No other beef in the world can really compare to authentic Wagyu. Depending on the grade, sometimes the meat can be so marbled that you can barely see any muscle. And that is when the question of taste comes into question. Choosing the highest marbling beef is not always the best if you like your steak to have texture of a cow rather than of butter or foie gras.
Nowadays, beef in Japan is prepared in various ways, from shabu-shabu and sukiyaki, to yakiniku and teppanyaki or grilled over the charcoal. You can pay little for a bowl of gyūdon at your neighbourhood Yoshinoya , or you can try to get into such uber steakhouses as Kawamura and pay nearly 1,000 USD per person or 4,500 USD, like I recently saw someone paid there. (which must be the reason why I avoid Kawamura during the Alba truffle season!). Ironically, while Kawamura-san is an excellent chef, I don’t really like his steak. The highly marbled beef is slowly grilled over the charcoal, which causes the steak to lose its texture and renders it far too mushy and tender for my taste.
My first beef pilgrimage stop this October was Shima, whose steaks are one of my favourite in Tokyo. Oshima-san is a veteran in the Tokyo steakhouse world and has been running his France and Italy inspired, basement based steakhouse for decades. I also probably have a special appreciation for him, because a very long time ago he worked at Le Duc, my favourite restaurant in Paris.
You might start your meal at Shima with an insanely rich (in flavours) onion soup topped with beautiful melted cheese, or Italian-inspired crudi made with sweet shrimps and giant octopus from the world’s best seafood market, Tsukiji. In addition to being a stellar chef, Oshima-san is also an incredibly nice person, no matter who you are, local or foreigner.
Hisato Hamada, the owner of the recently opened, “members only” Wagyu Mafia has been exporting top-notch Wagyu for over ten years now; he buys his beef directly from farmers and is known as an expert of Wagyu. As is customary in Japan, I had an omakase (a tasting menu made from the day’s best products) at Wagyu Mafia. It included beef nigiri with red vinegar flavoured rice (which paired perfectly with the fatty flavour and texture of the beef), various beef parts sashimi, slightly seared steak, and Wagyu shabu-shabu in leek broth with matsutake mushrooms. The steak at Wagyu Mafia was exactly how I like it – very tender, but chewy enough to enjoy the texture. Hisato Hamada has an incredible passion for what he does and you can see that at his restaurant. People have asked me how to become a member at Wagyu Mafia. I can’t help with that, but you can always try your luck by contacting Mr Hamada himself.
Vesta was my third steak destination in Tokyo this time. It was recommended by a friend, who I could trust blindly for eating in Japan. Opened a year and a half ago, Vesta is a new player in Tokyo restaurant scene. Maybe that explains why it was completely empty when I was there for lunch. It was quite a surreal scene, when the first thing placed in front of me was a tray with a box of plump sea urchin tongues, Iranian caviar, matsutake mushrooms and live abalone trying to crawl over the caviar box.
Now we are talking about show off! I went for a more “humble” version of a starter, home smoked salmon. Because it was “hot” smoked, it didn’t seem to be smoked, but rather “cooked” and had this pure and deep flavour. The restaurant’s centrepiece is a charcoal grill, which the Kobe-born chef clearly takes pride in. The steak was expertly cooked, had nice crisp on the top and reminded me of the steak at Shima. Vesta is definitely a good alternative for steak lovers in Tokyo, although some ambiance and action wouldn’t do any harm.