For years as a food writer I’ve stressed the importance of knowing where your food comes from, particularly meat. In today’s world, where many deadly viruses are traced to poor treatment of animals, I believe it’s still the most important thing to know when you buy meat or eat it in a restaurant. Nowhere is this knowledge clearer than at The Butcher Shop by Niku and at Niku Steakhouse next door.
Guy Crims, head butcher at The Butcher Shop, is a whirlwind of brilliance and passion when it comes to his craft and his product. He started working as a butcher at 14 and never looked back. Like a museum curator, Crims lines the sparkling glass case with stunningly white marbled Japanese A5 Wagyu beef, the finest in the world. The Butcher Shop, he proudly explains, is the exclusive retailer of A5 Wagyu from Ono Farms in Central Japan and the only certified Kobe retailer in San Francisco.
Most people know Japanese A5 Wagyu as Kobe beef; but while all Kobe beef is Wagyu, not all Wagyu is Kobe. Like French wine, Japan produces beef by region, or prefecture. Kobe was known as Tajima in ancient times (some still refer to it as Tajima beef) and the cattle are descendants of “kuoge Waygu,” or black-haired Japanese cattle.
SOMMELIER OF PROTEIN
For Crims, it’s important that customers not only be able to learn the lineage of the A5 Wagyu beef from multiple prefectures in Japan (each of the cattle can be traced from birth) but also to feel comfortable asking questions about cooking techniques and cuts (standard cuts are available daily, but aficionados can request custom thickness or quantity). Along with A5, dry-aged domestic USDA Prime beef and Reserve grade Imperial Wagyu beef from Nebraska, domestic Heritage Kurobuta pork from Iowa, and lamb sourced from a fourth-generation Basque farm, Superior Lamb Company, are also available for purchase.
In the bookcase, you’ll find Crims’s personal copy of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which he read in 1994 (“It had a profound effect on me”) alongside Clean Meat. His father was a biker and his mother a hippie, which Crims says helped form his sensibilities. He and his apprentices use every part of the animal and keep a Shinto shrine in front of the meat, just as they do at each processing facility in Japan. “It’s about love, respect, and care,” Crims says. Last year The Butcher Shop did seven of the 200 metric tons of Wagyu brought to the United States. They had the first and only bone-in Wagyu product in the Western Hemisphere. Crims is so serious about wagyu that he has a tattoo of the A5 symbol. He also sent his apprentices to learn butchery in Japan, and entrusts their creativity and vision when doing intimate “invite only” dinners at the shop.
TRY IT ALL AT NIKU STEAKHOUSE
If you’re not lucky enough to score one of those invites, check out dinner at Niku Steakhouse. You’ll find meat from The Butcher Shop cooked to perfection by young chefs, under the tutelage of executive chef Dustin Falcon, who are just as passionate about wagyu as the butchers next door.
Sit at the counter in front of the grilling station and watch the care that goes into every dish. We started with briny Miyagi oysters nestled in Asian pear, horseradish “pearls” and crème fraîche; salmon tartare “tom kha” served with rice toasted and blackened with squid ink and dehydrated into thin crisps; and A5 and imperial wagyu meatballs beside a bowl with sesame seeds and an egg yolk floating in a tore soy dipping sauce.
The showstoppers are the imperial wagyu tomahawk (a Flintstone-sized bone that takes 45 minutes to cook) and the 38-ounce bone-in, dry-aged rib eye — slices of glistening ruby-hued beef encased in a caramelized crust that melts in your mouth. But for the true wagyu experience, order the A5 flight: six medium rare, two-ounce lollipops, the ideal amount for the richness of the unicorn meat, as the butchers call it (and you’ll know why when you try it). Beautifully charred broccoli with chili fish caramel and a confit of maitake mushroom with pickled ramps were ideal sides. For dessert, I was hesitant about the sunchoke crème brûlée, but it turned out to be the best version I’ve ever had — earthy and not-too-sweet.
There are 120 West Coast wines by the glass and 180 French wines by the bottle. From Napa Valley’s Keenan 2005 Cabernet Franc to the Clos Cibonne from Côtes de Provence, they’re impeccably chosen to pair with the mind-blowing meal.
The Butcher Shop by Niku Steakhouse: 57 Division Street, 415-829-2306, 415-829-2306, nikubutchershop.com
Niku Steakhouse: 61 Division Street, 415-829-7817, nikusteakhouse.com
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