With his hands, David Duarte muscles a smooth blob of dough the color of a pencil eraser. The dough amoebas as he rubs it into a ball. Filled and baked, the ball will become a bao bun. Duarte makes his pink bao buns using a strange shortening: wagyu fat.
Wagyu meatballs. Wagyu ramen. Wagyu shank Bolognese made from his mom’s recipe (a pinch of cinnamon). Wagyu raw. Wagyu briefly torched. Wagyu macarons with jelly and foie gras filling.
David Duarte cooks many things at his new restaurant, Finestre Modern Gastronomy, which exists fully inside of The Market at Jennifer’s in Arcadia. Duarte specializes in riffing with elite Japanese beef.
“I am the only one in town who has whole steer wagyu,” Duarte says. He goes through a San Francisco source, obtaining large segments of wagyu.
This allows him to cook with all kinds of cuts. Wagyu strip. Wagyu plate. Wagyu brisket, short ribs, and shank. Wagyu fat, carved from meaty hunks and used to sauté vegetables and to flavor all his desserts.
Duarte’s intensity with wagyu seems unlikely given his background. After a career in firefighting in Anthem, he went to culinary school in Calabria, Italy. He then moved to Paris to learn pastry. In metro Phoenix, he has served as executive chef at Pane e Vino (Scottsdale) and Arrivederci (Scottsdale). He learned the esoteric ways of wagyu after bumping into Steve Brown, a wagyu-obsessed Southern California chef, while cooking at an event at the Versace Mansion in Miami. A friendship took root.
Duarte opened Finestre in March 2018. He and Jennifer Russo of The Market by Jennifer’s share a kitchen, as well as a dining room on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, when both restaurants are open. Duarte has a tiny nook of the walk-in. Into this nook he packs wagyu, pork from Arcadia Meat Market, produce from superlative farms like Twisted Infusion and Blue Sky. Duarte uses this to power his modern American restaurant, where you can order a la carte dishes like corn ravioli or wagyu creme brûlée, or opt for three-course vegetarian, three-course wagyu, or five-course wagyu tasting menus ($50, $80, and $150).
“My mind doesn’t work like normal people’s,” Duarte says. “I’m always thinking of how I can change something.”
Japanese wagyu, sliced into thin slips, looks little like workaday beef. With American beef, even prime beef, the flesh looks vitally red and dense and has a blood-metal smell. Japanese Wagyu looks about half white with fat, snowed through with a hue that makes you question what you are looking at. Its smell is more of a faint, sweet perfume. Kobe beef, the Champagne of wagyu, has so much ivory it looks like lardo.
Both Japanese wagyu and Kobe beef have such a massive butteriness that, as they melt in your mouth like hot salty custard, all you can do is smile.
Duarte draws a sharp line between Japanese wagyu and other wagyu. He only uses Japanese. “There’s a lot of places selling wagyu, but they’re not using Japanese,” he says. Asked about American, Duarte quickly replies, “It doesn’t line up.”
Why not? Duarte points to the strictures governing Japanese production, and the lack of American oversight.
Japanese wagyu is webbed with 30 to 40 percent fat in its muscle cuts. A limited number of cattle breeds can be used for wagyu, breeds that lived over the decades in isolation. Wagyu cattle are typically raised for three or more years, whereas American cattle are generally rushed to slaughter. Like squares and rectangles, all Kobe beef is wagyu, but not all wagyu is Kobe beef. Kobe beef is wagyu but even more alien. Kobe, a crown jewel of the carnivorous world, comes from Tajima black cattle raised in Japan’s Hyogo prefecture. Only a few thousand animals are raised per year.
Duarte may cut some true Kobe as part of his wagyu tasting.
He shapes meatballs from 100 percent wagyu beef. When testing the recipe, he stumbled early. “It wouldn’t hold because it was so fatty,” he recalls. “So if you’re going to put this in the oven, you have to mix it with the other meat. I came up with a way not to.”
Duarte, who admits to cooking with foams, gels, and airs, found a solution. He sous vides meatballs for 90 minutes, keeping them whole. He serves them in their own jus with truffle cream.
His five-course tasting menu begins with wagyu surf and turf. It moves into a wagyu raviolo (single ravioli), wagyu bao bun, wagyu Bolognese lasagna, and ends with a tableside wagyu tasting, raw and torch-kissed cuts razed from the animal by the blade of the chef himself. All wagyu Duarte serves is A5 wagyu, the highest grade. He has “A5” tattooed in bold red on his left hand.
This November, Duarte has been invited by Japanese wagyu forces to go on a tour of the wagyu-centric parts of Japan. He will observe farms. He will absorb history. He will learn from a master, and, if plans and reality merge, he will get certified in wagyu butchery.
There are other places to get Japanese wagyu in the Valley. Roka Akor has a Kobe certification from Japan’s Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association. Sel plates some wagyu. Binkley’s offers a wagyu add-on to its marathon tasting. But nowhere will you find wagyu as maniacally prepared and as wildly remixed as at Finestre.
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Lasagna, a food entrenched in tradition, shows Duarte's full creativity. Duarte rolls sheet noodles from scratch, which he boils and fries. Done part in the traditional style of Emilia-Romagna, part in the style of his mom, part with his own flair, his wagyu-charged ragú hews closely to the original lasagna sauce (Bolognese). Tableside, Duarte finishes the pasta by using liquid nitrogen to create tiny spheres of buffalo mozzarella that he gets from Campania, mozzarella capital of Italy.
“Finestre” means “windows” in Italian. A wide window looks into Duarte’s kitchen from the dining room. Duarte believes that his wagyu-driven food gives customers a window into how he cooks and lives now that he owns his own restaurant, a window into him, a way to “see a little bit inside me."
Like wagyu fat simmered into a pasta sauce, or melted into a fluffy pink bun, the windows enrich the Phoenix dining scene.
Finestre Modern Gastronomy. 3603 East Indian School Road; 602-295-3964.
Thursday to Saturday 6 to 11 p.m.; Monday and Tuesday 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.; closed Sunday and Wednesday.
*Finestre has no exterior signage