For a big, round birthday six years ago, I took my boyfriend to the House of Prime Rib. It was December, and the entire experience was glorious, from the formal Xmas interior to the King Henry VIII cut to the martinis that made us feel like Henrys IX and X. When my parents visited last summer, the four of us went, and it was well past its Prime, with limp, flavorless beef, scattershot service, and a general sense of fatigue.
Oh, well. I’ve pretty much always held steakhouses at arm’s length. They tend to be hypermasculine time-warps where you can really only order one thing — try that fish option, we dare you — and when restaurateurs purchase an ailing classic with the intention of dragging it like a struggling steer into the 21st century, they often end up jacking up the prices and alienating everyone.
But Niku Steakhouse is a whole ’nother animal entirely. A sort of return to form for the Omakase Restaurant Group, which has been dabbling in fast-casual enterprises like Udon Time the last few years, it’s a dashing addition to San Francisco, with impressive sommelier talent and some gorgeous composed dishes. No baked potato in gold foil here; instead, items like a pea agnolotti with sorghum, Parmesan, and meyer lemon fill the menu.
Yoked to the adjacent Butcher Shop, run by lifelong practitioner of the craft and friend to small-scale Japanese farmers “Guy the Butcher,” the conjoined duo constitutes a nearly seamless showcase for the various types of beef produced in prefectures of Japan that almost never make it stateside. Yes, Kobe is here aplenty, but you may walk out learning a bit about bushu, too. And while it’s undoubtedly part of the new class of restaurants that present things like a $110 Angus porterhouse without blinking, Niku is measured, and hip without trying too hard. You even get to select your own knife from a case. (They’ll steer you away from the mini-cleaver, though.)
Chef Dustin Falcon took over from opener Steve Brown not long into Niku’s run, and quickly made adjustments. Wagyu aside, everything on the menu is his — via multiple weekly trips to several farmers markets, in true fine-dining style. (The $20 A5 beef jerky may soon be relegated to a parting gift.)
While Niku isn’t testosterone-fueled in the obnoxious ways, if you sit at the chef’s counter you’ll no doubt fall under the spell of the mechanical winch that cooks the beef, whose crank has that highly appealing torture-chamber sound. Observe how the A5 goes over binchotan charcoal, while the cuts from half-Japanese, half-Californian cows cooks atop binchotan and American white oak, a nice parallelism.
Even by the standards of open kitchens, it’s a tight spot for four people to work — at least one of them is vegan, too — but what make Niku so seductive is the interactive quality. Falcon wants to ramp this up once Niku is no longer short-staffed (a citywide issue) but for now, it’s a near-utopia of nuttier-than-average Parker house rolls, twin spears of ably scorched white asparagus with sea lettuce and trout roe, and a confit maitake mushroom with the chef’s delight known as ramp relish. Falcon is so meat-focused that there’s bone marrow and even a beef tartare on the menu, the former with oxtail marmalade and the latter graced with caviar, to tempt you into ordering beef with every course. If you’re dithering, just go for the jerky, three markedly different strips of beef.
As for that magnificent porterhouse, it’s presented sliced with showmanship, and adorned with a snap of salt crystals and just a flirtation of smoke — practically an invitation to gnaw the remainder off the charred bone. It is simply not of this world.
For something at this price range, you’d expect to brush up against more rigidity. I found it in an unlikely spot. About a month ago, the Butcher Shop began lunch service. (It’s been described as a window, because it’s to-go. But you fully enter the shop to order and get your food.) It’s casual, in that there’s no formal menu and only three items, including three skewers of beef and pork and a burger with mayo and pickles.
Let me back up for one second. Mayonnaise is my absolute archnemesis. I’m not a fan of cantaloupe or durian and I don’t especially love sun-dried tomatoes or banana, but I can deal with them. I’ve built up enough antibodies through exposure to various aiolis and the occasional Kewpie encouter on a beef tartare that I can get through the occasional dollop of mayo without turning into a pouty manbaby. True, slathered-on mayo, though — that viscous, ovooöleaginous atrocity with its waxy, unhealthy-looking sheen and beige goopiness — I will knock the Earth out of orbit to avoid it. (I mean, come on.)
But if you order a Wagyu burger at The Butcher Shop, you’re going to get mayo on it. Like, an inordinate quantity of mandatory mayo. Mayo squeezed in a zigzag formation to coat both buns, enough to give the guy on mayo-squirting duty a carpal tunnel if he does this for enough lunch shifts. There is no sign posted to say it’s coming, either, and when you ask politely if they’d be so kind as to skip it, you’ll be told, “No modifications” — but only after you’ve paid. And the mayo itself is honestly secondary. It’s the lack of say in the matter that’s the real sticking point.
Also: “modifications”? Did I request a well-done burger with iceberg? Did I pound my fist on a Japanese beef vitrine, demanding a gluten-free bun and a gender-appropriate Happy Meal? So how about not destroying my lunch without a head’s up, Mr. Greatest Beef Available to Humanity?
I am exaggerating to underscore my point (although I’m glad I waited five days to write this). But while my mayo-loving boyfriend saw my tense maxillofacial rage and burst out laughing, he later agreed after two bites of burger that it really was way too much mayo. (I couldn’t look at him, though, with his greasy mayo lips.) More to the point, this kind of “Have It My Way, But Without Warning” philosophy feels antithetical to Niku’s approach, if not to the concept of hospitality more generally.
With that said, I got over my mayo fury and ate my three skewers of meat and tripped balls and died and went to heaven and it felt like three days passed by and I was resurrected and came back to Earth only to get raptured by the next luscious bite. That shit is really good.
Niku Steakhouse, 61 Division St., 415-829-7817 or nikusteakhouse.com