If there’s a pricey Japanese food that grabs headlines, it’s sushi. In New York, menus featuring exquisite raw fish now routinely hit $500 ( ₹ 41,519 approx.) per person (and at Michelin three-starred Masa from Masayoshi Takayama, prices start at $750 ( ₹ 62,279 approx.)). The cult of expensive sushi is spreading to London: at Takayama’s just-opened outpost in Harrods, Sushi by Masa, a toro caviar roll is on the menu for £198 ( ₹ 20,013 approx.), while the omakase menu in the new Sushi Kanesaka at 45 Park Lane in Mayfair will set diners back £420 ( ₹ 42,781 approx.).
But at Aragawa, another new, elite Japanese dining room in Mayfair, the eye-opening prices are not for seafood but beef. It’s the first overseas location of the famed Kobe and Tokyo restaurants, founded in 1956 and 1967 respectively. Aragawa specialises in steaks cut from the super-premium Tajima strain of black wagyu cattle. Steak prices start at £500 ( ₹ 50,927 approx.) and hit £900 ( ₹ 91,668 approx.) for about 400 grams (about 14 ounces) of beef.
By any measure, that's a hefty sum. In its defence, though, it is extraordinary beef. A sirloin steak from Nishizawa Farm in Japan's Hyogo prefecture (£760 ( ₹ 77,405 approx.)) is so liberally streaked with white fat that the color is pale pink, not meaty red. It’s as tender as butter. And the texture and marbling will make diners think more of top-notch tuna belly than anything from a steakhouse.
The flavour is milder than a normal steak, for several reasons: The beef comes from a three-year-old steer but is only aged for the three weeks it takes to be shipped from Japan. (Meanwhile the aging on many steakhouse menus marches upward like an endurance race.) And unlike most steakhouses, the beef is not cooked in the flames of a grill or broiler, but in a bespoke, cantilevered kiln that only holds three steaks at a time. Fueled by high-grade Japanese binchotan charcoal, the kiln is designed not to interfere with the flavor of the beef, imparting it with barely a whisper of smoke. Before serving, the steak is rested in a cooler part of the kiln, to set the juices and marbled fat that provide its ethereal flavor. Like the best jamón iberico, its fat starts to melt even at room temperature. It’s lightly seasoned with salt and pepper.
There’s no thermostat or timer on the discreet kiln; no beeps from temperature probes. It’s overseen by chef Kazuo Imayosh, who came from Aragawa in Tokyo for the launch. The man who has spent 40 years perfecting the art of cooking beef. He knows the steak is ready by the touch of the meat and also, he says, the sound of the sizzle, like a carnivore Jedi master from Star Wars.
The opening menu features five choices of steak, all from small, top-rated farms in and around Kobe: Two sirloins, a filet and two cuts from the rump. A 400-gram (14-ounce) Okazaki farms sirloin will set you back a cool £900 ( ₹ 91,668 approx.), while a similarly sized ichibo (rump cap) steak is a relative bargain at £500 ( ₹ 50,927 approx.). Owner Kotaro Ogawa leaves the name “Kobe” off the menu: the appellation is too broad for him, like labelling a Burgundy from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti as a simple pinot noir.
The beef is sourced from farms that rear a mere thousand or so Tajima cattle a year each, and the meat has to meet stringent criteria based on marbling, color, texture, luster and firmness. In Aragawa’s Tokyo restaurant, prices for the 400-gram steaks range from 55,000 yen to 99,000 yen ( ₹30,470 - 54,797 approx.) Factor in the cost of travel, and the stratospheric London prices make a little more sense.
The restaurant, which opened Oct. 20, has two floors. The main dining room accommodates 26 diners at tables topped with starched white linen; the walls of the space are handsomely decorated with hand-painted, burnt orange panels inspired by kimono fabrics and featuring grape harvest motifs. Upstairs is a 12-seat private dining room and wine display.
Owner Ogawa is a wine lover and he’s curated a 1,000-bottle cellar of fine wines, including steak-friendly candidates like a mature, cherry-scented 2014 Château Barde-Haut from Saint-Émilion ( ₹12,220 approx.) and a stunningly complex 2005 Château Margaux ( ₹1,42,575 approx.). The same Margaux costs £1,290 ( ₹1,31,363 approx.) retail at nearby Hedonism Wines, and that doesn't include the capacious, hand-blown Riedel glasses offered at Aragawa, or the services of an expert sommelier.
Among other non-classic hallmarks of Aragawa is the starters menu, specifically an immaculate, limpid French-style consommé ( ₹2,545 approx.). Made with the trimmings from the Tajima beef, it’s not a dish you find at most meat-centric dining spots. But maybe it should be. Clean-flavored and sparklingly clear with a meaty, umami finish, it is an unexpectedly good drum roll to the main-event beef.
The most exquisite thing on the table, besides the beef, might be the cutlery from Japanese artisan knifemakers Ryusen. The handles are made from Japanese oak; the knife blades are as beautifully embossed as samurai swords. They are so sharp that they glide through beef like light sabers from the aforementioned Star Wars. They cost around £400 ( ₹40,734 approx.) a set; Ogawa jokes that he might combat the temptation for diners to slip them into their bags by listing the price on the menu, the way hotels do for guests who are inclined to steal bathrobes.
And speaking of price: Those steaks. It is not easy to make a case for piece of meat that cost as much as a decent laptop.
But nobody else is sourcing, cooking and serving beef in the same way. So don’t try to compare it to the offerings at other London restaurants. Most fans don’t blink at spending similar sums for a box at Wimbledon’s Center Court, or a VIP seat for Taylor Swift. If you’re a similarly minded steak obsessive, then go for it, and savor every mouthful. And to note for people on a relative budget when they walk through the door: One steak can serve two guests who are prepared to eat modestly. (A word of warning: Go easy on the wasabi and green olive relish. The beef is the thing.)
Ogawa, meanwhile, makes no apology for the price of his main attraction. Unlike many Western Japanese restaurants, he is not trying to combine tempura, sushi, noodles and teppanyaki under one roof. “If it’s a steak you want, we are here,” he says. “I don’t compare it with anything else. I only say it is unique.”