An Evening Celebrating The Unforgettable Taste Of Saga

Delectable Wagyu from the Saga prefecture took center stage in Chef Bettina Arguelles’ innovative eight-course feast, showcasing the best flavors of Japanese cuisine. 

It’s not every day when Sofitel throws grand, multi-course feasts celebrating cuisines from around the world, let alone a solo dinner featuring one of Japan’s finest exports, Saga Wagyu (or “Saga-gyu” for short). At the tail end of January, the hotel collaborated with Wano Craft Market and the creators of Saga Wagyu to come up with a tantalizing eight-course dinner handled by none other than Sofitel’s very own Chef Bettina Arguelles. Such events only happen once or twice a year, with the skilled chef taking a hands-on approach to everything, from conceptualizing dishes to single-handedly leading her kitchen team in bringing them to fruition for the special evening. 

The very minds behind Saga’s renowned Wagyu attended the event, having flown straight from Japan to witness their quality product transform in the hands of an expert chef. Among the special guests was Mr. Toshimune Tateno, the man responsible for breeding the particular cattle used for Saga-gyu—an endeavor that began in the 1980s. It was a fitting celebration that also marked the 40th anniversary of the famous Wagyu variety, which the Philippines began importing in 2014. 

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Japan’s Finest Meat

Wagyu is the pride of Japan, a kind of meat from specific breeds of Japanese cow and one that many love for its unique marbling: streaks of decadent, flavorful fat that cause it to melt in the mouth once cooked.

A black cow raised as Saga wagyu
A black cow raised as Saga Wagyu/Photo from the Official Kyushu Travel Guide website

Different prefectures in Japan produce particular kinds of Wagyu, yet all of them must raise cows in ideal conditions with only the best feed like rice bran, corn, barley, or even olives. There’s a diverse selection of Wagyu varieties, with meats possessing their own flavor profiles and textures depending on feeds, rearing techniques, and cow breeds. Japan also has a ranking system for their meat, classifying them from A to C (A being the highest quality) and 1 to 5 (five being the best). 

Saga Wagyu: A League of Its Own

Though Saga-gyu is a fairly young creation, it already carries a reputation as one of the best Wagyu varieties in the world. All Saga-gyu are A4 and A5 in quality, which places the meat on a league of its own. In an interview with Lifestyle Asia, Chef Bettina even describes it as “one of Japan’s best kept secrets.”

Saga wagyu cooked teppanyaki-style
Saga Wagyu cooked teppanyaki-style/Photo from the Official Kyushu Travel Guide website

“It is protected and certified based on adherence to strict regulations,” she explains in an interview. “The breed must be Kuroge Washu, or Japanese black cattle, one of six native cattle breeds. The cows were expertly bred with cattle from Europe to bring out the best characteristics from both breeds. Through studies and research conducted in 1983 by local cattle breeders, the Saga brand of beef was introduced globally in 1988.” 

The "Father of Saga-gyu," Mr. Toshimune Tateno
The “Father of Saga-gyu,” Mr. Toshimune Tateno/Photo courtesy of Sofitel Manila

Saga-gyu boasts an even marbling, so despite its high fat content, it’s not overly unctuous or “cloying,” as the chef puts it. When cooked, the meat yields a buttery soft texture with tons of flavor, which the chef attributes to its tsuya-sashi or glossy marbling. 

A Versatile Ingredient

Saga-gyu’s distinct texture and flavor makes it a highly versatile type of Wagyu. As such, Chef Bettina greatly enjoyed working with it when constructing her eight-course menu. She played with contrasting textures and tastes, allowing the Wagyu to take center stage in every dish. 

Chef Bettina Arguelles
Chef Bettina Arguelles/Photo courtesy of Sofitel Manila

“The degustation menu was successful in showcasing the many ways this beef can be enjoyed and putting forward its best qualities with the use of various textures and taste profiles,” she shares. As indulgent as Saga-gyu is, it carries quite a few nutritional benefits too. “Many would be ecstatic to know that it is rich with monounsaturated fats and essential fatty acids [like] Omega 3, 6, 9, similar to what you’d find in olive oil and wild salmon,” the chef adds. 

It’s All About the Meat

Sofitel’s talented chef designed the dinner in a “choose-your-own-adventure” style, where guests could opt to have either a selection of fine wines or premium sake. Regardless of their decisions, both options provided an excellent dining experience. 

Those who chose the sake option, including myself, indulged in a meal of authentic flavors, as the traditional rice liquor was a match made in heaven with the evening’s innovative dishes. The selection included Junmai Daiginjo and Junmai Ginjo, both of which are among the highest quality sake varieties available. 

