KOBE beef, it seems, is everywhere these days; it's the luxury ingredient of the moment for the tasting menu set. You can get it simple: served raw as a carpaccio at Nine Thirty in Westwood, garnished just with red and green grapes. And you can get it complicated: At the Montage resort's Studio restaurant in Laguna Beach, Kobe short ribs are braised and plated with crisp sweetbreads, royal trumpet mushrooms, a mix of vegetables and a red wine sauce.
After creating a stir in 2002 as part of the now-legendary $41 burger at New York's Old Homestead Steak House, Kobe hamburgers are now so ubiquitous that they're close to becoming a cliche.
In Las Vegas steakhouses, Kobe beef is so popular that it is creating a shortage of luxury cuts across the country. One restaurant alone sells about 500 pounds a week.
And the prices can be pretty astonishing. At Sterling Steak House in Hollywood, a 22-ounce porterhouse steak for two will run you $150. At Studio, those stewed short ribs go for a decidedly un-homey $65. And at Kikuchi in West Hollywood, getting Kobe instead of regular beef can more than double the price of your fixed-price meal -- it's a $40 supplement.
Even if you're willing to cook it yourself, this beef can be dear. At the Allen Brothers website, a pound of filet goes for $175.95. At Vicente Foods in Brentwood -- one of the few places in town that can get Kobe steaks (but with a day or two of notice) -- a New York strip runs $50 a pound.
Of course if you are willing to settle for lesser cuts, you're in for a relative bargain -- at least for Kobe. At Mitsuwa markets around Southern California you can find Kobe chuck for about $15 a pound; Vicente Foods sells frozen Kobe burger patties for $6.99 a pound.
A quick check of Los Angeles Times restaurant reviews shows that Kobe beef has been mentioned 45 times in the last two years -- and only 11 in the two years before that.
What gives? How did Kobe beef become so ubiquitous? Well, the short answer is: because it's not really Kobe beef. In the old days, back before 2002, when you saw it on the menu, there was a good chance it was actually Kobe -- the real deal, imported from Japan.
Made in the USA
TODAY, what is commonly called Kobe beef is really all-American -- it comes from American-grown cattle that are crosses of traditional U.S. breeds such as Black Angus and bulls brought from Japan before 2002, when the Department of Agriculture outlawed the importation of Japanese beef, after several incidents of mad cow disease there.
A more accurate name for this beef is wagyu, after the Japanese cattle whose bloodlines it shares ("wa" means something like "in the traditional Japanese style" and "gyu" means cow).
At best, calling this beef Kobe is a term of commercial convenience, in the same way that California wines used to be sold as Champagne and Burgundy, and Pacific rock cod is still often labeled red snapper.
At worst, it borders on an outright lie. Both a waitress at Sterling Steak House and Sterling's chef Andrew Pastore claimed their porterhouse was the real thing, imported straight from Japan. When told that if this was true, it was completely illegal. Pastore adopted a Brooklyn wise-guy stance: "I let my suppliers worry about that."
(The next day his publicist clarified that what Pastore really meant was that the meat came from Japanese cows that had been brought to the U.S. to be slaughtered -- which would also be illegal.)
Whatever you call it, it can be truly remarkable beef. There's no hype about that.
The first thing you notice about wagyu is the marbling, the thin veins of fat running through the muscle. There is so much marbling in a good cut that it makes even Prime meat look lean. In this case, appearances are not deceiving; while Prime beef carcasses average about 8% fat, some wagyu goes 20% and even more.
The fat has a different consistency too. It is higher than other beef in mono-unsaturated fatty acids, so it is softer at room temperature and it has a "clean" taste -- it doesn't coat your mouth the way most beef fat does.
That chuck steak from Mitsuwa, normally a tough cut that should be braised, was so well-marbled that it grilled up with the slightly chewy texture and deep flavor of a good New York strip.
But it's not just the fat: Even a lean tri-tip from Vicente Market had a buttery texture and an amazing depth of flavor -- good wagyu tastes like the concentrated essence of beef.
Obviously this meat is not intended to be an everyday thing, but as a very occasional splurge for real beef lovers, it is definitely worth the high price. It is as different from run of the mill beef as a great Burgundy is from Two-Buck Chuck. And because the flavor is so rich, a little bit of it goes a long way.