Don Wagyu, the first restaurant in New York devoted solely to wagyu beef sandwiches, is on South Williams Street in Manhattan’s Financial District, a five-minute walk from the New York Stock Exchange.
It opened on Tuesday, with three sandwiches (or “sandos”) on offer in the 1,000 square foot space. Each is made from a different prized wagyu beef; the cheapest, made with from a hybrid of Japanese and American cows, Washugyu, costs about US$25. On the other end of the spectrum is the A5 Ozaki, which is sourced from a single farm in Japan: that sandwich costs around US$185.
Don Wagyu is aiming to sell about 200 sandwiches a day, or until they run out. Eventually there will also be delivery via Caviar.
It’s a place that screams for placement in the HBO hit, Billions.
Chef Samuel Clonts has been serving the sando, in which the beef is breaded and flash fried to create a crunchy exterior and creamy, soft heart, as part of the 10-course US$200 tasting menu at the elite izakaya Uchu. He and owner Derek Feldman wanted to find a bigger platform to spotlight it.
“I wanted to do wagyu katsu sandos instead of a steakhouse because I see this industry moving towards a type of high-end, fine casual dining where quality comes first,” says Feldman. “I love sitting for a long omakase experience, but that can’t be an everyday experience. I wanted to make that experience more accessible. Luxury doesn’t necessarily have to mean a three-hour meal. Sometimes it can mean just having some of the best, rarest beef in the world.”
Don Wagyu is part of a moment for high-end meat sandos. At the modern subterranean restaurant Ferris, the iberico katsu sando has become a destination dish. Eater.com noted that the members-only Tokyo restaurant Wagyumafia, which offers a US$180 version of the sandwich, is looking for a location in New York in the next year.
Downtown Manhattan is the only spot to serve only wagyu sandos at the moment. The space, which is reminiscent of an old-school Kyoto lounge, features paper lanterns overhead and walnut panelling. It’s designed principally for take out, with just six red leather stools at the counter. (The beef ageing room is almost as big as the restaurant; it holds almost 3,000 pounds (1,360kg) of meat, or about 100 rib-eyes.) Chef Corwin Kave, formerly of Ducked Up at Ludlow House, is running the kitchen.
Wagyu beef is a label that has come under some scrutiny; it’s been shamelessly slapped on meats that don’t technically live up to the name. Officially, the title refers to a specific breed of purebred Japanese cattle (the literal translation of wagyu is “Japanese cow”). Some American breeds are awarded the name, but they’re not 100 per cent pure; they only need to have 46.875 per cent pure blood, as defined by the USDA.
I got a preview of Don Wagyu’s sandwiches a few days before the restaurant opened for business. Each is made with about 5 ounces (0.14kg) of the beef and coated with panko. It spends about 2 minutes and 30 seconds in the fryer, then rests to re-absorb juices. The cutlets are served on thick, pillowy pieces of pain de mie (soft white bread), which have been spread with the Japanese steak sauce tare, that Clonts makes in house with onions, ginger, and garlic cooked down with sake, mirin, tamari and black vinegar. The sandwiches are accompanied by skinny fries sprinkled with seasoned salt and nori – the taste is not unlike a sour cream and onion potato chip.
The only other thing on offer is Sapporo on draft and a rotating selection of whiskies, based on the beef Don Wagyu is featuring: Feldman notes that the beef selection will rotate.
Following are my Don Wagyu sando tasting notes. And a case for why it just might be worth it to buy a sandwich that costs as much as a good bottle of whiskey or pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
Details: This California beef is a cross between Black Angus and Japan’s popular wagyu breed, Tajima. It’s aged 30 days in house. (“At 30 days, the meat is tender but not too funky,” says Clonts.)
Appearance: Like a classic steak sandwich; the meat is red with light marbling.
Taste: The beef has the requisite chew that you want in a quality rare steak; the panko coating is almost imperceptible. The pronounced flavour is meaty with a background of the caramelised onion tare. “I really like the aged washugyu because of its strong and concentrated flavour. It is one of the most tender American beefs I have ever had,” says Clonts.
Price: About US$25
The A5 miyazaki wagyu
Details: People argue that miyazaki is Japan’s top wagyu. This is the beef Clonts uses at Uchu.
Appearance: The beef has dramatic waves of white marbling in the flesh.
Taste: As rich a sandwich as you will bite into. It literally melts in your mouth; it’s the sensation of a beefy cloud. The juicy meat has a slight sweetness and holds on to the panko coating. But what you’ll walk away with is the richness, which after half a sandwich is almost overwhelming.
Price: About US$75
The A5 Ozaki
Details: This wagyu beef comes from a family farm that Feldman discovered in the Miyazaki Prefecture. He ships only five cattle to the US each month; Don Wagyu receives all of them. The only other place to find the beef outside Japan is Dubai.
Appearance: There’s so much marbled fat integrated into this beef that it’s pink. It’s served in a wooden box emblazoned with the Don Wagyu logo (you get to keep the box).
Taste: Best of all worlds. The meat is simultaneously fatty with a melting tenderness, but doesn’t just dissolve in your mouth; it has enough texture to chew. Besides being beefy, it’s also notably juicy and aromatic; you get its scent as you pick it up. The fried coating and rich bread hold on to the steak. It’s an investment-worthy experience.
Price: About US$185.