every table are three dipping sauces for the cooked meat--soy, citrus, and spicy.
Yakiniku is influenced by Korean barbecue, and there are also Korean dishes on the menu like bibim bap, which could be shared as a side. The staff at Gyu-Kaku are professional and ready to inform, and the midtown restaurant is refreshingly spacious in an age of claustrophobic rooms.