The first time I tried Japanese Wagyu A5 grade beef (the highest quality steak in the world) was at one of my favorite South Bay restaurants, Alexander’s. It was a special occasion, so my date popped for the ribeye – an eye-popping $200. It was unlike anything I had ever eaten in my life; it’s not really fair to compare it to steak because it’s more like beef foie gras – when you see A5 Wagyu raw, it is snow white from the intense marbling. The flavor and texture, like the price tag, are incomparable.
Most people know Japanese A5 Wagyu as Kobe beef; but while all Kobe beef is Wagyu, not all Wagyu is Kobe. Like French wine, Japan produces beef by region, or prefecture: Kobe is produced in Hyogo, Matsuzaka in Mie, Omi in Shiga. Kobe was known as Tajima in ancient times (some still refer to the meat as Tajima beef) and the cattle are descendants of “kuoge Waygu,” or black-haired Japanese cattle. Even today, true A5 Kobe beef is a rarity, raised on fewer than 300 small farms that pasture fewer than 5 cows (the largest has between 10 and 15 at any given time).
There are many legends surrounding the cattle of Kobe, including that they are massaged with sake and fed beer. Both are true, but not for the reasons many assume (tenderness of the meat). Producers believe massaging with sake imparts a soft coat that improves appearance and thus value, and that a calm, happy animal yields better tasting meat. The cattle are fed beer during warm summer months when they eat less because beer stimulates their appetite (something anyone who has spent an evening at the pub and wound up wolfing down a 7-Eleven microwave burrito at 3 a.m. knows all too well).
The other legend that happens to be true is that the fat of Wagyu is more healthful than that of other beef. It’s still a caloric disaster, mind you, but Wagyu contains 30 percent more monounsaturated fatty acids than American Angus, and is also higher in Omega 3 and 6 (most commonly associated with wild salmon), known for heart healthy benefits such as raising good and lowering bad cholesterols.
5A5 Steak Lounge, which recently opened in the old Frisson space on Jackson Street, is offering A5 Wagyu in a clever way: instead of having to buy a steak at a set price, you can order it per ounce. It’s still pricy – the minimum order is four ounces, and the New York, at $16 per ounce, will set you back $64 – but if you’re in the mood to splurge, this is the way to do it. Other cuts available are the ribeye ($18 per ounce), the ribcap ($18 per ounce), and the filet ($19 per ounce).
We tried the World Wide Wagyu sampler ($125): four ounces of Japanese A5, four ounces of Australian F1, and four ounces of “American Kobe” (a cross between Wagyu and Angus). The four-ounce portions were divided into two ounces each, perfect for sharing. The American was flavorful and tender; the Australian even a bit more so; but the Japanese A5 blew them both away. The crisp, caramelized fat has a richness – a sweet, creamy flavor and a firm, meaty texture – that is almost indescribable.
Cooking A5 is no easy task – the fat melts at 77 degrees, so just a second too long or a degree too high causes the meat to turn into shoe leather. Interestingly, 5A5 executive chef Allen Chen honed his skill at Alexander’s.
On all of our visits, the A5 was medium rare perfection with that coveted marbling still intact. Yes, it’s luxurious, but if you love steak and you feel you can splurge on just one thing this month, make it some A5 from 5A5.
While A5 is the star, the rest of the menu at 5A5 is also well worth a visit. The buffalo filet, also conveniently offered in more than one size (6 ounces, $29; 10 ounces, $45) is the best I’ve ever had, and I’ve tried a lot of buffalo. I usually find it “loamy” – almost a spongy texture – and often tough; in addition, it can be gamier than beef. At 5A5, the buffalo filet is succulent and rosy and cuts like butter. It also comes with one of the best accompaniments: crispy croquettes that, when popped in your mouth, explode with a burst of fresh corn and sweet, creamy Boursin cheese. Even though they are labor intensive, I would love to see the croquettes offered as a separate side dish; I, for one, would order them with everything.
