Inside Toronto’s Secret, High-End Japanese Steak Club
The first rule of Steak Club is: you do not talk with your mouth full.
Or at least that was the original idea. It’s the first rule to be broken tonight at Nota Bene restaurant in Toronto, where this ravenous gang of the city’s most esteemed chefs, informed carnivores, and general movers and shakers are squabbling, loudly, over Japanese meat. Of course, we’re not talking about the knock-off Kobe sliders at your local gastropub; these are the finest, most exorbitant cuts of Wagyu beef in town; the real deal, painstakingly sourced from prefectures as far flung as Shimane. The evening’s M.O.? To determine the tastiest. A contentious topic.
“The Kobe definitely wins,” says chef David Lee. “The structure of the fat, the juiciness. It’s A5.”
“You old guys, you’re too set in your ways!” interjects hedge fund manager Moez Kassam, who’s partial to the A4 Hokkaido. “You hear a particular region or grading, and automatically think it’s a 10.”
These “old guys,” to be fair, have been at this for a while. Over the last 15 years, “The Beef Boys,” as this squad calls itself, have assembled nearly annually, in various incarnations, to chew over Canada’s steak landscape. The core group — which includes chefs Lee, Marc McEwan, and Joe Bersani, as well as real estate agent Jimmy Molloy, lawyer Clayton Ruby, food critic Jacob Richler and optometrist and de facto group leader Dr. Josh Josephson — first colluded many moons ago on a gluttonous whim. “I hired a stretch limo, and without reservations, we ate at eight steak restaurants in one night,” recounts Josephson. “Conversations weren’t permitted during the tasting. We wanted to find out who had the best steak in the city.”
In following years, they’ve convened at people’s homes and restaurants, each bringing beef from whom they believe to be the country’s top purveyor. They taste the cuts blindly, then vote on them to decide the one steak to rule them all. Consider it a heat check on Canada’s culinary scene.
On this night, Josephson focuses the club’s palates on our prime imports. Up for evaluation are Wagyu strip loins from four prefectures — Kagoshima, Hokkaido, Shimane, and Kobe — sourced by Seiko Ishiguro, owner of Famu, the only butcher licensed to sell true Japanese beef in Canada. “In Japan, to be called Wagyu, a cow has to be 100 percent purebred,” says Ishiguro. “But in North America, most ‘Wagyu’ cows are a hybrid with something else, usually Angus. It’s very different. The melting point for real Wagyu is very low; the beef should melt in your mouth.”
To do the steaks justice, chef Lee, who’s offered up his kitchen for the occasion, cooks them medium rare with no seasonings but salt. Participants grade each cut out of 10 points for taste, texture, and juiciness. Josephson tallies the scores, via a convoluted spreadsheet, and it’s no contest: Kagoshima beef is the best type of Wagyu Canadian money can buy. Hokkaido comes in second.
Attorney Howard Levitt pulls the trigger: “Even the worst Wagyu tonight is better than any Canadian beef I’ve ever had.” The arguing reignites.
Sure, this all looks a little ostentatious: a bunch of men hobnobbing over expensive red meat. But to Josephson, it’s a chance for like-minded gourmands to nerd out over a shared passion, and a way to assess what truly is the good stuff. “Typically, if you’re going out for a steak, it’s going to be a good steak,” he says. “But how good is it, really? Without providing perspective, you’ll never really know.” Easy job, but someone’s got to do it.