Rice has been a staple of the Japanese diet since time immemorial, but in recent years, it is beef that has put Japan on the culinary map. Cattle were used as draft animals in rice farming. In fact, tradition has it that the animal, domesticated on the Asian continent, was first introduced to the island country in 400 BCE. Even so, meat was generally not eaten in the country until the latter half of the 19th century, when it suddenly became an act of westernizing and modernizing.
Today, Japan’s Wagyu beef is the gold standard for the world. The cattle are treated with all the love and affection of prized racehorses, given individual names and allowed to roam about pastures to feed on grass and rice straw. They live natural lives on a farm for seven to 10 months before being auctioned off, and plumped to about more than 1,500 pounds with a diet that includes what is called whole-crop silage, which I understand, is the entirety of a cereal crop, and is important for providing good marbling. Even during the fattening phase, these individually named animals continue to reside in barns rather than on large-scale feedlots.
There are four breeds of Wagyu cattle, but the Japanese Black, once a beast of burden, now comprises about 90% of the Wagyu raised in Japan. Even its lean meat is layered with fine ribbons of oleaginous unsaturated fat, which provide the desired marbling, and creates a creamy and tender texture that melts in one’s mouth. It is higher in omega-3 and omega-6 fats, and has a higher ratio of monounsaturated fats to saturated fats than other varieties of beef.
So popular among steak aficionados is it that there is an insatiable demand around the globe for this finite amount of meat. And this is where Beverly Hills enters our story. The demand for Wagyu (which comes in different grades, the highest being “A-5,” and is designated with the region where it is from, e.g., Matsusaka) has prompted the price to skyrocket, and put it out of reach for many a carnivore, but not, of course, for Beverly Hills diners, for whom price is an afterthought.
And that’s where Shiki comes in. This upscale Omakase restaurant on Canon Drive, a block off Little Santa Monica, provides a glimpse into the limitless potential of what Wagyu can be. In one sense, it’s the ultimate surf ‘n’ turf joint, featuring the finest beef on planet Earth, sliced paper-thin and served around a thick morsel of Santa Barbara sea urchin and topped with shaved truffle, or grilled with red onions in a Sukiyaki sauce and followed the next course by a quintet of Nigiri sushi.
Chef Shigenori (Shige) Fujimoto is a trained master, who after making a name for himself at some of the finest restaurants in Japan, came here to work at renowned Matsuhisa in 1994. He later went on to Asanebo and earned a Michelin star.
Shiki is also something of a demonstration kitchen, showcasing Wagyu as a fine Japanese imported product. It’s subsidized or is a branch of one of their government’s agricultural agencies — in speaking with a representative of the company, it was difficult to find an American equivalent of what Zen NOH is exactly, but that’s the name of the agency that runs Shiki, while also furnishing other area restaurants and stores with their highly sought-after Wagyu, in addition to other Japanese culinary products.
As I see it, Shiki is essentially a Japanese culinary embassy located in the heart of Beverly Hills. It is the epicenter of the Wagyu market, and the apex of its possibilities. You’ll find it difficult, no doubt, to get a table in this intimate setting, but the experience that awaits you is nothing short of transformative.
Or maybe you don’t eat meat? If that’s so, you’ll never know what you’re missing, in which case, take solace in the ignorance.