Saga Wagyu At New World Manila Bay (February 23, 2017)

Friday, March 3, 2017

I used to think I knew what beef is about until I tried authentic high grade wagyu! 

Wagyu, sadly, I think, is a term that is over abused. Almost every single restaurant will advertise having wagyu beef, when a lot of times, the beef probably isn't wagyu. Like the cow could be Japanese but did not grow up with the techniques and diet used on what would count as a wagyu cow. And actually, who are we kidding? Oftentimes we see the meat already cooked, if not mostly cooked, that we never really get to see if the marbling is as nice as we'd hope it'd be. 

I am privileged to have been invited to New World Manila Hotel to see the wonders of Saga Wagyu beef for myself and taste what really is authentic wagyu. I used to think I knew wagyu with my tries before, but I realized that all the other times I've tried this, I was probably fooled because I don't remember my past experiences being as profoundly life changing as this. 

The two main centerpieces in the event are this plate of uncooked wagyu slabs, and a pie containing a big roast beef portion of wagyu.

The wooden sign says "Saga Beef" on the big text. The small text roughly translates to "especially selected black fur wagyu"

Before everything, Mr. Ricardo Hao, Sales Supervisor of Mayon Consolidated (the importer of the beef from Saga prefecture) acknowledged the guests and spoke about how happy they are to be part of this event.

The serious part starts when Mr. Yuuki Fujita from the Saga Prefectural Government office does the translation for Mr. Toshimune Tateno from Saga's Agricultural Cooperatives.

He discussed plenty of things about cows and beef and gave the picture on why wagyu is so expensive. Wagyu (or "peaceful cow"; that's why I don't say wagyu cows because it'd mean "peaceful cow cows") is so expensive because they are given more time to grow. There are apparently farms that specialize in neonatal cow rearing and will care for the cows from birth until 9 months old. The wagyu farmers will then take care of the cows from 9 months old and grow them until they are 29 months old and beyond (some farms slaughter at beyond 30 months). That's extremely long given that most regular beef cows are slaughtered at around just 18-22 months old on average. That's almost 1 more year of raising them, and given the high quality diet and low stress lifestyles the cows lead, 1 year really does add up financially.

Talking to Mr. Tateno myself has led me to clear up a lot of misconceptions on wagyu, too (one of those days when my Japanese language is useful! Most days I don't have anyone to practice it on). Mainly, I learned that not all wagyu cows listen to music, drink wine, and get massages. Though he didn't explain it to me, I think the main point is that it doesn't matter how the farmers raise their cows so long as the beef does pass the rigorous standards they have set up. I think that's why he explained that some farms do play music while some farms don't. I learned from Mrs. Hao (wife of Mr. Hao) that the wine part is not necessarily true for all farms, and that cows do not necessarily get massages but they're rather brushed often in order to help circulation (which now sounds normal because we sort of think of a spa when we hear the word "massage"). The rest boils down to a peaceful lifestyle thanks to Saga's beautiful landscape and mountainous geography, sources of the freshest water, and the best formulations of grain. Most of what we think of wagyu come from over sensationalized news articles.

I learned from Mr. Tateno, too, that due to Saga's good geography, they're also popular for their strawberries, oranges, and onions. Despite having black cows for wagyu, they do not specialize in kurobuta (black pig/Berkshire pig). I also learned from him that dairy cows and beef cows involve really different techniques. Even if Saga is known for its wagyu, it does not automatically mean that they specialize dairy products. The techniques in raising the cows for dairy and cows for beef are different, and the breeds of the cows themselves are not the same either.

Mr. Fujita explains the rigorous standards that beef must pass in order to be called "Saga Beef." Saga Beef isn't just beef from cows from Saga, the term is much more loaded than that. According to their website, Saga Beef refers to "meat from Japanese black cattle farmed and fattened under the supervision of the Saga branch of the Japanese Agriculture (JA) group that has a Beef Marbling Standard (BMS) of 7 or above and ranked at grades 4 or 5, corresponding with premium quality, on the meat quality scale used by the Japan Meat Grading Association."

So yes, I learned that there is apparently a marbling standard. We sort of have this mental image that so long as beef is marbled, it's wagyu already. But turns out there is a way to grade how the fats are beautifully woven into the red meat.

So for those who want to get to the nitty gritty, you can visit the website or look at these screenshots:

Food is a very important aspect in wagyu raising. Most wagyu farmers pride over their feed formulations, and most cows are able to enjoy hay, rice straw and grains such as barley, corn, and soybean. Growing wagyu is akin to grooming a sumo wrestler, if I may say, in the aspect that the growth should be even, gradual, amd healthy. Cows hastily fattened with hormones and other cheats just will not give the flavor a slowly grown wagyu can give.

The bulk of the program is master Chef Akio Shimoyama demonstrating the most popular dishes that they have at the prestigious Kira Saga chain of restaurants.

He explained that one popular way to enjoy wagyu is to add it to a mild sukiyaki stew with tofu.

He also demonstrated how they steamed wagyu slices. This is the first time I have ever heard of steamed beef so this was interesting to me. He steams the beef above a bed of vegetables, so the result is the vegetables (and mushrooms) do get the umami, too.

He then shared how nervous he was over this! Initially I couldn't understand what that brown slab was. I was told it was roast beef but it just didn't look like beef to me. Apparently, what Chef Shimoyama was referring to was roast beef inside this pie! He wanted to do something they don't really do in their restaurants and something that he collaborated on with the chefs at New World.

