A Visit to the Newly Open Udon Time, Niku Steakhouse, and Butcher Shop

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Sanuki udon from Udon Time (and tempura vegetables). All photos: Photo: © tablehopper.com.

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Executive chef Steve Brown slicing up some meat magic.

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Niku’s caviar service.

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Kimchi tartare hiding under a cloud of beef tendon puffs and cured egg yolk.

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The extraordinary fat webbing of A5 beef.

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The simple and perfect presentation of off-menu A5 Takamori “drunken wagyu” New York strip.

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The tomahawk getting some thyme love on the binchotan charcoal grill.

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Sides at Niku include the can’t-miss nitro potatoes with crème fraîche.

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Chocolate-miso wagyu fat brownie.

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The Tradition cocktail (with citrus caviar).

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The view of the refrigerated windows of The Butcher Shop by Niku Steakhouse.

Kash Feng and Jackson Yu’s Omakase Restaurant Group (Omakase, Okane, Dumpling Time, Live Sushi Bar, Breakfast at Tiffany’s) has been bizzzzeeeee, and their unofficial takeover of Showplace Square is in full effect with the opening of their latest ventures: ~UDON TIME~, ~NIKU STEAKHOUSE~, and ~THE BUTCHER SHOP BY NIKU STEAKHOUSE~

First, let’s look at ~UDON TIME~. I stopped by for lunch yesterday, and thoroughly enjoyed my bowl of Sanuki udon ($8), with their signature broth, green onion, wakame, and tempura flakes—I loved the ginger on top as well, and you can add an egg (do it). I wished the broth was a bit hotter, but I enjoyed its light and clean flavor (the bowl got a nice boost when I shook on some shichimi). The slippery and springy noodles were supple but not mushy—you’ll see the noodle-making machine as you walk in. The noodles are aged overnight for more flavor and a softer texture.

There are other udon options, from hot to cold, curry to vegetarian. I’m coming back for the Kamamata udon ($12), with Jidori egg, soy sauce, parmesan, and butter, oh yeah. The Niku udon ($14) features wagyu from their butcher shop next door, so that seems like a no-brainer as well.

Chef Edgar Agbayani trained at Sanuki Menki Noodle School in Kagawa, Japan, and learned all about udon noodles, the different dashis, condiments, and ingredients, and tasted udon all over the Sanuki prefecture (there are hundreds of shops).

There are a variety of tempura vegetables and proteins you can add on the side, like kabocha and shrimp and zucchini, or heartier bites like a curry potato patty—most pieces are $1.50 each or more. The fry on the shrimp was delicate and light, but I just wish I was getting it hot out of the fryer—the heat lamp situation needs some work. You’ll also see some onigiri.

The fast-casual format is a lot like Marugame Udon (if you have been): you get a tray, tell the staff which udon you want, pick out your tempura from the bar, pay up, and you can hit another counter for tempura dipping sauce and more of the toppings (tempura flakes, green onion, daikon, cilantro, ginger, and togarashi). You can also order beer, wine in a can, and sake. The price is right, and a bowl really hits the spot on these chilly days—I can see this place getting even better once they sort out the tempura counter. Open Mon-Sat 11am-3pm and 5pm-9pm. 55 Division St. at Rhode Island.

Steak lovers all over the city are talking about the newly open ~NIKU STEAKHOUSE~, and for good reason. It’s a modern steakhouse, with Japanese influences, some American DNA, and some French elegance as well. Executive chef Steve Brown was known for his CosechaSD Supper Club in San Diego, and anyone who has A5 tattooed on their forearm is obviously obsessed and someone you want preparing your steak.

If you can swing it, you’ll want a seat at the raised 18-seat chef’s counter, which encircles the binchotan charcoal grill, and is a great way to learn a lot about the prized beef they’re offering and preparing here. You also get a blast of beef fat and heat in your face throughout your meal, and it’s heady stuff. It’s also really fun—the counter is convivial, and the fun vibe keeps things from getting stuffy, which could easily happen with four ounces of A5 Satsuma New York strip going for $110. It’s not to say the other tables don’t have any fun—the music is bumpin’, the staff is attentive and engaging, and there’s a lot to watch. The sleek dining room—designed by Aya Jessani—features dark wood, a glass wall of wines, dark leather chairs, and ceramic earthenware from Sven in San Francisco and Humble in Los Angeles.

