6 Luxe Tokyo Steakhouses
July 25, 2013
After Fukushima, many countries banned the import of Japanese beef. Now that the ban has been lifted, Scott Haas explores the wonders of wagyu and the best spots in Tokyo to partake in a steak.
Published on Jul 25, 2013
Japanese beef is back. The dark days of the Fukushima beef ban are over and Japanese beef has been reappearing on menus across the U.S. and Europe over the past six months. This is not the first time Japanese beef’s been banned; in fact it was forbidden in Japan for nearly 1,000 years. Finally in 1868, the Emperor Meiji decreed that beef was to be permitted in the national diet. It took decades of animal husbandry before the beef in Japan achieved greatness. Now, the nation breeds some of the best beef in the world—deeply marbled, the super high amounts of fat-infused taste resonates on the palate.
The Japanese grade beef on a scale of one to 12. Their best versions, according to George Faison, co-owner of DeBragga, one of the top importers of Japanese beef to the U.S., hover at 10, while the best prime from Australia and the U.S. is not usually more than a six. So what’s the secret behind these steaks so flavorful that one bite feels like a luxury?
The Japanese word wagyu literally translates to “cow” but in terms of the food chain, it refers to several specific breeds of bovine known for characteristically high-quality meat. Kobe is the most famous region of production, and its purebred Tajima cows have become synonymous with the top echelon of Japanese beef, but until recently, only those who had been to Japan would have been privileged enough to taste it. Only last year did producers begin exporting their coveted Kobe in small quantities to Macau, Hong Kong and the U.S.
Meanwhile, farmers throughout Japan are implementing similar methods—feeding high-fat diets to animals allowed to live longer before slaughter—as their Kobe counterparts, to raise cattle that has comparable flavor. “There is no guarantee that beef will be good if it is from a particular region,” said Yoshitsugu Hirai, a representative of the Maruyoshi company, which supplies Tokyo’s best restaurants. “You have to base it on how the cattle were raised.”
Regardless of the region, a great deal of care goes into raising these pampered bovine. But all the massages, sake and beer many farmers give their cows are not what make Japanese beef a cut above all the others. “High-energy grain, like barley, slowly introduced in the final months before slaughter is a huge factor,” Faison explains. All that extra grain leads to sumptuously rich cuts of meat.
This natural intensity is why the very best Japanese wagyu is often served simply and in small portions. Purists season the meat with nothing but salt and pepper, and then consume it medium-rare, rare or even raw.
A contender for the world’s best steak restaurant: Shima (3-5-2 Nihombashi, Chuo-ku; +81 3 3271 7889), an ultra-luxurious place hidden in the basement of an office building. Chef Oshima Manabu presides each night over six seats at the counter and 16 at tables. His claim to fame is the use of beef from farms near his home just outside of Kyoto. He personally selects the cattle, and to prove its lineage (vegetarians, if we haven’t lost you already, you had better skip to the next paragraph) comes to the table with documentation of the cow’s nose print, its birth date and the names of its father, mother and grandparents.
The beef is either sirloin or tenderloin, and comes in any size portion you want, grilled with grated wasabi. Not as high in fat as much of Japanese beef, the chef’s steaks instead bring texture, thickness and a buttery flavor with a great crust.
Tokyo’s most beautiful setting for steak is New York Grill (52F, 3-7-1-2 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; +81 3 5323 3458; tokyo.park.hyatt.com) where, high above the city, you’ll be dazzled by the endless sweep of lights below and the aromas of sizzling steaks from corners of the country such as Kobe, Hokkaido, Omi and Yonezawa.
While beef this good needs little adornment, some chefs, like Alain Verzeroli, director de cuisine at the French, three-star Michelin Joël Robuchon Restaurant (Yebisu Garden Place, 1-13-1, Mita, Meguro-ku; +81 3 5424 1347; robuchon.jp), can’t resist getting a little more creative with his dishes and using wagyu in classic Western dishes. “We use beef tenderloin and entrecôte steak,” Verzeroli tells me. “Only in Japan can you find such marbling, and for those who wish to ‘cut’ the feeling of the fat? They can enjoy it with freshly grated wasabi and a few drops of aged soy sauce.”
The latest trend in Japan is to emphasize the food and to tone down the formality. The steak restaurant, for example, is the grill at The Peninsula (peninsula.com/tokyo), which opened in March 2013. Executive chef Adam Mathis says that the restaurant will be serving, among other types of beef, Yonezawa rib eye and Japanese Holsten dry aged sirloin from Tochigi prefecture. “Our supplier is dry-aging the strip loin for 40 days—it’s really melt-in-the-mouth-stuff,” Mathis says.
But you need not have deep pockets to enjoy great Japanese beef. Sukiyaki Asakusa Imahan (2-17-4, Nishi Asakusa, Taito-ku; +81 3 3842 8656; asakusaimahan.co.jp) is a terrific restaurant, one of the city’s oldest, and here you can enjoy thin cuts of stir-fried beef cooked in soy and sugar and dipped into raw egg. It is extremely delicious and, at about ¥3,500 per person, for Tokyo it’s a bargain.
Or try La Boucherie de Buppa (Liberta-Yutenji Building; 1-1-1 Yutenji, Meguro-Ku; +81 3 3793 9090), a hybrid Japanese- French bistro where beef from Chiba is dry aged and grilled. A glass case of the beef, aged 50 days, is found at the back of the room. Served with seasonal vegetables, the steak here is both deeply marbled and memorable.