At Yakiniku Futago (37 West 17th Street; 212-620-0225), the attention to detail is apparent shortly after you walk through the door. A wooden bar with a backlit, exposed brick wall full of wine flanks the left side of the space. A glass partition divides the Tokyo-inspired dining room. A modern jazz playlist sets the tone, then the music changes to a custom-designed set, with indie tunes like the XX vs Miike Snow, mixed by Sweetsounds Studios. Ceiling-height tile mosaics of the chain’s founders adorn the back wall. Off to the right, a rustic wood-paneled private dining room plays authentic Japanese music. A sound curtain of running water creates an invisible wall from the lively main dining room. Even the hallway and bathrooms have their own sonic themes.
The food is just as impeccable. The Japanese barbecue features high-end Wagyu beef, imported straight from its motherland, available for table-side barbecue and even beef sushi.
Influenced by Korean barbecue, yakiniku is relatively new to Japan. It started around 70 years ago with the arrival of Korean immigrants, and there are now over 21,000 yakiniku restaurants on the island nation. According to Yasumatsu, there are only a handful of yakiniku in the States, with a higher concentration on the West coast. This New York outpost is the first of the Futago chain of eateries to open in America (there are numerous locations spread throughout Asia). The goal is to eventually branch out to Europe. Like most Korean barbecue joints, meat is cooked on grills installed in the tables, and some condiments are similar — like the simple sesame-oil-based marinade — but there are also variations with soy and spicy dipping sauces. At Yakiniku Futago, real wasabi (not the neon green powder) is mashed into a paste that guests can add to freshly cooked beef. “The portions are smaller than Korean,” manager Santoru Yasumatsu tells the Voice. “We want guests to try many kinds.”
The other difference is the quality of meat. You’re not going to find Japanese Kobe (authentic Kobe beef comes from the Kobe region of Japan and they’re not actually the massaged cows we think of, Yasumatsu says. That would be matsusaka), but you will find high-quality Black Wagyu. It’s the same cow, just a different style of rearing. Yakiniku imports the meat from about ten cows every month. It comes from all over the country, much of it from Kushu island in the south. That Black Wagyu is offered in grilled form in options like the Hamideru Kalbi ($45), a half pound of thinly sliced ribeye, presented in a cloud of dry ice smoke in a silver bowl. It’s cooked on the table grill by a server, then cut with scissors into bite-size slivers. The 10 Seconds Beef ($25) also features imported ribeye, lightly cooked atop the grill with choice of sauces, one ponzu-based, one soy.
American-raised Kobe is on the menu, as well. Thickly cut tongue ($28), served with lemon and salt, comes from these cows. Prepared for export to Japan, this is the same high-quality tongue that is served in yakiniku restaurants in Asia. Unlike the Korean version, which is sliced paper-thin, it’s more like little chunks of filet mignon, much more delicate than one would assume. Thickly cut special fillet steak with garlic sauce ($25) is also cooked at the table. Pieces of U.S. Kobe are meant to be simmered in a rich garlic butter that’s heated in a small pot. Servers tell guests how long to let the meat cook; when it’s time to pull it out, a small garlic chip is placed on top.
It’s not all tabletop cooking. Harami sushi ($6 apiece) is layered atop a soft pillow of rice, just like you’d find in a traditional sushi joint. Instead of fish, U.S. Kobe outside skirt meat is used. It’s drizzled with house-made sweet soy sauce. Seared fatty toro kalbi with ponzu sauce ($15) is a similar play on tartare or sashimi. Lightly roasted, thinly cut U.S. Kobe flap meat is served in a citrusy soy sauce. Soup and rice dishes are also offered with options ranging from miso ($8) and bone-broth-based liquids ($10) to bibimbap ($15) available in the traditional hot stone pot. Japanese-style cold noodles ($6) are a must-try. Based on the dish famous from northern Japanese city, Morioka, thick and chewy noodles are served in a bonito-based broth. It’s a lively alternative to cold ramen.
The menu is rounded out by a selection of Japanese shochus served straight up or in cocktails (flavors include oolong and green tea, lychee, and Red Bull); wines, and sakes ranging from sparkling and yuzu sake to junmai daiginjo.
For diners looking to get a pair of their own tongs, Yakiniku Futago offers a reward for frequent diners. On the tenth visit, guests get their own pair of gold tongs and a plaque with their name, both of which hang on the wall.