Wagyu from Japan is often held up as the best beef in the world.
The meat is tender as the night. It’s so soft, steak knives are optional. Its marbled fat dissolves into a buttery flavor so rich it could retire to Florida.
The cattle lead a relatively pampered life. They are registered with the Japanese government soon after birth and raised according to strict regulations, though the idea that they are all raised on a diet of beer and Beethoven is something of an exaggeration.
You pay for the privilege, of course. At Wolfgang Puck’s CUT in Beverly Hills, $140 will get you 4 ounces of USDA Prime aged 35 days but only 2 oz. of wagyu from Japan’s Miyazaki prefecture.
It must be brilliant, right?
“I hate the stuff,” says Richard Turner, butcher and author of Prime: The Beef Cookbook (Mitchell Beazley, 2017), which will be published in the U.K. this week and in the U.S. in May. “It slaps you around the head and then trails off quickly. Some people like that, but I’m an Englishman, and I like my beefy flavor to last.”
After the European Union lifted a ban on Japanese beef in 2014, restaurants in London started experimenting with wagyu, which translates to Japanese cow. The U.K. quickly became the largest importer in Europe, bringing in nearly 47,000 kilograms (1.7 million ounces) in 2016, according to Zen-Noh group, the business arm of Japan’s largest agricultural cooperative.
The meat is showing up at high-end Japanese establishments, as well as less-expensive restaurants, where it may feature in sushi or fusion dishes. At Anzu, a brasserie in St James’s Market in London, wagyu beef tataki with sesame and soy dressing is a popular dish, at £18 ($22). But even Anzu’s chef and co-owner Ken Yamada says it must be eaten in small bites.
“I don’t think anyone can eat a slab of it and feel comfortable,” says Yamada, who was born in Shimoda, south of Tokyo, and moved to the U.K. in 1988. “I may have been in England far too long, but I prefer a decent, British, aged steak.”
I’ve set off around London to see what some of the city’s best chefs can do with wagyu. Along for the ride is Yoshinori Ishii, who holds two Michelin stars at Japanese spot Umu, in London’s Mayfair neighborhood.
The day starts at the CUT in London, which serves A5 wagyu from Kagoshima. (The meat is graded from A to C for yield and from 5 to 1 for quality, with A5 the top rating.) CUT’s style of cooking is different from that in Japan, where diners consume much smaller portions.
Chef Gwenaul Lalloz at CUT says it is his favorite beef. London prices start at £140 for 6 oz. of New York sirloin. Middle Eastern diners are particular fans.
“We sell 20 to 25 kilos (44 to 55 pounds) a week when we are lucky enough to get this kind of meat, which sometimes is not really easy,” he says, citing supplier bottlenecks of certain cuts.
At Bella Cosa, an Italian restaurant in Canary Wharf, chef Kentaro Torii occasionally puts wagyu on the menu as a promotion. Lucky for us, he has specially prepared a fusion dish of fagottini pasta with gorgonzola filling.
Bite after bite, I’m loving it, but Ishii’s mind is elsewhere. He is excitedly recalling the Galician aged beef he ate recently across town: “It was amazing,” Ishii says.
We then head to Yashin Ocean House in Kensington, where chef Shinya Ikeda regularly serves wagyu as sushi, as well as sukiyaki—meat simmered with vegetables in a soy sauce broth—with candy floss that melts into it.
Mark Schatzker, who wrote Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef (Penguin, 2011). decided Japanese wagyu wasn’t the answer he sought.
“It’s a great and wonderful thing,” he says, “But it’s not steak. It’s completely different. It’s more like foie gras. Steak is bloody: You know you are eating an animal. It satisfies your inner cave man. Wagyu is more refined—and I don’t mean superior.”
Schatzker says he prefers more traditional beef, including organic grass-fed from Alderspring Ranch in Idaho and Naked Beef from Joyce Farms in North Carolina. He’s also a fan of British breeds, including Aberdeen Angus, Hereford, and Galloway.
We end with a French take at the Greenhouse, an upscale kitchen in Mayfair, where wagyu is on the menu from time to time. For us, Executive Chef Arnaud Bignon has prepared the meat with Chantenay carrots, carrot puree, grapefruit, and black sesame, with tamarind.
“Diners love Japanese wagyu, and if you have a small portion, the way they do in Japan, it is OK,” Bignon says. “I like to use it sometimes, but not too much.”
At Umu, not all of Ishii’s customers understand or fully appreciate his wagyu, which he gets from Gunma prefecture and prefers to the better-known Kobe variety. Some say it’s too fatty, and he explains that the marbling melts as it cooks. But then, some customers just think it’s regular red meat. “A few weeks ago, I had a fight with a customer because he said we are not using Japanese wagyu,” he said.
Is Japanese wagyu Ishii’s favorite meat? “It is a beautiful experience,” he says.
But if he wants beef at home, he stops at a local grocery store to pick up some Scottish aged beef. “I love real cow flavor,” he says.
I’m going to take that as a no.