Sometimes wagyu beef is a gimmick.
Marketers and menu writers love it because it has worldwide name recognition, it comes with a cool backstory (say, did you know that in Japan they massage the cows? neat!), and — most important — its purported luxury excuses its often considerable expense.
Too often, however, thanks to variations in quality and preparation, wagyu doesn’t live up to the hype, let alone the price, making it little more than yet another up-sellable superlative. When we spot a minuscule portion of beef with a gargantuan price tag on a restaurant menu, we tend to roll our eyes.
All that being the case, we approached Wagyu Vanne — the latest addition to what will soon be a wagyu-centric triptych of restaurants operated by the group Gosango — with a healthy amount of skepticism.
But that skepticism melted away like the fine-grained marbling of a premium ribeye on a hot grill after a recent tasting. We have to admit, Wagyu Vanne’s meat is excellent.
The restaurant is, for the most part, a take on Japanese barbecue, or yakiniku — itself a take on Western-style grilled meats popularized during the Meiji era that later evolved to include influences from the Korean peninsula as well.
As such, tables in Wagyu Vanne’s tasteful Art Deco-ish dining room come equipped with sunken grills where waiters — or diners, if they’re feeling frisky — cook each morsel of meat as they emerge.
Though the restaurant has an extensive a la carte menu, we went with one of its sets (Set A, at HK$498, to be exact), which featured several types of grilled beef, as well as a handful of other dishes.
First off, a green salad featuring raw slices of salt-crusted short rib set the tone for what was to follow, which is to say, it was very, very good. The lightly cured beef had the salty profile of prosciutto, but with a more supple texture, and its intense seasoning went beautifully with the slightly sweet, slightly tart apple cider vinaigrette the greens were tossed in.
A separate salad of chopped tomato, simply dressed with sake, salt, and lots of pepper, was served alongside, and made for a refreshing amuse bouche.
Two more raw appetizers — a single slice of wagyu and uni sushi, and a mini garlic toast topped with beef tartare and caviar — were also very nice. The sushi, also made with short rib, was buttery in both taste and texture, with the uni registering more as a pleasantly custardy, briny aftertaste.
The tiny tartare toast, meanwhile, packed a deceptively beefy punch, courtesy, presumably, of the finely diced ribeye in the mix. What the caviar was doing, we couldn’t really say, as it was mostly lost in the beefiness, but a dollop of hollandaise made the whole thing taste like a full steak dinner — and a good one at that — compressed into two bites.
If someone served these as canapés at a fancy-schmancy black tie affair, we’d steal the tray.
Kicking off the grilled portion of the menu were thin slices of tongue, served with a bright, salty green onion dipping sauce. The tongue had an assertive minerality, and more chew than the previous preparations (which isn’t to say it was tough), and was quite nice with the sauce.
Though the tongue was good, it was obliterated by the next course: a thin slice of flank steak, grilled then dipped in a simple sauce of soy, sesame oil, and sake. While that may not sound like a recipe for intense, pupil-dilating, meaty pleasure, it was.
In the professional taste-testing world, there’s a concept called “amplitude” that refers to the way the flavors of a given food blend together, balance one another, and fill the mouth. Low-amplitude foods are like a kazoo — one-note. High-amplitude foods are like an orchestra.
The single bite of flank steak with yakiniku sauce we were served at Wagyu Vanne had amplitude — salty, smoky, slightly sweet, very beefy, and meltingly tender, it was the platonic ideal of a bite of steak. The only downside was that there wasn’t more of it.
The flank steak was a tough act to follow, and by God, the next course, a thinly sliced cut from the chuck flap, certainly tried. It too was notably beefy (sorry, this is about where we start running out of adjectives to describe beef), had a nice mineral note, and was quite tasty in its own right, but at the end of the day it couldn’t quite match the flank (that amplitude, baby!).
Next up were batons of sirloin, cut thicker than the preceding courses and grilled medium-rare. The beef hit the familiar steakhouse notes in very satisfying fashion, and a condiment of grated radish, ponzu sauce, and fried garlic chips was a good accompaniment.
With the sirloin out of the way, our grill was repurposed to bring a small ceramic pot of dashi to a boil, after which beautiful ribbons of ribeye were ceremoniously poached in the broth, one by one, before being added to small bowls with raw egg yolks and topped — liberally — with shavings of mild summer truffle.
After a vigorous mixing (seriously, get after it), the resulting bite tasted like… shabu shabu! Which it was, albeit a very good rendition, with a rich beefiness commingling with the sweet-and-salty shabu shabu broth and the whiff of truffle. A small ball of rice was served alongside for soaking up any extra brothy yolk, along with any stray truffle shavings.
The last beef course to come with our set was a definite departure from Wagyu Vanne’s yakiniku roots: wide, house-made pappardelle with a wagyu bolognese, topped with a parmesan crisp. The pasta had excellent texture, and the sauce was extravagantly beefy (told you we were out of adjectives) in the way a great long-simmered ragu should be.
Finally, despite it not actually being part of our set, we also sampled the torched ribeye tataki rice. Still practically raw, and served with fried garlic chips, the gorgeous slice of steak made for one last outstanding bite of beef in a parade of outstanding bites of beef. It may have even rivaled the flank steak.
Dessert, as if it mattered, was a yuzu sorbet adorned with an adorable little flower petal.
It was a pleasingly citrusy palate cleanser, which we enjoyed as we contemplated whether we, with all our proud, worldly wagyu skepticism, were actually suckers for having enjoyed the meal as much as we did.
Did we, too, get bamboozled by wagyu’s seductively marbled allure? Were we no better than the chumps duped into shelling out big bucks on a mediocre meal because of a fancy Japanese word?
No! We weren’t duped at all — the meal was excellent, and the beef was beefy, dammit! Top-notch, in fact. We may have had bigger meat feasts in our day, but not many that featured better beef, and at HK$498 (about US$63) for our multi-course set, Wagyu Vanne feels like a decidedly attainable splurge that’s worth the price of admission. So there!
That said, make no mistake, we’re still wagyu skeptics. After all, sometimes wagyu beef is a gimmick — but this time, it’s not.