When Executive Chef Jeremy Shelton arrived at BLT Steak seven months ago, he had big plans to shake up the menu.
"The more cool shit I can have, the happier I am," he says, and if there's one thing that makes Shelton happy, it's the Wagyu strip. It's his favorite thing on the menu right now.
For Shelton there's steak and then there's Wagyu beef. These Japanese and domestic breeds have meat with intense marbling and fatty textures, plus no two Wagyu cuts are exactly the same, which is why Shelton developed a flight program around the premium meat.
It's something different for D.C. steakhouses too. Generally, a steakhouse will have one or two Wagyu cuts on the menu, he says, but at BLT they're offering 12 different varieties at any given time. They're serving it on a board in three or five-piece tastings, and it let's guests compare the wide varieties of Japanese and domestic Wagyu side-by-side.
Sure, the flight program is pricey. The three piece option is $95 (about 9 ounces of meat) and the five piece is $120 (about 13 ounces of meat). But, there's also good value, given the variety that comes with a sample, Shelton says, you can easily spend hundreds of dollars sampling off these meats at other restaurants and steakhouses.
And, the flights are not just for the DC power lunch crowd. To find out who's giving this dish a try, Eater talked with Shelton. What's surprising is that this platter is popular for dates, family dinners and tourist groups.
What has the Wagyu flights experience been like so far?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. It's picked up a lot since we first started. We did a little bit of background work before we launched it. But, it was something we've been talking about for a long time now. Really, it was all about finding a way to make this possible.
Part of it was the back of the house and my research and figuring out how we were going to do this program. And, the other half, which I think was one of the biggest selling points about the whole thing, was the training of the front of the house. We had to teach the differences in the Wagyu, like the Japanese black and the Japanese red. Or, the differences in the American styles, whether it's 100 percent purebred American Wagyu, or the crossbred with black Angus. The training, though, was one of the biggest selling points because the front of the house is essentially educating the customer and the consumer.
So, it's been very well received. We've seen people ordering it in lieu of like a shellfish platter. They might order it as an appetizer and share the slices at the table. That's not something we had foreseen or thought about, but it's something people are doing with the tray. It's kind of nice, and it actually works out really well. It's something that people can split and experience together.
It also brings in a lot of different cuts that I wouldn't have been able to do before. We're going through so much more now. When we started, we were selling one to two trays per night, and now we're selling almost five to six a night. Also, on top of that it's also increased our sales of the Japanese Wagyu, which you know is a high dollar item, and we don't necessarily make a lot of money on it since it's kind of a luxury item. But, being a steakhouse, we kind of have to have that. You know if someone says, "I want the best steak that I can get," then you you have to have the best steak that money can buy. Hands down anywhere.
Talk about the benefits of having access to this premium meat. Are there added benefits?
Absolutely. When I started as chef here, we had three cuts of meat that were part of the core menu. But, in doing this program and expanding it, we can have upwards of six cuts of different Wagyu. Right now, I have five different cuts of Japanese Wagyu. It allows me to bring in some cool and more interesting stuff, like several A5 cuts [the highest grade for Japanese Wagyu] and I can bring it in knowing that it will sell. That used to be the biggest worry.
What's the typical response from someone who orders this?
It's a little bit of an education process. Some customers come here specifically for this meat. They've seen or read about it. That's been nice. However, it's been kind of twofold. There are some people who don't know too much about it, and we can educate them a lot. It's also nice because they can try all these cuts at once. That's how we are pushing it. Instead of going to four different steakhouses and trying four different types of Wagyu, at $90-$120 each, you can come here and try a wide variety for that same price. We're offering five different cuts and you can compare them side-by-side... It's an expensive dish don't get me wrong, but this is nice because it allows you to try many rare cuts. You also get to experience the different qualities of the marbling.
What's on the board and what's the price point?
Keep in mind, this menu changes two to three times per week. It all depends on what we have on hand. The first three cuts right now are from Imperial Wagyu Farms in Nebraska, and they use 100 percent Japanese black angus beef. It's a domestic product, but pure Wagyu beef. The first selection is the rib loin, which is basically a filet of the rib. That's about 3 ounces and has a seven to eight marble score. The second is a skirt steak. This is not a graded steak, so not too much marbling, but it's something nice and different. It's probably my favorite steak on the menu right now and tenfold different from a regular skirt steak. The third one is the signature grade strip loin, again all these cuts are about 3 ounces, so a total of 9 ounces on the board. For those three cuts we're selling them for $95. And, it comes with accompaniments: crispy Maitake mushrooms, roasted bone marrow, pickled ramps and a miso mostarda. But, we'll change those soon because we want to keep them seasonal and fresh... So the other option, we try to give you at least one Japanese Wagyu cut. Right now, we're doing two A5 cuts, and these are on the five piece premium board, priced at $150. It's all a matter of what I have available, and what I can get on the board. But for the Japanese cuts, we're offering them in 2 ounce servings.
About five to six orders per night, anything else surprising that you're seeing from dining room?
The reaction has been really positive. It's people you wouldn't expect who are ordering it. I mean D.C. is a transient place, and we have a lot of tourist traffic here. They're giving it a try. We thought this was going to be geared towards the power diners: the lawyers and lobbyists and the businessmen with corporate accounts. I thought this was going to be a show-off and impress dish. But, it's really nice to see people ordering it across the board. People are getting it on a date. Or, there's a family or four-top table of friends, and they're sharing it as an appetizer. There's really no demographic to it, which tells me that we're doing a really good job with it.
And, it's obviously fun to have all these premium meats, right?
It's personally gratifying. I love having this product in house. The more cool shit I can have, the happier I am. It's also nice to be offering it on such a large scale. And, I don't know of anyone else in D.C. doing this right now. It also helps us stay on top of the game, and it gives us an edge. Especially with all the new restaurants and cool stuff going on in this city. We have to keep up in D.C.
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