Ever-escalating prices for top-tier restaurants represent an obvious conundrum: Who can even afford to eat here anymore? Dine out enough, and your perspective on value can grow unsteady as you wonder what truly counts as “expensive” any longer. Write about it for a living and a third form of self-doubt sets in: Can I keep credibly banging the same drum about what’s worth our dollar signs?
For good or for ill, sometimes a place comes along that’s so clearly out whack that it firmly establishes a new benchmark for excess. That place is Hitachino Beer & Wagyu, a Tendernob outpost of Japan’s cult brewery. It’s the first of its kind in the United States, and it has only a few restaurants and taprooms in Japan. Hitachino Nest White Ale showed up at The Trappist for the Japan Beer Festival in February, but otherwise, it’s not all that common. Undoubtedly, there are people feeling as lucky that S.F. nabbed the Western Hemisphere’s first Hitachino, just as some people in Seoul are probably feeling good they have a Mr. Holmes Bakehouse. But Hitachino Beer & Wagyu feels like a misalignment between food and drink.
At first blush, $78 for the nine-course table d’hote sounds like a bargain. Look closer, and you realize you may be getting only occasional slivers of wagyu, which isn’t even proper wagyu but washugyu, a hybrid Japanese-American breed of cattle — and even then, it might be larded up with so many competing flavors that the exercise of appreciating it feels futile. In addition to a fragment of beef, the otooshi — that appetizer which accompanies alcohol at the start of any izakaya meal — contained pear, roe, bone marrow cream, and some species of ill-defined crispy bits on top. The pear dominated, but it was largely a war of all against all.
There are supplements, though. You can tack on a $32 foie-gras-and-uni course or a $29 donburi, but the real upsell is the four-ounce cut of wagyu for $160. Without adjudicating the merits of beef at $40 per ounce, it still feels disproportionate — and, given that “wagyu” is in the restaurant’s name, a tad deceptive. Hopefully, the forthcoming a la carte menu expected in the weeks to come will iron out that inconsistency.
The foie and uni arrived not as their own course or courses but grafted onto the next two plates. In the case of the foie, that meant gracelessly burying a dish of tataki, eggplant, and chive in unneeded richness. There was nothing to cut it, when even something bland yet crispy like a taro chip would have been of great use — and it would have been nice to have something to scoop it up with, too. The foie was also very sweet and overly gelatinous, more like an aspic. Worse, the entire thing needed salt.
A bowl of kobujime (or kelp-cured fish) with soy burrata, edamame, ginger, and katsuobushi (similar to bonito flakes) sounds like it might be a continuation of the same pattern, but it was well-constructed. The idea of “soy burrata” sounds like you’re desecrating a sacred shrine, but nope, it was good. And by adding an extra dimension to a balanced dish, the uni avoided any feeling of gratuitousness: It had just the right measure of umph. That can’t be said for the skewer of tongue with scallions and yuzu koshou, which tasted of little beyond onion. Dabbed onto each bit of meat, the garnish failed to achieve escape velocity, and the little salad of morels couldn’t perk it up, either. The whole dish tasted like humdrum Chinese food.
Earthy-looking and stew-like, the the oxtail and daikon managed to fizzle, too. Without dumping in the entire accompanying bowl of mustard and scallions, it would have approached total flavorlessness, and the gelatinous sauce was notable only for a sticky, bone broth-like quality, a poor way to adorn chewy oxtail. The donburi supplement got strong pluses for being the first appearance of beef in any plentiful way; it was straight-up comfort food. After a Japanese yoga buddy turned me onto the simple breakfast of a raw egg stirred into hot rice, I fell in love with simple preparations of this sort. It’s hard not to feel contentment after consuming something so elemental yet filling, but the flavor was hardly punchy enough to justify showcasing this as a optional extra course.
When a tantanmen was presented to us as “Japanese ramen,” my dining companion and I locked eyes. But its deeply spicy sesame broth was umami-rich, and the thin noodles were al dente, and that’s all that matters, really. Dessert, a soy-milk panna cotta with mandarin granita, was like a Creamsicle, clever yet easy.
Then there’s the beer. As standalone beverages, they’re pretty good on the whole, but as presented, they quite don’t constitute a pairing, per se. You get two — although neither enhanced much about the food it came with — and you pick a third toward the end. I like the fun of choosing your own adventure, but in this context, it’s probably better to have a little guidance. (As it turned out, although the Amarillo Session IPA was fine, the strongly yuzu-inflected Saison du Japon was genuinely excellent, its ring of sake harkening back to Hitachino’s 19th-century roots.) And since every glass of beer is $10, the $30 price tag happens to be exactly what it costs to order three, anyway.
Overall, the mismatch between price and product is simply too much to recommend it. Sometimes after an experience with a cult, you need a reality check (if not full-blown deprogramming). I walked in knowing Hitachino was a cult beer, but I walked out feeling like a tasting menu might actually be a cult service.
Hitachino Beer & Wagyu, 639 Post St., no phone; hitachinosf.com