The bone-in filet mignon, a hard-to-find cut, is not always available (nine ounces, $29), but the bone imparts greater flavor to a very lean and therefore often bland piece of meat. The 5A5 version is good, but not as good as the bone-in filet at Bobo’s (Lombard at Van Ness), which still sets the gold standard for big, juicy flavor with its rosemary-infused, garlic-basted, out-of-this-world bone-in filet.
5A5’s bone-in rib-eye, however (a whopping 25 ounces, $38), sets its own gold standard – a sharable, plate-hugging hunk of meat sure to delight any carnivorous connoisseur. It’s also one of the more dramatic presentations, surrounded by big, brightly hued gypsy peppers.
If I have a complaint about 5A5’s steak offerings it’s the use of unnecessary sauces – the ribeye is a tremendously tasty cut, yet it arrived coated in a sweet barbecue demi-glaze that covered much of the flavor. The bone-in filet comes with béarnaise, which, having learned from my first visit, I asked our server to place on the side.
So often at steakhouses, the nonmeat dishes are an afterthought – a piece of grilled salmon with broccoli, or a dried-up chicken breast on a pile of undercooked veggies. Chef Chen, fortunately, puts just as much thought into his fish and chicken options as he does the red meat. Misoyaki (a miso-based variant of teriyaki) is my favorite way to enjoy sea bass, and Chen’s is delicious – white, flaky fish with a crunchy, glazed crust accompanied by a green pea and smoky ham ragout and a delicate pea foam (four ounces, $16; seven ounces, $26). He does his chicken sous vide (a water bath method of cooking using vacuum-sealed pouches at low temperatures over a long time), rendering it velvety and moist. In another dramatic presentation, Chen slices the chicken, sets it on a bed of quinoa, and tops it with slices of purple potato ($17).
I also loved the silky pea soup with dashi, which gave it an unexpected tanginess, poured tableside over a mound of Dungeness crab ($9).
Smaller appetites will appreciate the “Bites” section of the menu, which includes phenomenal Kobe sliders ($12) – two, three-ounce mini burgers, a mix of Angus and A5, served on house-made buns with your choice of Gruyere or cheddar cheese. They also bring mustard, mayo and ketchup, but the sliders were so delicious I completely forgot and devoured them unadorned. The fries were truffled but not overpoweringly so, and came with a fragrant sriracha aioli that I wanted to slather all over my body (I settled for slathering it all over my fries). Our server mentioned that a Tuesday night “Kobe burger with beer-battered onion rings” special is in the works – if they can make three ounces this good, imagine what they can do with a full-sized patty.
Shishito peppers – a sweet-hot, petite, thin-skinned pepper popular in Japan – make a terrific appetizer simply stir fried with fleur de sel ($4). I always love them, and I don’t understand why, in our small-plates-crazy society, they haven’t caught on. Give me shishito peppers over edamame any day, though 5A5’s edamame tossed with sake and garlic is pretty addictive ($4).
When I think of shooters, I think of a shot glass with an oyster, a quail egg, tobiko, wasabi, and either sake or vodka. I like the concept of shooters at 5A5 ($4), but the glasses are a bit on the large size (more than a mouthful) and there’s no liquid to help the contents slide down your gullet. The combinations – hamachi with avocado and ginger, oysters with watermelon and shiso, A5 Wagyu tartare with quail yoke ($9), Sevruga caviar (one of the finest) with aloe vera ($15) – are intriguing, but I look forward to enjoying them even more with a shot of alcohol (we hear a “loaded” version is in the works).
Lobster tempura often seems such a waste, but it works here because the batter is light and the lobster is perfectly cooked ($20). Cocktail shrimp ($8) didn’t ring my bell (I’ve had better at seafood shacks) and the iceberg salad ($7) had way too many things going on, from thick slices of bacon to slivers of apple. Chili-laced togorashi (Japanese 7 spice) brought some heat to the beef tataki ($10) cooled by pickled daikon, and the beef carpaccio roll ($8) with creamy avocado and the surprise crunch of jicama still managed to keep the meat front and center.
