When it comes to steak, there may be few experiences rarer than the Sansekai menu at Marie Acaña Japanese restaurant in Paris. The restaurant specializes in sumibiyaki, or charcoal grill. The Sansekai menu is available at one table each night and begins with a pour of fresh ionized water (whose pH and ionization time are indicated on a card). Dozens of dishes follow, including beef broth, beef gyoza, and Kobe beef, before the star – Matsusaka beef tenderloin from Ito Farm in Japan.
Matsusaka is the most revered type of Wagyu (or Japanese) beef. This is partly due to export restrictions, and it is only now starting to appear in restaurants outside of Asia. Unlike other wagyu designations such as kobe, which are derived from cows and bulls, matsusaka comes only from virgin females that are raised for 30 to 32 months (longer than any other wagyu in Japan). The average melting point of fat in Matsusaka beef is 17°C (compared to 20°C in Kobe and 25°C in other wagyu meats), resulting in a perfectly melt-in-the-mouth steak. Of Matsusaka’s 120 producers, Ito Farm is the best, with its cows aged for 35 to 45 months and achieving a fat melting point of 12°C. At Mary Acaña, cuts include sirloin, chuck steak, and rump. But the most requested and exclusive on the Sansekai menu is the tenderloin, which costs €520 per person.
The 60-gram serving consists of marble-thin slices (three per person), which you grill at the table and season with hoshi-shio sea salt, wasabi salt, or a Japanese salt and pepper blend. Each bar melts on your tongue like a beef pastel. Or a square of dark chocolate cow. An exciting taste experience worth the wait.
“People love steak because of the way it makes them feel,” Mark Schatzker wrote in his book. A piece of meat. “It delivers flavour, tenderness and juiciness in a combination that no meat can equal.” Steak also appeals to people from all walks of life. But our sense of what makes the best cuts — not just in terms of flavor and texture but also how the animal was raised, prepared and dried — is evolving. While at the premium end of the market, suppliers and restaurants compete for the ability to say their products are more exclusive and more expensive. But which is higher? Is it just a matter of taste?
“Consistency is the most important thing,” says Riccardo Giraudi, founder of Beefbar Restaurants and CEO of European meat distributor Giraudi Group. “It’s not about tenderness or taste. It’s just that every time you eat a steak, it’s the same.” When Giraudy started the premium beef business 20 years ago, he realized how inconsistent beef was in Europe, thanks to a grading system that prioritized only the proportion of fat and muscle. Grading systems elsewhere are more stringent and wide-ranging – with rates in Japan fluctuating (from intramuscular fat) as the main component. When, in 2014, a European ban on imported Japanese beef was imposed after the mad cow disease outbreak was lifted, wagyu beef began to reappear on Western menus. A decade later, Wagyu beef has become synonymous with excellence, replacing other meat favorites such as Argentinian or Irish.
The wagyu steak manufacturing process continues. Flat Iron was launched in 2011 with the goal of providing a quality steak experience at a reasonable price. Last month, the British chain introduced its first British Wagyu variety (with an F2 rating, meaning 75 percent Wagyu genetics) at its branch in Covent Garden. Sirloin, ribeye and fillet start at £22, compared to £14-£20 for non-wagyu. “It’s the most expensive steak we make,” says Fred Smith, Flat Iron’s head of beef. “But still good value.” Wagyu is the only breed that people understand they are paying more for.”
What’s your beef?
Hugh Gott, co-founder of Hawksmoor
The key to great steak is happy livestock. All the hard work happens in the fields. A great example of this is Farm Wilder, a non-profit social enterprise that aims to restore biodiversity. It supports farmers in following cutting-edge regenerative agricultural practices. The starting point is always the grass. The grass needs rain, which the island of Ireland is blessed with. Some of my favorite steaks this year have been Irish – from the Angus and Herefords that roam freely in the wilds of the Burren in County Clare (burrenpremiumbeef.ie) to the diminutive Dexters that grace a former golf course in County Dublin (donabatedexter.ie). A fitting blessing for Irish farmers: May the rain fall softly on your fields.
