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If you are opening a restaurant that sells sirloin steaks for £760 each, you must pick your spot carefully. So Aragawa, a Japanese steakhouse that opened in Tokyo in 1967, has come to Clarges Street in Mayfair, near Berkeley Square and squarely in London hedge fund territory.
Mayfair has enough people who will not think too hard before paying that sum for a top-grade sirloin steak from cattle reared at Nishizawa farm, near Kobe. Nor will they feel the pinch of the £900 that it charges for a 400g Tajima black Wagyu steak from Okazaki ranch in Shiga prefecture. This is not an offering for those who need to check their bank balances.
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The rest of us will ask how a steak can be worth that much, albeit one prepared in a charcoal-fired kiln by a master chef who knows how well it is cooked by touch and the sound of the sizzle. Even Mayfair’s hedge fund traders, alert to arbitrage opportunities, may wonder why they are paying about twice the price in London than in the Aragawa restaurant in Tokyo.
One answer is that they will be drawn as much by the price as the beef. There cannot be many fans of the Nusr-Et steakhouse chain, where a giant Tomahawk Wagyu steak costs £630, who go for the purity of the meat. More are enticed by the flash and sizzle of its Turkish founder Nusret Gökçe, also known as Salt Bae, and his slicing and salt-sprinkling displays.
Aragawa is the quiet luxury alternative: rather than a flamboyant celebrity butcher, you get a sober artisan who has been honing his craft for the past 40 years. There is a distinct echo of Jiro Ono, the perfectionist sushi chef from Ginza in Tokyo made famous by the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and championed by Bob Iger, Disney’s chief executive.
This encouraged a wave of very expensive sushi restaurants, including the three-Michelin-starred Masa in New York, where an omakase dinner at the counter costs about $1,000. Displays of vinegared rice and glistening fish, prepared by chefs with razor sharp knives, draw on a sushi tradition that reaches back centuries.
But the steakhouse is not an ancient Japanese institution. Meat was rarely eaten there until the 20th century, and New York restaurants such as Peter Luger and The Old Homestead long predated the first Aragawa steakhouse, which opened in Kobe in 1956. This is instead a prime example of Japan’s peculiar talent for taking foreign products and refining them.
Anyone who has lived in Tokyo is familiar with Italian restaurants run by Japanese chefs that somehow improve on the pizza and pasta one eats in many places in Italy. The same goes for coffee, and I used to frequent a perfect pastiche of a French bistro on a side street in the Yutenji district. Call it affectionate tribute or cultural appropriation, it is executed precisely.
This also applies to Japanese denim, and to single malt whiskies from distilleries in the Kansai region around Kobe and Osaka. They are traceable products whose mystique and price often rises with distance from their origins. Bottles of 100th anniversary 18-year-old Mizunara whisky from Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery are now selling for £1,850 at Fortnum & Mason.
Beef is a classic case of Japanese adaptation. Having dabbled in crossbreeding with western cattle in the early 20th century, it focused on pure Japanese breeds, including the top Tajima strain of black Wagyu. The unique marbling of Wagyu beef is created by the intensive feeding of cattle to produce intramuscular fat, which makes the steaks unusually fragrant and soft.
When agricultural trade was liberalised in the 1990s, the country responded by making domestic beef even more Japanese: farmers steadily increased the amount of marbling in their animals. Wagyu cows are also raised in the US (despite Wagyu meaning “Japanese cattle”), but Japan contrived to keep its own steak as distinctive as its best whisky is from Scotch or bourbon.
Japan’s steakhouses layer on top of this meticulous supply chain artisanal cooking that takes years for chefs to perfect. The high-end binchotan charcoal that Aragawa burns is not only costly but becoming rarer, since fewer heirs to the family businesses that produce it want to keep going. The end result is an intricate but potentially endangered form of craft cuisine.
Is it sustainable? If a Japanese steakhouse has to come to Mayfair to find customers who can foot the bill, I’m not sure that it is. Once you have paid to import Kobe steaks and fine charcoal, and taken on the overheads of Clarges Street, you end up charging extremely high prices. Kotaro Ogawa, owner of Aragawa in both Tokyo and London, tells me he is even thinking of producing charcoal in the UK himself.
His steaks epitomise the difficulty facing Japan in finding a broad international market for its most rarefied consumer products. They delight those who both appreciate dedicated artisanship and can afford exquisite objects, but that is a small target. Still, Aragawa’s Mayfair diners can be assured of one thing: the experience is, in its own way, genuine.