I’m not a bread person, but even I couldn’t resist the house-baked bacon and cheddar bread brought before the meal. For side dishes, don’t miss the ooey-gooey and oh-so-satisfying mac & cheese ($7) with a molten mixture of Gruyere, mozzarella and cheddar (I’m over the overdone truffle oil trend, but like the fries, the restrained use here adds a subtle earthiness).
Another steakhouse afterthought, dessert, also rises above at 5A5. Pastry chef Sandi Sumaylo offers a creative collection ($8) including a tart citrus cheesecake bombe with yuzu caramel sauce, a layer of cake, lemon curd, candied zests, and peaks of meringue. My hands-down favorite, though, was the matcha tea doughnuts with kumquat marmalade. A lot of places are serving doughnuts these days, not always to great effect, but Sumaylo’s are green, warm, fluffy, and gleefully messy (with an ample sprinkle of sugar); as a bonus, she includes the holes. The handspun momo oolong tea ice cream (flavored with fresh Japanese peaches) is just sweet enough. I took the kumquat marmalade home and spread it on an English muffin the next morning (there were no doughnuts left to bring home, unfortunately).
The interior of 5A5 is sleek, chic and much more elegant than its predecessor, Frisson, with black patent, crocodile-patterned seats backed with soft white sparkly velveteen. A fireplace behind Plexiglas in the entry, another in the private party room, and a “movie” of dancing flames playing on a huge screen behind the bar add a modern coziness. I was glad to see they kept the best part about Frisson – the retro “spaceship” ceiling lit with orange, pink and yellow circles, which remains the focal point of the dining room.
A well-chosen wine list from sommelier Daniel Fish (former co-wine director at Aqua), an array of classic and specialty cocktails, and topnotch service help to complete an overall terrific experience. Fish’s pairings were spot on from raw fish to red meat. We had the same server, Nate, on two visits and he remembered my drink (Chopin vodka martini, up, dry, a little dirty, with olives), which always impresses me. One of the partners, Steve Chen, is affiliated with a string of other restaurant/bar/lounge successes, including Bin 38, Louie’s Bar and Grill, and Circolo; he’s assembled a strong team, but he is also there every night working the floor, greeting guests, and attending to every detail of the operation.
If you’re a meat lover, 5A5 is a must for a splurge, a special occasion, or to round out your “bucket list”; the A5 Wagyu is a definite must, and if you just want to try one of the best new restaurants in San Francisco, 5A5 takes the steak.
5A5 Steak Lounge 244 Jackson Street (between Battery & Front), 415-989-2539,
www.5a5stk.com. Dinner: Monday–Thursday 5:30–10 p.m., Friday–Saturday 5:30–9 p.m. Cocktail lounge: Monday–Thursday 5–11 p.m., Friday–Saturday 5 p.m.–2 a.m. (with D.J.s/live entertainment).
Sleek, chic and elegant with a modern coziness (and the super cool retro spaceship ceiling leftover from predecessor Frisson).
Smart and on the ball – we love it when a server remembers our cocktail from one visit to the next.
Even during peak hours, you can hold a conversation without screaming – this is a good place for a date, a business meeting, or to hear yourself think.
Leave your Mini Maglite at home – the lighting manages to be both useful and moody, a rare (no steak pun intended) treat.
Any cut of A5 Wagyu, World Wide Wagyu sampler, buffalo filet (with those decadent little corn-Boursin croquettes), bone-in ribeye, Kobe sliders, lobster tempura, matcha tea doughnuts, shishito peppers, pea soup, shooters (especially when they’re “loaded”).
WHAT THE DIAMONDS MEAN
Hungry Palate ratings range from zero to four diamonds and reflect food, atmosphere and service, taking price range and style of the restaurant into consideration.
OUR REVIEW POLICY
We conduct multiple visits anonymously and pay our own tab.