Despite the fact that NYC probably has more traditional steakhouses per capita than any other city there is still more than enough room for infinite variances on steak preparation. One such example is Yakiniku West in the East Village that bills itself as a "traditional rural Japanese steakhouse." If you have eaten at one of those Korean Barbecue restaurants that seem to be quite prolific these days you will feel right at home here, although as we shall see your wallet may feel a bit out of sorts, for while you may leave full it will probably feel quite empty, if you want the best beef on offer.
The basic formula is the same at Yakiniku West as it is at Korean barbecues, you cook your own food on a grill at the table, the raw beef is accompanied by soup, salad, rice, kimchi, desert and a selection of sauces. However what differentiates Yakiniku West from the pack is that they serve true Japanese Wagyu beef. And while they do offer steaks for all budgets, starting with what is probably a USDA Select and Prime selections it is the Wagyu that has kept me coming back.
As you enter Yakiniku West the Japanese Wagyu is proudly displayed in a case near the entrance way. It is an excellent marketing technique for the sight of all of that intensely marbled beef in numerous cuts is awfully tempting. The cuts on offer will be familiar to steak eaters - rib eye, strip, filet mignon and skirt steak are all available but so are two types of short rib, bone in and boneless. The latter is not usually served in steak form in the West and after trying it here I understand why, even the very marbled Wagyu variety lacked the melt in your mouth quality that the other cuts are capable achieving. The short rib tends to fair better with other cooking methods.
There are some cultural differences that a Western beef eater has to overcome to consume steak this way. While we generally like our steaks as thick as possible and only sliced after cooking the steaks here are served in thin half inch slivers and then further sliced in to strips before cooking. Where as steaks are served a la carte in most NY chophouses the beef here comes in "sets" which included salad, rice, kimchi, green tea and ice cream. So the price of each set really reflects a whole meal sans beverages. While the USDA Select sets run under $20 I recommend that you at least spring an extra $5 for the USDA Prime set, the marbling is far more pronounced. I of course could not help but try the numerous Wagyu offerings over the course of several visits, these generally run at $88 per set.
The tables at Yakiniku West are recessed into the floor and each one contains an electric grill. I was initially concerned that the relatively small grill would not be up to the task but it put out an acceptable amount of heat. You won't be able to achieve a black and blue temperature, especially with the steak being so thin, but you can get a decent seer on it.
Of course getting a decent seer can lead to over cooked steak. I tend to err on the side rareness so while I may not get the ideal char here I am at least assured rare enough beef. And I should note here that while I eat my USDA Prime and even American Wagyu steaks black and blue I find true Japanese Wagyu, especially higher grades, fairs better when cooked medium rare due to the extraordinary fat content. Incidentally the beef arrives at the table here so cold that it is almost frozen. This is obviously contrary to the method preferred in Western cooking where the steak is brought up to room temperature before cooking. I made the mistake of allowing some of my raw beef to sit too long and become quite temped, it caught fire almost immediately! The near zero temperature mitigates this completely.
Once you have cooked the beef to your liking you place it in a lettuce wrap with rice and a barbecue like sauce. Interestingly the combination of beef, starchy rice and lettuce evokes flavors quite similar to eating a hamburger, especially when the lettuce wilts slightly from the heat of the meat. I quite enjoy the lettuce wrap method but when it comes to the Japanese Wagyu I tend to eat it right off the grill, sans adornments.
Despite turning many Western steak conventions on their head Yakiniku West delivers an enjoyable and hearty beef experience. While I would love to try some of the Wagyu beef here prepared as a thick steak over a ultra high heat there are plenty of other places that offer this in NYC. Certainly for the thriftier budgets the USDA Prime steak at only around $25 including salad, rice, kimchi and desert is a good bargain. Of course while hardly a bargain the Wagyu sets are delicious. The service is very polite, as is the case in most Japanese restaurants and the decor is tastefully understated. Recommended.
218 E 9th St
New York, NY 10003-7503
Phone: (212) 979-9238