The $120 Steak -- for One
Considered by some the ultimate in beef, Kobe's return is lifting U.S. red-meat standards to new levels
By RAYMOND SOKOLOV
August 5, 2006; Page P1
The first time I heard about the legendary Kobe beef of Japan was in a 1961 Italian movie about decadence. In "Mondo Cane" (Dog World), Japanese cowpokes massaged and bottle-fed their black Wagyu steers with beer and sake.
The flesh of these pampered bovines is considered by some the ultimate in steak, hypermarbled with fat and rich with flavor. But an import ban has kept it off U.S. tables in recent years
. Now authentic Kobe beef is back -- and surfacing on menus in high-end restaurants.
Tasting this once-forbidden beef doesn't come cheap. Restaurants like Wolfgang Puck's new Cut in Beverly Hills, Calif., are charging $20 an ounce for New York strip steak or filet mignon
. Ordering can be confusing, too, since "Kobe" on a menu doesn't always mean the same thing. From Dallas to Detroit, restaurants serve Kobe beef that's actually raised in the U.S., sometimes according to traditional Japanese methods. Is the real Kobe worth all the fuss -- and extra expense? Yes.
After grazing my way through an artery-clogging tour of steaks, I can report the standard for red meat in America has now been bumped up to a new level in quality as well as price.
In red-meat Detroit, we sampled domestic Kobe short ribs and ribeye steak. Then, in the eerily flamboyant dining room of Megu Downtown in New York, next to a statue of a samurai in gilt armor set over a pool afloat with rose petals, we ate a genuine Japanese Kobe steak sizzling on a lava rock big enough to be a dragon's egg. There was Kobe sushi, a very tasty Kobe burger, Kobe this, Kobe that. The waiter, a Sly Stone lookalike converted overnight to this new high-protein religion, burbled: "We just started getting this from Japan last week. We used to get it from Oregon."
Our excitement over the true Kobe from Japan matched his. The uniquely high fat content melts into the very tender flesh of these lavishly fed animals, giving them the amazingly meaty flavor that the Japanese call umami. Other high-end steak lacks the buttery mouthfeel that Kobe has when it's cooked to medium, so that the fat suffuses the meat.
The kobe beef story is partly about trade politics. After much hemming and hawing in Tokyo and Washington, and mutual bans stemming from incidents of mad-cow disease detected around five years ago on both sides of the Pacific, beef has started trading in both directions: Tons of comparatively cheap U.S. meat went west and a little Japanese Kobe hit our shores in the last few weeks.
During the Kobe Prohibition era, enterprising U.S. restauranteurs and Internet butchers had been softening up the dining public with other boutique beefs, aged until they lost their juice, grass-fed, deprived of antibiotics, saved from feedlots. Often these cuts were labeled Kobe when they came from Colorado or Australia, or Wagyu when the animals had been interbred with Black Angus, contained varying percentages of Wagyu-breed DNA and carried no assurance they'd been cosseted à la japonaise.
Then the ban was lifted and what will surely turn into a stampede began.
For now the real stuff is trickling into the country. But as restaurateurs develop contacts in Japan, they're likely to join the avid market for Japanese beef that Hiro Nishida, president of Food Scope, Megu's corporate parent, says is already boooming in Paris and Dubai.
Meanwhile, Wagyu from outside Japan has penetrated well beyond the coasts. In Philadelphia, Barclay Prime offers Kobe cheesesteaks made with beef from Snake River Farm in Idaho. In Dallas, Al Biernat serves a 10-ounce "Kobe/Angus filet mignon." And, in Detroit -- where we went not because it's on the cutting edge but because it's not -- we found more Wagyu beef than we had time to eat.
We began our quest at Tribute in Farmington Hills, Mich., a northern suburb. As a Detroit native, I have a baseline of dining experience there going back before Pearl Harbor. Although it gave the world the Cold Duck (red wine and New York state champagne) in 1937, Detroit is, I have to concede, not Paris. But today its best restaurants are in the mainstream of high-quality dining.
Tribute is, by many accounts, including that of my Michigander cousin Audrey, the area's outstanding restaurant. Its menu is generally ambitious, ranging from lobster carpaccio to an elaborate fantasia built on pork belly, which shows chef Don Yamauchi's alertness to fresh gastronomic winds blowing in the world beyond Oakland County. His non-Japanese Kobe ribeye ($85) doesn't attain that rich and tender lushness that Japanese Wagyu gets from heredity and a feeding program that enhances. But it beats "ordinary" prime meat.
At the Rugby Grille in the tony Townsend Hotel in Birmingham, Mich., the kitchen braises Kobe short ribs from the Pacific Northwest in cider for hours, yielding a remarkable succulence ($36).
We had barely scratched the surface of the quality beef world in southeastern Michigan. But the pressure of time forced us to forgo wet-aged beef at Shiraz, a Kobe beef cutlet at Five Lakes Grill in nearby Milford, as well as steaks from Michigan Grass Fed Beef Farm a few miles to the west in Olivet. We had a date with destiny back home in Gotham. But we intend to return to Michigan as soon as those top-flight places start slapping genuine Japanese ribeyes on their grills.
But we hope Michiganders don't scorn their native foods. At Alban's in Birmingham, they've invented their own nachos: "corn stone fries," which substitute waffle fries for taco chips, and, amid the canonical melted cheese and jalapeños, a sprinkling of corn meal and ground beef. Not wagyu.
The Real Thing: Kobe steak imported from Japan at Megu Downtown in New York.
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