Reinventing the steakhouse with subtle attention to beef and uncommon accompaniments
DINE How odd that the world's best beef should come from Japan, a small island nation where pastureland is scarce and whose gastronomic renown largely has to do with the sea. Beef's natural home is a big, flat place: the pampas of Argentina, say, or our own Great Plains. Throw in a few zillion acres of wheat — for the refined white flour whence come soft buns — and you have the culture of mass-produced, drive-through hamburgers that defines us. Given the powerful connection between the burger and the car, it's a wonder that someone hasn't yet closed the circle by putting tread marks on a burger: the Treadburger.
At 5A5, a next-generation steak house in the Barbary Coast, beef is treated as the delicacy it can be, and not surprisingly the restaurant's tones and accents are Japanese and east Asian. Beef is a — pricey — delicacy in Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun but not the 32-ounce steak. The name refers to the wagyu beef the restaurant actually imports from Japan and sells for prices beginning at about $16 an ounce. On that scale, your 32-ounce steak would cost you ... well, let's say bailout money
But the 32-ounce steak represents life out of balance in a particularly American way — "koyaanisqatsi" is the Indian term and title of the 1982 movie — and 5A5 is all about a Zen-like equilibrium. The restaurant reposes in an unassuming brick building on a narrow, quiet street. Inside, the look is thoughtfully understated, with cream-colored, 1960s-looking chairs, nests of horseshoe banquettes, lots of open space (a witty hint at prairies?), and a ceiling of perforated concavity that looks like a giant, upside-down, backlit colander.
For a steak house, 5A5 lays a surprisingly light hand on the meat. Chef Allen Chen's menu contains a full page-and-a-half of smaller courses, including shooters, bites, starters, soups, and salads — many of them as clever, elegant, and meatless as you would find in any temple of California cuisine — before you reach flesh country. Even the list of main dishes transcends beef to include buffalo, fish, poultry, and a vegetarian option. And vegetables here aren't an afterthought. Behold a platter of glisteningly green-white bok choy ($8), tossed with chunks of meaty bacon and crumblings of macadamia nuts, or a berm of baby spinach ($8), sautéed with onion and garlic and topped with a fine thatch of shredded, fried naan.
Flavor patterns are polycultural but vigorous. A shooter of hamachi ($4), for instance, includes not only a small chunk of yellowtail (a fish familiar to sushi lovers) but a creamy, tangy blend of avocado, ginger, yuzu juice, and tobiko. It's like a piece of sushi roll liquified into a health drink and presented in a wide-mouth, heavy-bottom shot glass. A plate of ribs and chips ($12) gives you several exquisitely tender spare ribs in a spicy hoisin glaze, accompanied by a stack of lacy fried-potato disks. And truffle fries ($8) introduce a distinctly occidental note, though modified by the ramekin of sriracha aioli. Sriracha is a Thai hot sauce, but in aioli it produces an outcome quite similar to cayenne or other hot red pepper.
As for the meat: even the plebeian cuts of Angus are sensuous and delicate. Like cheesecake, their texture is soft, with just enough firmness to hold their shape. And, perhaps in a nod to a pair of unsettled Zeitgeists, financial and cardiovascular, you can have either a smaller or larger portion of several of the main courses. I thought the smaller, six-ounce portion of filet mignon ($23) was just right: enough to register as a proper serving of meat but not so much as to induce that sickening feeling of overload. Better yet, the meat was juicy and flavorful, which, if you've ever cooked filet mignon yourself, is far from a given. Tender bonelessness does carry its price. For a bit of extra insurance (and a bit more money, $29), you can get your filet on the bone.