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Niwa Japanese BBQ and Abacus Offer Uncommon, Umami-Rich Wagyu

It's an unusual partnership worth checking out.

Two vastly different restaurants—one, Niwa Japanese BBQ, the other Abacus—are teaming up to offer an expensive variety of Japanese wagyu and serve it in their own ways. When I learned of the small wagyu story unfolding in Dallas, I immediately thought of A Tale of Two Cities or Romeo and Juliet—“two houses, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene ….”

For Jimmy Niwa, owner of Niwa Japanese BBQ in Deep Ellum, where meat sizzles over grills, wagyu is not monolithic. He’s teaming up with executive chef Chad Bowden of Abacus to bring in Toriyama Umami Wagyu, which each chef will serve in his own way. For Niwa, it’s about expanding horizons. For Abacus, it’s a feather in the cap of a restaurant that serves buffalo and wild game. Why not consider regional wagyu a boutique novelty as well, with nuance in the meaty flavor, not just decadence in the fat?

Both are offering it in small portions: by the ounce to grill briefly on your own at Niwa; as an appetizer special at Abacus—most recently two ounces grilled, sliced, and laid over sautéed maitake mushrooms, with a yuzu-soy-butter sauce and yuzu kosho.

The story gets interesting when it comes to how they’re getting it there in the first place. An informal collaboration allows both restaurants to carry parts of what would otherwise be a prohibitively costly shipment of a primal cut. They’re sharing the chuck roll—each getting sections of an approximately 40-pound piece of beef. Niwa will carry the New York steak ($22/ounce) and zabuton (a cut that means “little pillow”; $18/ounce) sliced thin for the grill, while Abacus will offer other chuck cuts as priced-by-ounce steak ($20/ounce).

“It kind of makes sense. That’s what yakiniku really flourished from,” Niwa says, referring to the Japanese barbecue tradition that arose around cuts you don’t see on steakhouse menus. “The grills allow us to do anything, really.”

But at the heart is the wagyu itself, from a tiny producer in Gunma prefecture, near Tokyo in the center of Japan’s main island.

Wagyu simply means “cow” in Japanese, and four breeds make up the totality of Japanese beef (wagyu), with emphasis on two primary breeds: black (which makes up the majority) and brown (what we know as Akaushi). American wagyu-cross breeds are something else entirely.

“We’ve been offering wagyu on our menu since we opened, and wagyu from different prefectures” in order to raise awareness and introduce people to the flavor nuances, Niwa says. Think of a Japanese prefecture as a region or county, with variations stemming from the cattle’s feed and environment, in a way that draw analogies to terroir in wine. “When you get up to Hokkaido, the wagyu there has a sweeter taste. And when you get to other regions, it’s so different.” Though all are distinguished by their sweet fat, high levels of omega fatty acids, and dizzying marbling.

In the family-owned Toriyama wagyu producers, Niwa found a treasure he wanted to bring home. “I had heard about Toriyama in Japan,” Niwa says. “They don’t mass produce, so it has to be small importers.” A booklet Toriyama distributes opens with images of a bottle-fed calf and a group shot of the team that raises and hand-feeds 1,200 cattle in the shadow of Mount Akagi. (The Japanese wagyu distinction already specifies that the cattle be given massages and fed a special diet.)

With their beef, he knew he’d be able to make more distinctions.

“If you’ve had A5 wagyu, then you’ve been opened to the ‘Wow, this is like meat-butter,’” Niwa says, referring to the highest-marbled grade’s over-the-top opulence. But Japanese wagyu doesn’t have to be so decadent—something he wishes more people would understand. “When you get to A4, especially the Toriyama, it’s about the flavor of the meat. It’s not just meat-butter.” And Toriyama has, in fact, put money into researching and increasing its umami characteristics.

Bowden echoes the sentiment. “Some of the A5 [from bigger producers] is inconsistent, and they get kind of greasy, because of the fat content.”

Ultimately, Niwa says, “We’re really hoping to educate the consumer about wagyu. It’s the same thing that happened with Champagne [versus “sparkling wine”]. People don’t understand that wagyu isn’t synonymous with Kobe, that it’s a large category—there’s lots of room.”