Cover Photo by Sonny Thakur

This new should-be-on-your-radar spot officially opened its doors to the Philippines on 31 October.

Wagyu Studio Manila transports diners to the F&B scenes of Japan, Hong Kong or Singapore. It is a project that has been two years in the making and has created quite the buzz. News of succulent, juicy, meaty wagyu sandos, prime cut top-of-the-line meats is the talk of the town, and rightfully so.

Manila’s freshest steakhouse separates itself from your average steak joint by creating two unique dining spaces plus a butcher shop too! At The Finance Center in BGC, you’ll find the dimly lit, plush and contemporary Japanese-inspired Wagyu Studio which exudes casual cutting-edge luxury. Their aim?: to make diners view and think of wagyu in a whole new light. At the restaurant, you first step into their 28-seater Yakiniku Lounge where guests can chow down on spectacular small bites and order meats to cook for themselves at their tables.

Further into the restaurant is the 22-seater Live Kitchen which is designed to pamper your palate. Here, indulge in a multi-course high-end tasting menu where chef Yoji Kitayama, who helms the kitchen, celebrates Wagyu in all its forms. Pre-opening, I tried a menu that concretely placed Wagyu Studio on my top list of restaurants in the country.

From a texture packed tuna tartare with caviar and ikura on a crisp piece of nori, to a classic Wagyu sando, a melt in your mouth torched toro with yuzu, an incredible must-try wagyu jerky, or some head turning-ly good cucumbers (yes, cucumbers)…every dish leading up to the piece de la resistance was notable.

The star of the night was, of course, the steak itself. It was presented medium rare in all its glory and was paired with key condiments like salt infused with mushrooms and scallops, Japanese horseradish or sansho peppercorns, all of which elevated, and complimented the protein. The experience was finished off with an innovative combination of milk ice-cream topped with pepper and of course, wagyu, because, why not?

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Now that you know a bit about the food, let me tell you a bit more about the team responsible for this modern Japanese steakhouse and of how the concept was born. Comprised of food lovers, a trio of brothers, LA, Mico, and Lui Clavano and their dear friend, Carlo Alvarez, these young men invested their hearts, time and talent into presenting something they are truly proud of. Admittedly, the partners share that they are green to the high-end dining space, and have somewhat limited experience in the competitive F&B world. However, their deep-rooted passion for food, and worldly palates, make them a team worth watching out for. It was an interesting and winding journey to get where they are today– one filled with challenges that made them stronger and more mature restaurateurs.

Initially, the concept was meant to be a franchise of the internationally acclaimed WAGYUMAFIA in partnership with its co-founder, Hisato Hamada. “From day one, working with WAGYUMAFIA was a challenge. You do not become the global brand like they are by being complacent and scatter-brained. Hisato and his team were focused, detail-oriented and driven. Our two years working with them were challenging” LA Clavano shared honestly.

In truth, the pandemic threw a wrench into arrangements. Cross country communication and planning became extremely difficult. Instead of being able to fly between cities to work on operations and smooth out logistics of opening WAGYUMAFIA in the Philippines, time ticked by as deadlines aged and plans unravelled. Mico Clavano said that after two years worth of time, money and effort, they had been eager and prepared to open earlier this 2020…until the pandemic happened. “Community quarantine and travel restrictions just made doing business with our Japanese partners impossible. Finishing touches and final approvals were all put on hold. Like the rest of the industry, we were in survival mode. It became apparent very quickly that we could not sit around for another year and wait for things to normalise,” Mico added. Though, he sincerely said that “the decision to move forward without the guidance and motivation of our Japanese partners was the most difficult decision we’ve had to make.”

Friendships, business, and emotions were feeling the strain from the weight of the pandemic’s many burdens. To move forward alone, abandoning plans of bringing in  WAGYUMAFIA, was scary to say the least, as they were losing a heavyweight mentor and establishment in their corner, but were to gain real-life training that would prove to be priceless. “We had many reservations going forward as Wagyu Studio. Our main reservation was figuring out how to do things on our own. Our Japanese partners didn’t only provide us with business know-how and logistical support but they also gave us inspiration” LA tells me.

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To move forward with a concept that was still so highly connected to wagyu and still maintained the word in the restaurant’s name was quite risky but Carlo Alvarez shared that wagyu has always been their focus, and at the heart of what they wanted to present here in the country. To him, that has never changed. Mico chimed in too saying that, their investments were all in the direction of creating the best Japanese steakhouse in the country; to shift gears would have been foolhardy not just economically, but emotionally too as it would have been dishonest to their dreams.

“My partners and I simply love Japanese food with a passion. For me, it is my favourite cuisine of all time. I love how for the Japanese, it is all about the ingredient. I've been travelling to Japan for the past eight years, dining in the best restaurants to gain a higher understanding of the cuisine and culinary culture. Like my partners, I feel that creating a proper wagyu restaurant in Manila would definitely be a start in honouring the food that we love” Carlo shares emotionally.

Despite the struggles, the Wagyu Studio team speak highly and warmly of their time with WAGYUYMAFIA. "Hisato Hamada is great restauranteur and marketing genius. Learning from him and his team was an experience we will never take for granted. They showed us that we can go beyond what Manila thinks a steakhouse should be. Our experience with WAGYUMAFIA gave us the courage to infuse youth and energy into a restaurant concept that we feel needs to evolve” shares LA.

Lui reflects and communicated that they learned the power of persistence. “We learned to trust. We learned to have faith that everything will work out and what we are building today with flourish in the future” he said.

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