The assignment came from my boss in London, to seek out and eat the best steak in Tokyo. Tough assignment from Chowzter, but Shinji and I were up to the challenge. We were surprised when we called Dons de la Nature and got in within a few days. Seems that this restaurant is not yet on everyone’s radar.
The restaurant is located in an unassuming basement on the main Chuo Dori street in the Ginza shopping district. Walking into the corridor leading to the elevator we feel as though we are in the wrong spot, until we spot the window filled with wine bottles and the name of the restaurant. We arrive and the okami-san (female manager overlooking the front of the house) is very friendly and down to earth. She takes our jackets and brings us to our table.
Saga sirloin on top and Yonezawa filet on the bottom.
This evening there are only two options of steak, a filet from Yonezawa in Yamagata and a sirloin from Saga. The sirloin is highly marbled and has more fat than meat. The filet, while meaty, still has a nice amount of shimofuri, the white fat that is flecked throughout the meat. The steak is cut into 400-gram portions and cooked in one piece before it is cut and shared, so couples must agree on the same cut. The sirloin looked too fatty so we agreed on the filet.
While the interior is tired and service is casual, the cuisine on the plate is taken very seriously. Chef Otsuka trained as a French chef and it is reflected in his carefully assembled salad topped with fresh crab legs, Japanese tiger prawn, and salmon. The consommé is classically made and I quickly forget about the environs and focus on the food.
The steaks start at about 30,000 JPY each ($300 USD) which is shared between two people. That is before soup and salad. There is also a course menu which starts at 21,000 JPY per person. We took wine by the glass but there is also a long list to choose from of mostly French wines.
The raising of kuroge wagyū (black-haired Japanese cattle) in Japan is very different from what you’ll find outside of Japan. The cows are grass-fed the first eight months of their lives. Each farmer selects the feed he believes to be best for the wagyū, such as soybeans or corn or straw. The last four months of their lives the cows are not fed straw anymore. We asked chef Otsuka if it is true that wagyū are fed beer and he said some places do, but that it is actually quite rare. But, he did confirm that wagyū are massaged daily. This is what helps to give the beef the shimofuri marbling that it is so famous for.
Chef Otsuka came to our table and talked about how he selects his wagyū. He only picks the best that he finds at the wholesale market so his inventory is constantly changing. He has no preferences or loyalties to any region, but will pick what is the best that day at the market.
The wagyū is first dry-aged for one month, increasing the natural umami in the meat. The second month it is wet-aged. At this point the fat in the meat turns into amino acids, adding even more umami to the meat. The aging is all done in-house.
Chef Otsuka could see that we were so curious about our dinner as we peppered him with questions and he generously invited us into his kitchen. The meat is skewered and then cooked in a kiln that was custom built for the sole purpose of grilling the meat with intense heat. The charcoal used at Dons de la Nature is made from Kinshu binchotan. Binchotan is a charcoal made from a Japanese oak tree. And, while many places may say that they use binchotan for grilling, the best quality binchotan is said to come from Kinshu, and the stock is very limited. Some binchotan is not even Japanese. We were told the binchotan can bring the oven to a temperature of upwards of 800 to 1000 degrees Centigrade.
Chef Otsuka seasons the wagyū with salt and pepper, skewers the steak, and then puts it into the kiln over the binchotan. He then closes the kiln and listens for the sound of the fat in the wagyū melting and falling onto the hot binchotan. The charcoal then starts to smoke, adding another layer of flavor to the steak. An Argentinian chef friend of mine recently told me about the seven ways to cook meat in Argentina and one of the methods was in a similar kiln. I wonder if this is where chef Otsuka came up with the idea.
The recommended serving for the steak is medium rare. The outside is just seared in the middle is still red. The steak is presented whole and then is cut at the table into two pieces for each person.
The steak is incredibly rich in umami. The contrast in texture from the crispy seared outside to the tender, rare inside is a treat. As the steak is marbled with fat it almost melts in your mouth. After my first bite “oh my God” came out of my mouth. I didn’t realize it until I heard the okami-san laughing. It was, hands down, the best steak I have ever had in my life.
In speaking with chef Otsuka after our meal he said what makes his steaks so unique is the searing in the custom-made kiln. Otsuka explained that most restaurants cook steak in a pan over a gas heater and that the sauté pan can only get up to about 250 degrees Centigrade. He also said that as wagyū is so fatty that when it is cooked in a pan that it is cooking in its own fat. And, that the searing directly over charcoals is the method that he thinks is ideal for Japanese beef.
This is what makes his steak the best in Tokyo, if not the best in the world.
Dons de la Nature
Chuo-ku, Ginza 1-7-6
Monday – Saturday 5:00 – 10:00 p.m.
Closed Sunday and holidays