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A Breed Apart

Niku Steakhouse creates a blowout dining experience with wagyu beef.

SLIDESHOW

The chef’s counter, designed by architect Brent McDonald with the help of Kash Feng and Aya Jessani, seats 18.

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Chocolate miso wagyu fat brownie with miso “dippin’ dots” and wagyu caramel.

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Koji cabbage with anchovy aioli.

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Shinki Chen cocktails.

Photo: Dave Greer

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An Imperial wagyu tomahawk steak on a binchotan grill.

Photo: Dave Greer

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The Imperial wagyu tomahawk steak comes with a side of kimchi and bordelaise sauce and crispy potatoes.

Photo: Dave Greer

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The crispy potatoes.

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The Niku Steakhouse bar seen through the window on Division Street.

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On a drizzly spring evening in the Design District, I was sitting at the chef’s counter at Niku Steakhouse, sipping sake, gnawing on a strip of boutique beef jerky and soaking up a culinary disquisition that could have almost passed for a eugenics lecture.

It came from a man working a charcoal fire, who spoke of fatty calves and musculature and the proliferation of propaganda that masked the truth about genetic traits.

“Fact is,” chef Steve Brown says, “a lot of what you’ve been told is Kobe beef is complete bullshit.” With that, he wheeled to the grill behind him, then turned back to present me with a slab of the real thing: a 4-ounce portion, priced at $160.

All steakhouses, by their nature, are indulgent species. Niku, though, is a breed apart: a particularly hedonistic hybrid that seems very much a creature of today’s IPO-fueled San Francisco. Its menu offers a selection of pedigreed domestic proteins, served in hulking sizes. These include a Kurobuta pork chop and a tomahawk steak of Nebraskan wagyu that costs $200 and is meant for two, though it could likely satisfy a pride of lions.

But enough about the low-end stuff.

Niku’s brand is built more squarely on the most rarefied of red meats, meaning actual Kobe and other prized varieties of Japanese wagyu. Wagyu translates literally as “Japanese cow,” and it’s not to be confused with less prestigious breeds that are often crossed with wagyu, then sold under the same prestigious label. Pure wagyu, such as Kobe, is so thoroughly and uniformly marbled that it yields like softened butter. Trying to grind and sear it would be silly, as you’d be left with little more than beefy goop—something to consider next time you come across a “wagyu” slider.

We’re not talking sports-bar fodder here. Honest-to-goodness wagyu is the bovine version of bluefin tuna belly: astoundingly tender and mind-bendingly delicious, but also so scarce and expensive that it’s best enjoyed without thinking too hard about the broader implications of eating it.

As the latest venture from the hard-charging Omakase Restaurant Group, which has colonized the neighborhood with several other projects, including a wagyu butcher shop next door, Niku does its best to get you in the proper mood. The decor carries traces of an old-school loosen-your-belt-notch steakhouse, with dark wood walls and leather chairs, while the clean lines and cool music that greet you at the bar and follow you to the dining room make it clear you’ll be digging in, millennial-style.

You can order the full menu anywhere you sit, but the place to be is the chef’s counter, which wraps around an open cooking area that’s anchored by a binchotan-fired grill—its embers glowing like the flames of Mordor. In traditional steakhouse fashion, everything comes a la carte, though in lieu of the likes of Caesar salad and creamed spinach, the starters and sides are, for the most part, modernist stunners with an Asian twist. One is a wedge of purple cabbage, marinated in shio koji, a rice mold with a gently fermented funk, and layered between its leaves with housemade hot sauce and anchovy aioli. Another is a bowl of agnolotti, elegant pasta purses plumped with goat-milk ricotta; studded with squash, pancetta and pecans; and bathed in a delicate sake cream—a sauce that Aflredo could only dream of being.

There’s an element of spectacle to Niku, thanks in part to its open fire, but also to its Instagram-ready presentations. A tray of Kumamoto oysters, dotted with solidified mignonette “pearls,” is paraded from the kitchen, dry-ice smoke trailing dramatically behind it. A flight of jerky, dried from Japanese A5 wagyu (A5 is the highest grade), cuts a striking profile: a trio of leathery tongues seasoned, respectively, with soy marinade, salt and pepper, and kimchi, and brought to your table draped over a wooden dowel. It’s a cheeky concept, but the familiarity of the flavors and textures suggests that making jerky from the finest wagyu is a bit like smoking the freshest fish: not worth the bother, unless you’re setting off cross-country in a covered wagon.

Beef of such lofty breeding merits minimalist treatment. It’s best when seasoned lightly and cooked quickly at high heat. That’s how Niku mostly does it, and it’s how you want to have it: seared and served as a 4- or 8-ounce New York strip. Three sides come with the wagyu—kimchi, sel gris and bordelaise sauce—all in amounts so small that it seems like a reminder: This meat needs no help at all. Its richness is so great, its flavors so deep, that a few bites of it are more gratifying than an ordinary steak four times its size.

If you haven’t had enough, you can carry through the beefy theme into dessert with a wagyu fat brownie—moist, dark and star-speckled with liquid nitrogen “dippin’ dots” and drizzled with wagyu-fat caramel. This kitchen does decadence quite well.

Shortly after my visit, Brown stepped down and was replaced by Dustin Falcon, a veteran of Lazy Bear and The French Laundry. Though the menu may evolve, it seems destined to remain the same in spirit: an emblem of a city awash in new money, unabashed in its appetite for blowout dining. For people, if not cows, it’s good to be one of the 1 percent.

The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at Niku Steakhouse

Koji cabbage. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $14
Goat milk ricotta agnolotti . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $22
Japanese A5 wagyu jerky flight. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $20
Imperial wagyu bone-in ribeye. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $130
A5 Kobe NY strip, 4 oz. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $160
Crispy potatoes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $13
Wagyu fat brownie . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $16
Kotsuzumi sake . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $25 per glass
Total. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .$400

Niku Steakhouse
61 Division St., 415.829.7817
2½ Stars

 

 

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco 

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