Fred Smith, Flat Iron’s head of beef
I love Parilla Don Julio in Buenos Aires, which has some of the best Argentinian beef cooked over charcoal. And also Julian de Tolosa, in Tolosa near San Sebastian, where chefs cook enormous beef steaks over charcoal in the dining room. Beef is an ancient beef with great flavour. In New York, there is Peter Luger, one of the most famous steakhouses in the city, if not the country. Go for the über-tender main with mashed potatoes and don’t miss the cheesecake with schlag to finish. flatironsteak.co.uk
Kotaro Ogawa, founder of Aragawa
For me, Chateaubriand is the better cut. It’s the best part of the filet with the most character, but the umami of the red meat, especially in Japanese Wagyu Chateaubriand, makes it extra special. It’s tender yet tangy, everyone wants melt-in-your-mouth beef, but I love that this cut gives you something to chew on. In Tokyo, I recommend going to Goryeo Restaurant, located in the Ginza area.
Riccardo Giraudi, Founder of Beefbar and CEO of Giraudi Group
My recommendation for one of the best butchers in the world, without a doubt, is Victor Churchill in Sydney and Melbourne. He has been my inspiration for many projects.
Conversely, new Japanese restaurant Aragawa in London’s Mayfair offers a steak of 40-month-raised Tajima beef to share for £900. I was able to taste a sirloin that had been reared for 36 months and was reasonably priced to share at £760. The steak expert, who flew in from Tokyo, slices the 1.2-inch-thick steak with bars made of piano strings and judges when the steak is done by listening to the degree of sizzle and dripping. Each bite delivers fatty juiciness and a slight meaty taste.
However, despite the appeal of a quality Wagyu steak, I crave something chewier, meatier and bloodier. A few days later, I found myself at Hawksmoor, which offers British-raised, grass-fed steaks with the chewy, char and tang I seek. Before founders Will Beckett and Hugh Gott opened the first Hawksmoor restaurant in 2006, they toured the world tasting beef. “The clear winner was the longhorn cattle from a farm in North Yorkshire,” says Gott. “With the exception of Japanese wagyu, it was the most expensive of all. When we visited the farm, we realized why. Every stage of the process, from animal care to dry aging, was done more slowly. It was beef the way most people think it is produced by cows in the fields.” It eats grass most of its life.
Before opening the first American Hawksmoor restaurant in New York in 2021, Pickett and Gott sampled a lot of American beef. Most American beef cattle are fed extensively corn and are treated with antibiotics and hormones. The US emphasis on marbling delivers tender and flavorful steaks. “But for me, it comes at the expense of flavor,” says Gott. “First bite is great. But it doesn’t keep delivering.” The network of US farms they ended up working with felt comparable in standards to the farms they worked with in the UK. “Morals are taste,” Beckett explains. “Happy animals are important.”
Of course, how the steak is cooked and coated plays a big role in how it is appreciated. At Hawksmoor, the steak is grilled over charcoal (a rarity in American steakhouses) and served without sauce. “Steak on a white plate with everything else on the side,” Beckett says. At the Turkish restaurant chain Nusr-Et, customers have been known to pay a premium to have owner Salt Bae throw salt flakes from his forearm onto the meat.
Steak is also a matter of national preference and pride. “In France, people like strong secondary cuts like bavette,” says Giraudy. “In the Middle East they only eat good food.” The taste of steak can also be subject to fashion. Old dairy cows (especially from Portugal and Spain) are increasingly popular. As well as meat from less known breeds. At The Newt in Somerset, the rare British white breed is championed and appears in less common cuts like the wonderful full-bodied Denver steak I had.
Giraudi has expanded the offering at Beefbar to include options such as tartare, bao, smoked brisket and gyoza. “People want to eat less meat but better,” he says. “They also want a different way to experience meat instead of just steak.” This is undoubtedly true. However, some occasions always call for steak.