O’Shima (Tokyo, Japan) – Japanese Steak Dinner
There was a three-way tug of war between kaiseki, sushi, and beef on this trip, each vying for attention and sampling. There was not enough time to sample the innumerable sushi spots, much less the promises of the various breeds and prefectures of wagyu beef. After weighing some possibilities, O’Shima was earmarked for the main Japanese beef experience. Unfortunately, due to the dearth of wagyu options on other menus, it became the sole beef experience.1
The standard American or Australian wagyu available in most domestic restaurants offers neither the dry-aged beefiness of a well-aged steak nor the tenderness of the mythical Kobe beef from Japan; instead, it is often an overpriced compromise without much reward. If only given those experiences as reference points, my interest would be little. Fortunately, the US and Japan found a compromise in a beef importing impasse and real high-quality Japanese wagyu can now be found in America.
(Above) – A sirloin getting weighed at O’Shima, this portion for two. It is not as marbled as the A10 beef from Urasawa (below.) That is good – it would not (or should not?) be possible to eat a steak of A10 – far too rich.
My limited experience with Japanese beef has proved seductive. The A10 kobe at Urasawa (LA), sliced thinly and seared for an instant, was a revelation in texture over warm rice. The $100 “kobe” supplement at Masa (NYC)2 was entirely different – cut thicker, not as marbeled – it’s flavor redolent of citrus overtones – not unlike the secondary flavors of chocolate or coffee. The beef at the Secret Japanese Beef Place in LA 3 is neither Japanese nor wagyu, but it is raised with Japanese sensibilities – specific diets to control intended flavors – and, while lacking “beefiness”, the combination of texture and taste is quite rewarding. The distinction between the Japanese and other varieties of wagyu most likely boils down to some combination of native breeds, careful and purposeful diets, and fanatical care for the meat – and the results speak for themselves.
The experience of finding O’Shima is similar to A Life Worth Eating’s recount Aragawa, purported to be the world’s most expensive restaurant (serving steak!) O’Shima is located in the basement of an office building, something that is quite common in Tokyo, a function of real estate scarcity and a possible desire for anonymity. After walking into an empty lobby, there is little to suggest a restaurant might be hidden somewhere on the premises. I read the restaurant was in the basement so I pressed down, hoping not to cause an international incident. The elevator door opened into a lively scene – a long bar for 8-10 people, a multitude of chefs behind it, and a back room with a few tables. It was more of a club where Sushiso Masa was a shrine.
The chef and his sous chef spoke great English, not that it would be very hard to point to the marbled steak with one hand, while wiping the drool with the other. The menu was very basic – strip and sirloin – available in 100g or 200g sizes. It is fine dining stripped down to its bare essential – a singular focus on one luxury ingredient.4 There are some minor distractions on the menu, like salad, but there is no reason to fool yourself – the beef is the raison d’être.
The crab croquettes were made from live crab, many of which were crawling around on the back counter. Despite the frying being a touch heavy-handed, the crunch yielded to a perfect creamy consistency inside.
The beef carpaccio, overkill in retrospect, had the consistency of soft butter. The Japanese do not generally dry-age their meat as long as others and, without any cooking, this piece lacked any flavor. It was interesting for its textural qualities but its lack of taste created a small amount of worry – would the steak suffer the same fate?
The ordering of the salad was probably reactionary, maybe even an involuntary reflex, when one considers the likelihood of eating a great salad in a steak house. The greens were fine but the mealy tomato was a distasteful reminder to stick to the script.
There are many cliches surrounding kobe beef, none more prevalent than “it melts in your mouth.” This rare piece of sirloin could have been labeled “beef butter” or “beef foie gras” and it would have fulfilled every expectation of such a title. The meat yielded to the bite without any resistance – the weight of your bite would cut through it. Surprisingly, despite its melting quality, the fat was not too rich to be overbearing; it was a perfect proportion of meat to fat for eating an entire steak. While it had a great grilled taste, it lacked the dry-aged beefiness of the best steaks I’ve had. From my understanding, extensive dry-aging of meat with such high fat content leads to the meat turning rancid. They appear to be two mutually exclusive variables – dry-aged taste or melting texture – and they both have their pros and cons. Despite my preferences, this was a remarkable steak that I would absolutely recommend for its textural qualities.
For the price freaks, the steak itself was about $150 US. Expensive but not prohibitive for such an experience.
Rice concluded the meal – a simple and traditional end.
The candied oranges were alternating sweet and bitter, to the extreme, with each bite. He packed over 10 more pieces for the plane ride home the next day. A nice gesture, perhaps conciliatory in nature. Why? Regulars knew to order a bento box at the beginning of their meal – a sandwich made from all of the steak trimmings throughout the meal! And he had run out. Take note if you make plans to eat at O’Shima.
It was a very good meal, although it didn’t reach the heights of previous meals at Koju, Ryugin, or Sushiso Masa. The fish encountered at those restaurants upended even the highest expectations for the ingredient. The beef at O’Shima exceeded my expectations, but my personal, and perhaps cultural, preferences for dry-aged meat prevent me from including O’Shima in the top tier of Tokyo dining experiences. Nonetheless, I would recommend O’Shima as a pillar of any high-end food itinerary for Tokyo – it should be experienced at least once.
1 – The only other beef moment was a small but intense piece of beef served by Koju (Tokyo).
2 – There was no report for this particular meal but it came after my sensational meal about a year ago.
3 – The Secret Beef Place has been outed on a number of blogs, including Yelp. The policy, however, is still “customers only” – new customers can only come with an existing customer. This, as it turns out, is not an uncommon practice in Japan.
4 – Not unlike my preferred American destination for sashimi – Sawa.