Japan surely has an infatuation with all things American. This is unmistakable if you have seen like any show or movie set in the island nation. If Hello Kitty, The Ring movies, and, of course, Pokemon are any indication, Americans are always clamoring for Japan to return the favor. Most recently, Kunio Ichinose answered the call by opening Ikinari Steak, his first US location of his popular steakhouse chain to NYC.
Just off Union Square in the East Village, on the site of a former Japanese butcher, Ikinari Steak is born. A chain that has seen great acclaim and growth in Japan for bringing the American style or “super thick cut beef” steakhouse experience to The East. Known as the “standing steakhouse”, Ikinari is bringing it’s unique concept from its island home to our little island metropolis. Restaurateur and chef Kunio Ichinose started with his first outpost in December 2013, and, since then, has grown the brand to over 100 locations in Japan, with 60 in Tokyo City alone.
Ikinari in Japan is built around American style, American-raised beef, importing a taste of the US to the Japanese by shipping cattle raised on a proprietary farm in Illinois and then wet-aging it for at least 40 days before bringing it to the table. Ikinari is poised to export this concept from its home to the new American landscape of fast casual cuisine. This first NYC outpost, with a locale hoping to attract a hip and fast-paced downtown crowd that has been enjoying ramen at Ippudo NY and tempura at Izakaya for awhile now, is just the starting pointing, as Ichinose hopes to grow the brand like wild fire around the city like in Japan.
The concept is a freshly cut, made to measure meal. Entering down a short staircase at 90 E. 10th Street (between 3rd and 4th Avenues), the garden level restaurant’s doors open to a lovely hostess who “seats” you at your standing table outfitted with everything you will need for your meal from steak sauce to soy sauce to wasabi. Yes, this is the standing steakhouse you heard about. A popular seating style adopted in Japan, you enjoy your meal standing at high-top style tables. The concept takes a moment to adjust to, but actually lends itself nicely to our idea of the social, interactive, and communal eating and the mingling environment you find at a deli or food truck here in the city. The open, free-flowing setup is great for that casual dinner with friends or quick business lunch. There is also a limited seating option if you want to a more traditional setting for your meal.
Like other fast casual restaurants, it offers a simple menu that tours you through the cuts of steak from which you have to build your meal. Offering 4 cuts: Ribeye, Sirloin, Filet, or an assorted steak option, you have the opportunity to decide what level of fat content and flavor best suits your pallet. With a classic set of a la carte sides including bone broth soup, salad and choices of rice, you can tailor your Japanese version of the classic American steak meal to your liking.
Once your server takes your order for drinks and sides, he directs you to walk over to the in-house butcher who will help you select which cut of beef and the amount he will cut for you. On this particular evening, I was dining with a friend, so I able to try both the Ribeye and Filet. It’s a very cool and unique experience getting to choose my steak. For me, the ability to tailor your portion to your appetite, is very enticing. I ordered 300g of steak which gives you a nice sized 10.6oz steak, but if you are especially hungry, you can order up to 600g or 21.2oz. Once the steak is “Japan” cut and weighed right before your eyes, you give the temperature to which you would like your meat cooked, and return to the table to enjoy your appetizers. This idea of a truly “open” kitchen give you the sense of the degree of freshness of the meal.
The steaks arrive on sizzling skillets in a bed of onions and corn. At the recommendation of our server, we added a splash of Ichinose’s J Sauce, a special in-house blend of steak and soy sauces that, although the savory cuts of beef do not need, adds another layer of flavor that sets this version of the Japanese steakhouse apart from others here in the city. Both cuts I tried, the ribeye and the filet, were tender and flavorful, imparting all the mastery that one would expect from a kitchen staff that was fully trained in Japan. I recommend pairing the Garlic Pepper Rice as a side. The robust flavor of the rice complemented my filet perfectly. I rounded out my meal with a glass of Chardonnay (sometimes I break with the traditional rule of red wines with red meat, sue me.)
Another cool thing about Ikinari Steak, being that it is a proven and established concept, is that it already has a loyalty program in place to reward you with even more fantastic food with each visit. The Niku (or beef) Mileage Card offers 1 point for each gram of beef purchased. The loyal user can build points to receive rewards like a birthday coupon, monetary meal vouchers, and free drinks and food. The program is also tiered, so as the chain grows around the city, you can build a stack of points for even more treats. The points are conveniently stored on your loyalty card that you can obtain on your first visit and track via a companion app that you can track your usage in the US and in Japan. What else could you ask for?
Ikinari is a new hands-on affair. It offers great food in an environment that is interactive and engaging. Every piece of the experience is orchestrated to draw the diner into Ichinose’s world. From the standing tables, to the interaction with your own personal butcher, to the specially designed face masks made of clear, molded plastic servers use for hygiene, but also to allow the server to interact with the customers and for the customers to be able to see their smile. It’s this unique interpretation of the dining experience and attention to detail that makes Ikinari Steak definitely worth experiencing.
For more information on Ikinari Steak, check out their official website.