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Aragawa: How good can a £760 steak really be?

 (Justin DeSouza)
(Justin DeSouza)

Let’s start with the obvious: Martin Lewis, I ain’t. Granted, restaurant writing involves some degree of financial consideration — am I happy with the cost? Would the reader be? — but it’s hardly a science: I might know the mark-up on a wine, but I can’t say whether you care about it. And value isn’t a perception entirely dependent on means: Bernard Arnault wears a priceless Patek Phillipe on his wrist, Bill Gates prefers his £50 Casio.

But would either pay £760 for a steak? That’s the offer at Aragawa, which opened on Mayfair’s Clarges Street in October. It has room for 26, the steak is cooked by ear (yes), and it serves beef that’s never made British shores before.

Big bucks beef is not new for London. Infamously, Salt Bae’s crime scene of a restaurant opened with steaks going for up to £1,450 and wrapped in gold-leaf (since dropped, perhaps unsurprisingly). But this is different, being the first overseas outpost of an acclaimed restaurant born in Tokyo in 1967, and one which has remained much the same ever since — the tables, cutlery and even some of the plates remain from its launch 57 years ago. Like a number of its neighbouring restaurants in the Japanese capital, Aragawa is revered for doing one thing, and doing it extremely well.

This is the meat of cows that live the lives of trophy wives — cows that are massaged, serenaded, that have manicures and pedicures

In this case, that one thing is 400g serves of the super-premium Tajima heifer. You could call it kobe, because it is, but the name is left off the menu as owner Kotaro Ogawa says the appellation has lost much of its meaning over here. And let’s be clear, this isn’t the stuff being frazzled on a grill in a casino. What Aragawa serve is considered the finest Japanese beef there is: this is the meat of cows that live the lives of trophy wives — cows that are massaged, serenaded, that have manicures and pedicures.

When Ogawa opened here in October, it marked the first time Tajima was served in London. It is not like other beef here. When raw, the sirloin in particular is striking: not red but peach, and streaked with cream-coloured fat. It is handled using piano wires. To cook it, there is no grill or hot pan, but a kiln filled with binchotan charcoal — also from Japan (“We don’t mention air miles!” says the PR, laughing in that panicked sort of way). The kiln is only operated by one man, Kazuo Imayosh. He is a steak master in that way there are sushi masters and he, like the Tajima, had never been to London before. His job here came with his first passport, Imayosh having spent the last 40 years cooking in the original Tokyo Aragawa.

The dining room (Justin DeSouza)
The dining room (Justin DeSouza)

“He listens to the grill,” says Ogawa. “He can hear the fat cooking.” It means, apparently, he is able to prepare each steak one of 10 ways, all by cocking his ears. Few, I suspect, would deviate from his recommendation of medium rare, but the option is there. There is another chef, Fumiya Kase, who handles everything else; a beef consommé to start is particularly good, a langoustine salad is delicate, delicious.

The recommendation is 400g of sirloin (£760) and one 350g tenderloin (£700) for three to share, but this is a press supper — there is no bill — which is likely why on this occasion, it’s split between five. Ogawa favours the tenderloin, but the sirloin is the more obvious star: the tenderloin’s flavour is so subtle I am left somewhat underwhelmed — it does not help that, owing to an extravagant presentation of the meat, it is rather cool by the first bite, which Ogawa acknowledges with a grim shake of his head. The sirloin, though, is astonishingly good; the beefiness lingers in the roof of the mouth, the fat coating the tongue. Whereas a great many steaks taste mostly of their charred outsides, or of heavy seasoning, the flavour here is all in the meat itself. There is a sense of refinement; it is a dish to go slowly with, to savour. While the taste is gentle, it penetrates; once the meal is done, despite beautiful wine (upstairs, a cabinet holds 1,000 bottles, most from Burgundy and Bordeaux), the steak is what lasts.

I’d like to say something catty, and claim that Aragawa is only for those whose income and brain cells are inversely proportionate. But the truth is, I want to go back

At the supper itself, I sit decidedly impressed but perhaps not staggered, and remember a press lunch I once had with Gordon Ramsay in Harrods, when he served an £80 burger and asked for feedback (“Gordon, it’s a burger. And it’s 80 quid. What do you think I think of it?”). And at the time, sat relaxed in the dark of Aragawa — something about the place makes me think a poker game is about to begin — I could not entirely fathom the cost of the place. But then, I cannot entirely fathom the cost of lots of things, or how much money is out there. The Peninsula hotel, for instance, opened charging £1,300 for a night and was said to be at full capacity from the off. At Ramsay’s excellent Restaurant 1890 in the Savoy, a 125ml measure of Petrus goes for £1100 (the hotel’s cellar is among the finest in the world, and oenophiles travel for it).

Those with this sort of money will not see the £760 tag as problem; in all likelihood, it may actually add to its allure. Moreover, something curious happened over the weekend after the meal: I found myself thinking of the steak over and over. It kept coming up in conversation. Its flavour has lingered; it has left an imprint. I can still recall its texture, as soft as a blanket, the gorgeous dripping fat. The service was extraordinary to boot, and there’s no hurry: tables are not turned. There’s an encouragement to stay, to take it slow, to make it an event. Ogawa would shudder at the comparison, but it’s a galaxy away from Salt Bae’s place, which I couldn’t wait to leave — and would only return to if court-ordered.

I’d like to say something catty here, and claim that Aragawa is only for those whose income and brain cells are inversely proportionate. But the truth is, I want to go back. I can’t — I do not have £760 to blow on a steak — but those who live in a world where a grand for a meal doesn’t induce the horrors will find something here that is unlike anything else London offers, and things that are unique do tend to cost. I could even accept that for those who live in such rarefied air, it may even offer something like value. Hard to say, though. Martin Lewis, I ain’t.

38 Clarges Street, W1J 7EN, aragawa-uk.com