Appetizers include a Japanese A5 wagyu jerky flight (Ono, Takamori, Satsuma, $20), which would also make a great bar snack over whisky cocktails at the main bar. The kimchi beef tartare (made from Imperial wagyu, $26) was a definite standout, covered in puffed beef tendon and a shaving of cured egg yolk. And if you’re here to splash out, go for the Noble Russian osetra caviar ($65), served in a cloud of potato espuma and a ring of chive oil—chef Steve likes to call it French fries and ice cream, and it will make sense upon your first bite from the chilled caviar spoon.

So, the beef! They have painstakingly sourced top-notch beef from numerous sources, and you can enjoy both domestic and Japanese wagyu, from a $45 hanger steak to A5 Kobe New York strip for $160 (four ounces). And four ounces of the A5 is really all you need—it’s so rich, with powerful fat and a perfectly seared and crisp edge, that gets cut with a brushing of a light soy glaze that Steve developed, along with some wasabi you can dab on. They charmingly let you choose your steak knife, but you barely need more than your fork for the A5.

There are some secret off-menu cuts and selections, so inquire what chef may have “under the counter”—we got lucky with his prized Takamori “drunken wagyu,” which is fed the leftover mash from nearby Dassai sake brewery, and there’s off-menu tongue as well. Imperial wagyu tomahawks ($180) seemed to be the hot item the night we were there (getting a rigorous brushing from a bundle of thyme on the grill), and there’s a 40-day, dry-aged prime angus porterhouse ($110). There’s also seafood, pork, and plenty of appetizers.

DO NOT miss a side of the nitro potatoes ($13), the product of an involved process that has the Kennebec potatoes boiled, mashed, chilled (ice bath and in the refrigerator for 24 hours), frozen, nitro blasted, and fried, and then they get a little spritz of black vinegar. The crisp exterior against the creamy interior is potato perfection. And a side of the braised greens ($13) in veal glaze will remind you of smoky BBQ greens, but richer.

Dessert can be a lighter chazuke ice cream with matcha anglaise ($14), or a decadent chocolate miso brownie ($16) made with wagyu fat (and wagyu caramel on top). There are also some special wine selections, like Chateau d’Yquem (2005) poured from a Coravin, which is a busy device here. You’re in excellent hands with lead sommelier Brian Kulich, who is offering over 100 wines by the glass, from small-production to hard-to-find wines, and he’ll pair expertly with your meal.

The front bar is so eye-catching, with a wall of liquor and beautiful glassware (each cocktail has its own unique glass). Spend some time before dinner to enjoy the show from bar manager Julien Bertrand, who was the bar manager at Frida in Bordeaux, and has been in San Francisco since 2013, working at Tunnel Top and Bar Fluxus in San Francisco and Michel Bistro in Oakland. The cocktails are sophisticated, with complex layering of flavors and fresh ingredients.

Launching March 1st is a ten-course, seasonal tasting menu, featuring vegetables from Kicking Bull Farms (of course, right?) in Sonoma, which is when they’ll really be able to kick their Ferrari red, Hestan-outfitted kitchen into high gear. There’s also a private dining room for 14, and there will be the option to dine in the Butcher Shop by Niku Steakhouse next door. Niku Steakhouse is open Wed-Sun 5:30pm-10pm. 61 Division St. at Rhode Island.

Speaking of ~THE BUTCHER SHOP BY NIKU STEAKHOUSE~, it’s the domain of Niku’s in-house butcher, Guy Crims, who also oversees the restaurant’s nose-to-tail meat program, along with chef Steve. The duo will collaborate on The Butcher Shop’s daily sandwich program (launching soon), and Steve will be making his housemade sausages available at retail.

They have toured Japan extensively, both together and separately, fostering relationships with some of the country’s top farms, including Urban Farm in Yokohama, which was one of the first Japanese farms to bring wagyu to the U.S., and Ono Farms in the Hyogo prefecture, which is providing its wagyu as an exclusive to Niku and The Butcher Shop. The butcher shop is one of five certified Kobe beef retailers in the U.S., and the first in SF.

You’ll also find domestic meats, including USDA Prime beef from Nebraska (fresh and dry-aged); Heritage Berkshire Kurobuta pork from Iowa; USDA Choice Superior Farms lamb from California, and wagyu from Imperial Wagyu in Nebraska. It’s meant to be approachable, whether you’re picking up a traditional cut, like a porterhouse, to something more exclusive, or just some Kobe filet fat. Walking by on the street, you’ll see all the aging meats in see-through refrigerators, and there are some well-selected retail items inside for beef lovers. Look for upcoming “Butcher’s Counter” events with internationally acclaimed chefs and butchers later this year. Open Tue-Sun 10am-6pm to start. 57 Division St. at Rhode Island.