Mad for the Cow

All Kobe, all the time

I had it as a chopped steak at Barton G., lying on a pillowy mattress of hash browns and smothered with mushrooms. I sampled it as short ribs during the most recent Chaine des Rotisseurs dinner at the Loews Hotel, braised and falling off the bone. And again at the Feeding the Mind fundraiser hosted by founder-chef Carmen Gonzalez at her restaurant. I ate it in the form of an extremely phallic-looking hot dog at Prime 112, Myles Chefetz's hip new steak house.

Increasingly visible throughout South Florida, it's on the menu at China Grill in Miami Beach as tartar and Café Maxx in Pompano Beach as carpaccio. At Touch on Lincoln Road you can have it as a plainly grilled rib-eye seasoned with herbes de Provence; at the Americana in the new Ritz-Carlton South Beach you can order it as an entrecôte. From Gotham City in Delray Beach to Sushi Samba Dromo in South Beach, you can also grill your own and dip it in a variety of sauces.

What is it? It's Kobe beef, and it's a misnomer along the lines of Kleenex, Xerox, and Frigidaire.

Colloquially referred to as Kobe beef, the meat actually comes from a breed of cattle called Wagyu. Yet everyone from ranchers to chefs calls it Kobe, the Japanese city that lends the cattle its appellation. In the U.S. it can legally be sold as "Kobe" only if it's imported from Japan. The fabled beef has been raised there for thousands of years and has developed a kind of modern mythology along the lines of hummingbird tongues in aspic during the Victorian era -- an unparalleled delicacy.

Wagyu legends sound like the nonsense of fairy tales, though it's true that in Japan, where there is little grazing land and fewer ranches than one might find in Texas alone, the cattle traditionally have been fed beer, groomed with sake, and ritualistically massaged. Its astronomically high price is an historical fact, and understandable: When little meat is available in a country, you can expect to pay dearly for it.

And the quality of the meat is no urban legend. Truly, Wagyu is wonderfully succulent stuff. The high fat content of the meat makes the texture so soft you can cut it with a toothpick. I can't think of a single chef who doesn't admire its fine marbling. And I don't know a single aficionado who doesn't salivate at the thought of tucking into it.

But esteem alone can't account for the sudden influx and standing success of Wagyu beef dishes on local menus. As few as three years ago just about the only restaurant in town serving Wagyu was the now-defunct Bambú, where it made pan-Asian sense to offer it as kebabs.

The simple explanation for its burgeoning availability here is that times have been slowly changing since the Seventies and Eighties. Contemporary Wagyu ranchers, for example, give the steers more cost-effective barley mash and save the sake and massages for themselves.

The more complex answer lies in the corporate East and capitalist West. Japanese ranchers, looking for opportunities to expand their businesses, years ago began developing Japanese-owned Wagyu ranches in places like Australia and the American West. They also began selling brood stock (to be bred purely or with Angus and Hereford) to American domestic ranchers who were interested in improving their herds. Fast-forward to the next millennium and voilá: availability.

The cuts remain expensive, though, a fact confirmed by current menu prices. Where you might pay $30 for a dry-aged Angus sirloin in an upscale steak house, you could easily pay double that price for the toughest cut of Wagyu (which, most customers agree, is still more tender than prime Angus). Chefs at high-end eateries have found a good selling point in sourcing the main ingredient for their innovative dishes. But are we buying it?

Apparently so. Aside from the taste and texture (hey, we're not all suckers; it does have great flavor), consider the two-pronged serving fork of Dr. Atkins and the South Beach Diet. Wagyu is to the Atkins plan what oat bran was to the high-fiber, low-fat fiasco: a magic bullet. If fat's good for you, then Wagyu fat, which is the monounsaturated or polyunsaturated kind -- whichever one is supposedly okay -- is practically a cure for the common cold.

But what really seals the deal is the South Florida obsession with gloss and glamour. If prime Angus is the Porsche Boxster, then Wagyu is the Carrera GT. If there are countless diamond-clad dudes out there eager to impress their Versace-swathed dudettes with expensive cars, there are also legions ready to dazzle by indulging in the sinful side of Wagyu. Stand down, lobster tails. Stone crabs, move aside your jumbo claws. There's a new luxury in town, and thanks to conspicuous consumption of the carnivorous kind, soon it might just be eating us.

 
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