Generally, I prefer a restaurant where someone else cooks the food.
That seems like the basic role of a restaurant, right? You come in, look over the menu, order something and then wait while the kitchen staff prepare it for you.
For instance, I am not a huge fan of “deconstructed” Caesar salads. If I wanted to put a salad together poorly and be disappointed, I would stay at home and think about my life. I came to a restaurant because the chef knows best how to make the food.
So it’s odd that I would fall so hard and so fast for Wagyu Japanese BBQ, which is a restaurant that asks you to cook almost all of your own food.
Each table in Wagyu is outfitted with a circular grill. Servers will change out the grates occasionally or vary the heat, but mostly you’re left to your own devices once the plates of raw food arrive.
Perhaps it’s the novelty that got to me, as it’s similar to the joy I find in shabu-shabu dining, but the food also tasted really good.
First things first, as of this writing, Wagyu does not have a liquor license. No beer. No sake. No mixed drinks. If that’s a deal breaker for you, the deal is currently broken. That may change soon, but not the night I went in.
The menu isn’t entirely uncooked foods. If you’re not in the mood to cook your own, have no fear. Or have a normal amount of fear, I guess. Don’t let the lack of desire to cook your own food make you overestimate your invulnerability. You cannot withstand a hail of bullets. You probably can’t withstand a hail of hail.
But back to the food. Wagyu can start you off with some already cooked appetizers, entrees and salads. Or, if you go the route my friends and I took, you can get a shared menu with a whole bunch of stuff.
We opted for the Enkai menu ($65), which is meant to be shared by two, but it was easily enough for the three of us. You can also add items a la carte, so you aren’t constrained by the combo menu.
We started with miso soup ($3) and wafu salad ($7), which are just very nice. Maybe I’ve been out of the miso soup game for too long, but this was better than I remembered it. Lots of seaweed and crisp green onions and that gorgeous cloudy mass of tofu and miso swirling around in steaming liquid.
Wafu salad is a bed of greens topped with thin spirals of cucumber, carrots and daikon radish tossed in a mild dressing. Most Japanese steakhouses turn out iceberg lettuce salads that are so heavy on the ginger salad dressing it turns one in four guests into a Weasley. I much preferred the wafu salad, which some online commenters recommended saving to pair with the grilled meats later on.
We also had sunomono cucumber ($5), which are sliced paper thin and gently pickled. I pretty much stole this bowl and ate it greedily in the corner while making Golem noises.
The star appetizer, though, was the crunchy tuna volcano ($8). To be clear, the tuna wasn’t crunchy. It was soft and tossed in a spicy sauce before being piled on top of crunchy balls of sushi rice. The interplay of textures was nice and the flavor of the tuna came through clearly over the starchy rice.
The wafu bibimbap ($7) was another favorite. If you’ve never had bibimbap, it’s time to make the jump. The only issue I had with this version was the relative lack of pickled vegetables. Perhaps I’ve been too spoiled by the dish at Chae and La Brasa, but this lacked that sharp pickled punch.
That said, rice in a sizzling hot bowl with an egg and pieces of beef stirred in will always be my jam. Crack the egg yolk and stir it all up immediately, but let it sit in the bowl for a few minutes before you dig in. The rice will crisp up against the bowl and give you an entirely new texture. It’s a delight.
Brian, ever the voice of reason, decreed that we must get a side of shishito peppers ($5). It was a good call. Shishitos are mild, fairly delicate peppers and they caramelize easily when charred.
This was the first item we grilled ourselves, so let me impart a little wisdom on you. When you pull an item off the grill where a fire was charring it just second prior, it’s probably too hot to eat immediately. Even 30 seconds will make a big difference.
My burned tongue
Some vegetables come out in foil packets, like the corn and butter ($5) and the garlic spinach ($6). Hot corn tip: make sure the packet is pushed down on the center of the grill, otherwise it will come out cold.
The spinach was a big favorite and one I’d happily recommend to any and everybody. The garlic is mild and the spinach has steamed to perfection without getting slimy. We ate it up like a trio of Popeyes (Popseye?) preparing to battle Bluto.
The meat began rolling out at this point and I kind of wish they’d saved the cherrywood smoked filet ($9) for last because it was a huge hit at our table.
The filet comes in a bowl and when you lift the lid, a small cloud of aromatic smoke rises out in swirls and curlicues. After we spread them out on the grill for a couple of minutes per side to cook, these steak bites were buttery and smooth and perfectly tender. The crust is usually the best part of the filet, so tiny pieces with lots of crust mean you get the best part over and over again.
I enjoyed the ginger garlic chicken thigh ($5), but we were all pretty gun shy about grilling it long enough. The timing chart said 3 minutes per side, but we waited until we got a nice char all over each bite to be sure.
Garlic shrimp ($7) were much easier to gauge for doneness. The tiny grill is ideal for shrimp, in fact, heating it slowly enough to cook all the way through without completely drying it out. The seasoning gives it a bit of spice, but it’s very much a crowd pleaser.
The last two meats were the miso bistro hanger steak ($8) and miso wagyu yaki-shabu ($11).
Both are sliced fairly thin for quick cooking, but the hanger steak is the more beefy of the two. The salty miso brings the umami flavor to the forefront.
The yaki-shabu is the thinnest cut, cooking just 30 seconds per side, but the marinade was a little sweeter than I wanted. It was good, but I’d really like to try the salt and pepper marinade next time to taste the meat a little more directly.
The meal ended with s’mores. And not, as Nate pointed out, “our take on s’mores.” These were graham crackers, big marshmallows and pieces of milk chocolate. With the grate removed, we grilled the marshmallows directly over the fire until golden (or slightly burnt, in my case) and smooshed them in-between the graham crackers with the chocolate.
Guys. I know s’more are old hat, but it’s a hat I’d gladly wear on the regular.
Don’t let Wagyu Japanese BBQ’s location scare you away. I know a shopping center on Memorial Road might convince you it’s a chain restaurant, but it’s not. This is real, it’s local and it’s wonderful. Get out there and enjoy.