He nervously sliced the pie off to reveal a beautifully baked roast beef. He shared that he noticed how Pinoys in general will do this sort of treatment to a large slab of beef (unlike how they would most probably slice this into steak size or slice this thinly for shabu shabu), that's why he did his own take on wagyu roast beef. He used the pie coating in order to prevent shrinkage and to keep the moisture in the beef.

Chef Shimoyama was so proud while he was slicing the slab, revealing a beautiful pink center and a perfectly baked outer hemisphere. He shared how nervous he was about how this would turn out.

You know it's wagyu when you still see the visible marbling even if it's been baked.

This was overwhelmingly good (as expected). This honestly restored my faith in roast beef. Most hotels serve roast beef that's too tough and too dry, often relying on the sauce or gravy for moisture. This roast beef is so moist and so soft that it literally is melt in your mouth. The beef itself has no strong seasoning, yet it is still more powerful than the gravy. The umami is just so rich that I found it so hard to notice the gravy. This surprised me immensely because we are a sauce loving country and we typically have this mindset that foods need their respective sauces and dips to survive. And yet this just is so good on its own. 

Now you see that this is the real deal. Japanese beef is graded by the meat association from A-C and 1-5, A4 and A5 being the highest grades. This is the kind of meat that gets A4 and A5, and in the marbling scale, this is 10-12. You really just cannot hastily grow a cow and expect it to produce this kind of marbling. I now understand why growing wagyu is like an art, because this is an output from painstaking work and creativity (they have to be creative in raising them and keeping them stress free you know).

Chef Shimoyama also made a really fresh take on salad. We would normally associate salads with very salty cured meats like ham and salami. But his take on doing salad is to add fresh salad vegetables with small slices of wagyu, and to have vinaigrette with dashi. 

The whole ensemble comes in such perfect harmony. We would usually think of putting salty meats to balance off the taste of vegetables, but what he did was to create a dressing so strong in umami that it needn't be too sour nor too salty. The result is a mild but very tasty dressing that does not overpower the vegetables, most especially not the beef. The beef still finds its way to take centerstage even with all the other elements in the salad.  

I really wish Chef Shimoyama would turn his dressing into commercialized ones and have them sold in groceries!!! It's so unique that it will fill a void in the dressing market. We would always associate Japanese dressing with the heavy and creamy sesame dressings. This, on the flipside, is light yet it's so tasty.

I regret not being able to take in depth photos of the contents of these cups! These are the sukiyaki cups that they had, with small wagyu cubes and tofu.

I think I'll just reiterate all that I've said that the wagyu is so mellow yet so tasty. It is mellow enough that it can be paired with tofu and not overpower the tofu. The texture is so soft, and when cooked the right way, it really melts in the mouth. TMI but when I got home, I barely had to pick out any stuck meat on this large tooth gap I have. The gap is like 2mm between two of my molars so whenever I eat meat I most likely will have plenty of flossing to do after that. With this beef, despite all the eating I did, barely any meat got stuck on my gap.

Finally, we were also able to try the popular steamed wagyu of Saga Kira restaurant! 

The meat is just such so buttery and creamy that even if it's paired with vegetables, it still shines. The sauce was not very salty but the dish was so flavorful because of the beef.

I think the best way to articulate my thoughts is that this wagyu redefines the way we're wired to think about beef. We usually would think of beef in steaks or roast beef slabs with very salty gravy or sauce, beef broth cubes, uber salty bulalo,  and in dishes such as teriyaki or bulgogi. We're wired to think of overpowering flavors, saltiness, and plenty of seasonings. And I think years of consuming beef instant noodles has probably taken its toll on everyone's mindset, too.

This beef just takes all of those thoughts away. You somehow find yourself confused because you know it's beef, you know it's so sweet and tasty, yet it bears nothing of your preconceived notions of the essence of beef broth cubes. It's so mild yet the flavor is so full bodied that you will find yourself not noticing the sauces, or the lack therewith, but instead find yourself just paying all your attention to the beef. It takes centerstage without even trying.

It brings you back to the original taste of what beef is supposed to taste like, without the distractions of sauces and seasonings. There is really just some magical ability in this beef to do that. Even if no one told you how much it cost, I swear your attention will just gravitate towards the beef just because of how full bodied its flavor is.

I am so excited for both Mayon Consolidated and for New World Manila Bay. New World Manila Bay is going to serve a wagyu feast as Chef Shimoyama is going to be back in May! On May 6 he will be serving a special dinner and there will be sake pairing, too. Buffet diners at Market Café can look forward to teppanyaki style Saga beef with vegetables from the Japanese buffet section. Interested diners may contact +63 2526888 or email 
As for Mayon Consolidated, they are the supplier of Saga Beef to other posh hotels and restaurants and they do sell meat to the public, too. If you're having wagyu anywhere in Manila, chances are, the meat is from them. I shop there from time to time for my fix of thinly sliced meat (they're so good in slicing whether it's beef or pork). It's a great place to get meat, though personally, for something as expensive as this kind of beef, it'd be best to wait for Chef Shimoyama's return in order to enjoy the beef at optimum quality. If you will notice, almost all of the beef served in this banquet was not well done, and most restaurants in Japan will have an attendant cook all the meat for someone's banquet all night long to make sure that the customer will not overcook it. This meat is to expensive that one can't just "wing it" and expect that it'd come out perfectly.

But if you are planning to get your share of wagyu for whatever reason, you may check out their price list here. But I warned you, it can get very steep. Especially for A5 beef! I think I can only confidently buy the wagyu fats priced at Php150 because I think it's cheap enough that I won't mess things up hahaha

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