San Francisco is not a great steakhouse town. It has neither the legendary steakhouses of New York (Keen's, Sparks, Old Homestead, Peter Luger) nor the sexy new steakhouses of Los Angeles (Cut, Mastro's, Nick & Stef's, Jar). Try typing "steakhouses" in an Internet browser and nine U.S. cities pop up, none of them San Francisco.
Local beef-eaters' hearts must have skipped a beat when they heard that 5A5 Steak Lounge was opening in the Financial District space that had been empty since Frisson closed in the spring of 2008. The restaurant's name itself might also have caused another skipped beat: As its Web site says, "A5 stands for the highest grade of beef in the world, and a top-quality dining experience." But those interested in that top-quality dining experience might be worried to read that the restaurant "blends the vibe of a cocktail lounge with that of a traditional steakhouse ... 5A5 is also the ultimate lounge experience with live DJs/vocalists/bands." Happily, on the weeknight we showed up for an early dinner, none of these were in evidence.
On first entrance, the place looks much like Frisson: The most striking element of Frisson's design, the spaceship-looking round ceiling inset with pink-polka-dot lights hovering over the main dining room, is still in place, as are the pale backlit woven Plexiglas partitions that line the space. But the orange banquettes and little tables have been replaced. Our big semicircular booth was upholstered in a jarring combination of white leather and brownish-black imitation crocodile.
Knowing that the place is a steakhouse, you should anticipate high prices, and yet there was still a sense of sticker shock as our eyes drifted toward the higher end of the menu. 5A5 charges $90 for a 12-ounce Australian F1 "Kobe" New York (NY) steak, which is also offered at $65 for eight ounces and $35 for four. The World Wide Wagyu plate ($125) consists of four ounces of Japanese A5 NY, four ounces of Australian F1 NY, and four ounces of American "Kobe" NY. The vaunted Japanese A5 Wagyu the place is named for is priced by the ounce — $16 for NY, $18 for ribeye and ribcap (the end of the ribeye, we were told), and $19 for filet, with the minimum size being four ounces — which, at $64, $72, or $76 for the smallest-sized steaks, lifted it right out of our price range. (Don't even think about the $192 12-ounce A5 NY.)
Still wanting to partake in the Wagyu experience, we ordered an A5 Wagyu tartare shooter ($9) among our appetizers. "Would you like one each?" our server chirped, the first example of the gentle but constant upselling that accompanied our ordering. After we'd finished our appetizers and chosen our main courses, we were asked if we'd also like soup or salad. No, thanks, both times. The fatty, sweet Wagyu (in Japan, the all-important marbling of the meat is also graded on a scale of one to 12, which is not mentioned at this place) is perfect for tartare, 5A5's topped with a quail yolk and a thatch of microgreens.
The thickish truffle fries ($8) were perfectly cooked: crisp outside, soft and floury within, and served with a hot Sriracha aioli. Just as good were the fried shishito peppers ($4) sprinkled with fleur de sel: The big bowlful was the bargain of the night. (An even bigger bargain was the excellent free house-baked bread, concealing delicious surprise nuggets of bacon; we should have asked for more.) Three skewered chunks of lobster tempura ($20) were better when not dipped into the accompanying sticky sweet-and-sour shiitake sauce, which was more sweet than sour.
Don't bring Alice Waters or Michael Pollan to dinner here: Grass-fed beef is nowhere to be seen. The nine-ounce dry-aged bone-in filet, served with a classic béarnaise ($29), proved to be unavailable after our order was delivered to the kitchen, so we chose a 22-ounce dry-aged T-bone ($38) instead. If you can't cook it black-and-blue (aka charred rare), as ordered, don't tell us you can: The thin steak came to the table rare, striped from the grill but pale and uncharred, under a blanket of crispy onion shards, flanked by cipollini, and drizzled with an unnecessary salty brown sauce. It was tasty and well flavored, but not the thick steakhouse T-bone of our dreams.
The four-ounce dry-aged NY strip ($16, $25 for eight ounces, $39 for 12) was overpowered by its topping of miso, shishito pesto, and pickled ginger. A chicken breast, cooked sous vide ($17), came out soft, dry, and flavorless, accompanied by quinoa, a yellow-bell-pepper coulis, and purple potato chips. The best plate of the night was a special Kobe burger ($18), fat, juicy, and sassy on its bakery bun, accompanied by fried onion rings as big as bangles. The corn with edamame and kaffir lime leaf ($8) we chose from a list of five tempting vegetable sides tasted herbal and slightly soapy, but in a good way.
In this season of stone fruit, none was to be found on the primarily Asian-fusion dessert menu. The warm pineapple upside-down cake ($8), served with lime-coconut ice cream, pineapple-vanilla confit, and toasted coconut ice cream, was good but not exciting. Perhaps the citrus cheesecake bombe with yuzu caramel sauce, citrus supremes, lemon curd, and candied zest that was also under consideration would have been brighter, with all that sparkly sharp citrus. The chunky kumquat marmalade that came with the lovely warm matcha tea doughnuts ($8), served with oolong tea ice cream, was indeed a nice tangy foil.
5A5 Steak Lounge may be the steakhouse dream of its owners, Stephen and Albert Chen. They're veterans of the popular Circolo, another restaurant-lounge concept that succeeded Gordon's House of Fine Eats in its off-the-beaten-track location at Florida and Mariposa in 2004. And 5A5 seemed to suit the table of boisterous aging frat boys next to us, who ordered at least one of the $125 World Wide Wagyu plates at their expansive table-covering dinner. All 5A5's tables were full during our two-and-a-half-hour meal. But San Francisco is still missing a great steakhouse.