A selection of premium sake for the evening
A selection of premium sake for the evening/Photo courtesy of Sofitel Manila

Snacks

The dinner began with a plate of three tasty snacks to whet the appetite, reminiscent of home-cooked bento boxes that Japanese mothers would prepare for their children. This consisted of an A4 striploin katsu-sando (a mini sandwich with a crunchy slice of breaded Saga-gyu and a tart homemade katsu sauce), an aburi mentai A5 striploin sushi that truly highlighted the freshness and taste of Saga-gyu in its rawest form, and spot prawn with A5 ribeye yukke tartare, which seamlessly combined the umami of the prawn and Wagyu.

The “Hakurakusei Tokubetsu Junmai-Yamadanishiki 60” provided crisp and fruity apricot notes that tied everything together and completed the first course.

Hakurakusei Tokubetsu Junmai-Yamadanishiki 60
Hakurakusei Tokubetsu Junmai-Yamadanishiki 60

Wagyu Mains

The next dish was a cabbage roll, which the menu paired with a more mellow, silky “Zaku ‘Graceful Wisdom’ Junmai Daiginjo” that carried notes of apple. This particular meal featured a Western twist, with a ball of house ground Wagyu wrapped in a juicy leaf of cabbage, then laid out in a jamon tomato emulsion with pancetta powder. This resulted in an exciting mix of the zingy, salty, and buttery flavors found in Italian and Japanese cuisine.  

House Ground Wagyu, Jamon Tomato Emulsion, Pancetta Powder
House Ground Wagyu, Jamon Tomato Emulsion, Pancetta Powder

Afterwards, Sofitel’s culinary team served a sukiyaki course of poached A4 tenderloin in a sauce of mushroom, baby carrot, and black truffle, topped with a fresh egg yolk. A sharp, citrusy “Hakurakusei ‘Flower of Brewery’ Junmai Ginjo” accompanied the dish, which cut through the savory flavors to provide balance. 

Poached A4 Tenderloin, Egg Yolk, Mushroom, Baby Carrot, Black Truffle
Poached A4 Tenderloin, Egg Yolk, Mushroom, Baby Carrot, Black Truffle

All the best ingredients of the land and sea came together in the next course, which consisted of thinly-sliced A4 tenderloin and large Hokkaido scallops served with Wagyu demi-glace, brown butter, yuzu koshō (a Japanese condiment of fermented yuzu peel, chili, and and salt), and slices of potato. A nutty and slightly bitter “Sichihon Yari ‘Wataribune 77’ Junmai,” complemented the course’s pleasantly intense flavors. 

A4 Tenderloin, Hokkaido Scallops, Wagyu Demi-glace, Brown Butter, and Yuzu Koshō
A4 Tenderloin, Hokkaido Scallops, Wagyu Demi-glace, Brown Butter, and Yuzu Koshō

Finishing Touches

Guests then enjoyed a refreshing jelly-like palette cleanser that bursted in the mouth with hints of yuzu and ginger. This was followed by a hearty bowl of A5 kaburi tender, snow crab, and ikura on top of multigrain rice. Waiters served the course with a warm, mild-flavored broth that allowed the seafood and velvety Wagyu to shine. Crispy tenkasu and freshly grated wasabi provided contrasting textures and flavors as well. A “KID ‘White Label’ Junmai” paired well with the dish, providing a dry, steamed rice taste with a hint of banana.

The last course was by far the most innovative, and one that Chef Bettina worked hard to bring to life: a dessert dish that, true to the dinner’s theme, also incorporated Saga-gyu. This consisted of a sugar-dusted “Saga beignet” filled with a Wagyu apple compote, then served with a side of miso caramel ice cream. A cross between a doughnut and apple pie, the savory, tart, and sweet flavors from the Wagyu and apples mixed perfectly. A special dessert sake, “Emishiki ‘Monsoon’ Kijoshu,” capped everything off with a soft mouthfeel and dash of vanilla.

A Mother’s Love

What lies at the heart of Chef Bettina’s spectacular solo dinner isn’t just years of culinary training: it’s also the experiences she gained while living in Japan. The chef resided in Tokyo and Yokohama for around eight and a half years with her family. All the while, she formed close bonds with the grandmothers and mothers of her children’s friends. It was then when she learned how to make traditional, home-cooked Japanese meals.

The chef even capped off the meal with a special “bento” surprise for everyone: a wooden box containing a red bean macaron, ichigo (strawberry) chocolate, and a red bean mochi with sesame.

The "surprise" bento with (L-R) a red bean macaron, ichigo chocolate, and red bean mochi with sesame
The “surprise” bento with (L-R) a red bean macaron, ichigo chocolate, and red bean mochi with sesame

“These women were the ones who inspired me to cook these dishes for you tonight,” she said during her speech. “They [the dishes] are very memorable and meaningful to me; each course is a representation of people I have crossed paths with, people that have made an impact on our life living overseas, and I wanted to share that with you this evening.”

One could indeed taste a mother’s love through every dish, each one pushing the boundaries of what a single, high-quality ingredient can do. 

Banner photo courtesy of Sofitel Manila.

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