Pop-up legend Steve Brown flaunts Michelin aspirations at Niku Steakhouse, where he serves A5 wagyu jerky flights, Imperial wagyu tomahawks, and A5 Takamori “drunken wagyu," which is from cattle that are fed sake mash.
It’s the opening weekend at San Francisco’s Niku Steakhouse, and the restaurant is packed. Chef Steve Brown, rocking a black San Francisco Giants cap, is in the open kitchen that feels like an extension of the dining room. He’s in front of a custom-made binchotan grill, and guests at the 18-seat counter are watching the sparks fly as Brown cooks and smiles.
But if you’re not sitting at the counter and you have a question about which kind of wagyu to order at Niku, your waiter or bartender will likely tell you that Brown is the best person to ask. When he’s not busy grilling, seasoning, and plating beef, Brown will be happy to come over and explain everything you need to know.
The chef, you might notice when he does come over, has tattoos on his arm including one that says "Cosecha," which was the name of his San Diego-born supper club that had roving wagyu dinners around the country. There’s another tattoo that says A5, which is the extremely marbled highest level of Japanese beef. Clearly, Brown is the man with the answers.
Niku, a modern American steakhouse with Japanese influences that debuted last week at the new One Henry Adams development, serves A5 wagyu jerky flights that include delicious kimchi-flavored jerky. (Brown is making his own kimchi, koji, and charcuterie.) For main courses, there are Imperial wagyu tomahawks and four or eight ounces of premium Japanese beef, including A5 Ono wagyu, A5 Satsuma wagyu, and A5 Kobe.
One off-menu special is A5 olive-fed wagyu. Another special, which is Brown’s favorite, is A5 Takamori “drunken wagyu.” The drunken wagyu, from cattle that are fed sake mash, is insanely tender and tremendously beefy. Brown cooks this wagyu perfectly with a char that adds a little crispiness to the edges of each slice before your mouth absorbs all the softness and richness of the meat and fat. It’s an unforgettable bite.
Niku has an adjacent butcher shop helmed by fellow wagyu expert Guy Crims. Expect the butcher shop to start selling lunchtime sandwiches in March. The steakhouse and butcher shop are part of Omakase Restaurant Group, which has a Michelin star at Omakase and also just opened Udon Time at One Henry Adams. Brown, who met Crims and Omakase Restaurant Group co-owner Jackson Yu on a plane when they were all en route to Japan for a tour of wagyu prefectures in 2017, previously told us that he has Michelin-star aspirations at Niku.
So Brown will start serving a 10-course chef’s-counter tasting menu on March 1. The beverage program at Niku is similarly ambitious. There are more than 100 wines by the glass, plus a cocktail list featuring bar manager Julien Bertrand’s wonderfully balanced drinks with Japanese whisky and Japanese gin.
California is having a major wagyu moment. Also in San Francisco, chef Marc Zimmerman is working on the spring opening of Ittoryu Gozu, a wagyu-focused restaurant that will serve a kappo-style tasting menu with nose-to-tail robatayaki dishes. Zimmerman previously ran the kitchen at San Francisco’s Alexander’s Steakhouse, a restaurant that also has Japanese influences and serves a lot of wagyu.
A month ago, I didn’t know much about olive-fed wagyu. But chef Phillip Frankland Lee is serving it at The Silver Bough in Santa Barbara, and this beef was the best thing I ate at the new tasting-menu restaurant. Meanwhile, chef John Cox is offering the Fess Parker family’s own wagyu at The Bear & Star in Los Olivos. The cattle, which are raised at the 714-acre Fess Parker ranch seven miles away from Cox’s restaurant, is finished with grape pomace from the family winery and spent grains from the family brewery. This is California’s version of drunken wagyu.
Chef Akira Back, who earned a Michelin star in Seoul, is going to be serving a lot of wagyu at his forthcoming restaurants in San Diego and Los Angeles. Back’s Lumi in San Diego, which is scheduled to open in the spring, will have wagyu rib eyes, stone-seared wagyu, and a sushi roll with wagyu, lobster tempura, and truffle sauce. Back is also working to open Akira Back Steakhouse at L.A.’s Beverly Center. You can no doubt expect Korean and Japanese influences on that menu.
On the more casual side of things in L.A., HiHo, which makes terrific cheeseburgers with grass-fed New Zealand wagyu, will soon open a Mid-Wilshire outpost. HiHo’s Santa Monica location recently added to its repertoire with a “Make It Spicy” option for all of its burgers.
Even if you fancy yourself a wagyu connoisseur, it might be hard to keep up with what feels like the wagyu Wild West in California. At Niku, though, there’s no need to be overwhelmed by all the options. Just ask for a moment with the chef behind the counter if you have any questions. He’ll get you sorted before he goes back to cooking dinner over charcoal. Brown used to do pop-ups, so he’s accustomed to chaotic situations. Now that he’s got his dream kitchen at Niku, nothing seems to be a problem.
Niku Steakhouse, 61 Division St., San Francisco, 415-829-7817