There’s food you can intellectualize about, and then there’s food so visceral it obliterates the merest trace of thought.
That was my experience at Yakiniku Futago, a restaurant that opened on West 17th Street in June, specializing in Japanese barbecue. What it really is, is heaven for meat lovers.
The star here is the beef, imported from Japan. I can’t fathom what lifestyle they lived. Were they flanked by masseuses dispensing relaxing massages? Did they drink beer all day? Did they live their lives without a care in the world?
Take the Hamideru Kalbi. This thin, half-pound cut of Japanese Black Wagyu rib-eye is served in a gleaming silver bowl and dry ice. There are four distinct parts, with different textures: kaburi, geta (so named because of its sandal shape), rib-maki, and rib-shin ($45).
This meat is so highly marbled it literally, blissfully melts on first contact with your tongue.
“I don’t know how they do it,” stammered one dining companion after a bite or two and some silence. “It’s a euphoric feeling.”
There’s no comparison to the Wagyu cattle raised outside of Japan, I’m told. This is the stuff.
The menu highlights other house recommendations, featuring Kobe beef or US Prime beef—for example, the 10-Second Beef, which is slightly broiled; the Lightly Broiled Beef With Sea Urchin, served on seaweed and shiso leaf; and the Seared Fatty Toro Kalbi. The cuts, grilling methods, and sauces differ, but they are all mind-numbingly, thought-obliteratingly, rapturously tender and flavorful.
In Japanese, “Yakiniku” means “grilled meat,” and “futago” means twins. Yakiniku Futago was started by 35-year-old twins Sunchol Lee and Sunbong Lee in Osaka, and is arguably the most famous place in Japan for yakiniku. In the five years Yakiniku Futago has been around, the Lees have opened more than 40 restaurants worldwide. The West 17th Street location is the flagship U.S. restaurant.
They are keen businessmen no doubt, but their primary ambition is to spread the gospel of yakiniku throughout the world. Unlike Japanese competitors who usually set up shop on the U.S. West Coast, the twins made the jump—from Japan to Taiwan to Hong Kong—straight to the U.S. East Coast, eyeing a takeover of Europe next.
The origins of yakiniku are Korean. Particularly after World War II, the popularity of Korean barbecue in Japan took off. The similarity to Korean barbecue, where meat is grilled at the table, is clear. Through the years, yakiniku has become one of Japan’s national foods. But unlike ramen, which has proliferated in no small part due to relatively low startup costs, yakiniku is not as well-known outside of Japan.
In the hands of the Lee brothers, who are of Korean heritage, yakiniku comes full circle.
The menu features Korean-accented dishes and they are terrific.
The miso soup is one. It eschews the usual kombu dashi broth and instead makes use of creamy white seolleongtang broth—the result of hours of beef bones simmering. It has a body and a meaty intensity that make standard miso soup look like a delicate wallflower. The menu’s subtitle is “absolutely amazing taste miso soup.” It’s true. This is not to be missed ($8).
The Japanese Style Cold Noodles, similar to Korean naenmnyeong noodles, are served chilled, usually after the meat-eating revelry. Here a bonito broth is simmered for eight hours, along with eight other ingredients, and served with chewy Morioka style noodles ($6).
The garlic rice, which comes in a sizzling hot pot, is addictive ($15). Same for those cloves of garlic, grilled to sweet, melting tenderness on the grill, and redolent of sesame oil ($6).
Ramen is served at lunchtime, in two versions, both in a creamy pork housemade stock, made with Kurobura pork ($13). It takes 24 hours to make and the kitchen limits itself to making 50 bowls a day. One is the Shiro Ramen, and the other, the Kuro Ramen, fragrant with roasted garlic and scallion oil. You can add various toppings including kimchi, chashu, or cilantro. I’d recommend adding the kalbi.
There’s a wide selection of beverages including beers, sakes, shochus, shochu cocktails, and makgeollis.
If you have ever been at a standard Korean barbecue spot, you might be familiar with the no-nonsense service—efficient and not particularly warm. The wait staff at Yakiniku Futago is a whole other story. Drilled in the art of service (employees worldwide have to go through “smile training”), they are helpful, warm, and friendly.
Having visited Yakiniku Futago with a couple of very enthusiastic male carnivores—basically your friendly caveman archetype—who threw themselves upon the grilled meats with abandon, the waiter gently reminded them of their manners. “Don’t be greedy,” he humorously admonished.
The food and service were impeccable. Even a visit downstairs to the restroom is a peek at a world where everything has been thought of: nail clippers and file, body lotion, floss, hair ties, and so on.
Eat there at least 10 times, and you’ll get your own pair of golden tongs hanging in a glass cabinet on the wall, with your name etched on it.
37 W. 17th St., (between Fifth and Sixth avenues.)
Monday–Saturday noon–2:30 p.m.
Daily, 5 p.m.–11 p.m.