Bogus beef: Miami restaurants say it's Kobe, but it's not

Prime One Twelve is one of the finest restaurants on South Beach. Gleaming wooden plank floors, exposed brick columns, and creamy white leather-upholstered chairs set the stage for a menu listing three items that, to devotees of fine food, might seem inexpensive: $25 "Kobe beef sliders," a $25 "Kobe beef hot dog," and for those with an appetite, a $30 "one-pound Kobe hamburger."

The problem is that the meat isn't what's advertised. It's not the product of cattle raised in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan that in some cases drink beer and receive sake massages.

Moreover, its listing on the menu is an apparent violation of federal standards and state law. "We were not aware of the requirement for the specific labeling," owner Myles Chefetz says when told of the problem. "Given this info, we will state this on the menu immediately."

Do you know the difference?
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Do you know the difference?

Location Info

Map

Prime One Twelve

112 Ocean Drive
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: South Beach

China Grill

404 Washington Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Category: Music Venues

Region: South Beach

Gordon Biersch Brewery & Restaurant

1201 Brickell Ave.
Miami, FL 33131

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Brickell

Plat Bleu

1685 Collins Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Category: Restaurant > Bistro

Region: South Beach

Meat Market

915 Lincoln Road
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Category: Restaurant > Steakhouse

Region: South Beach

Dozens of Miami restaurants include the same type of misleading information on their menus. And scores of customers every day pay top dollar thinking they are ingesting the world's most precious meat.

The list of offending eateries includes upscale and casual, local and national chains, and in Miami Beach and Brickell. There's 8 oz. Burger Bar, Bancroft Supper Club, China Grill, Gordon Biersch, Plat Bleu at the Delano, Meat Market, and Prime One Twelve. Contacted by New Times, representatives of each of these places admitted to serving high-quality American or Australian beef from similar cattle even when the item was listed as Kobe beef on the menu.

Indeed, the issue repeats in cities across the nation. Though the federal government has known of the trend for almost a decade, not much has been done.

"It's basically become a free-for-all," says Charles Gaskins, spokesman for the American Wagyu Association, a Washington state-based industry group with more than 250 members. "We're aware of the [federal] guidelines, but people do what they want... Some of them use the term Kobe in their farm names."

Kobe refers to beef from the black Tajima breed of Wagyu cattle, which are raised in Japan under strict ministry of agriculture oversight. Wagyu, which literally means "Japanese cattle," were imported to the island nation in the Second Century to cultivate rice. They have a genetic predisposition toward heavy fat marbling in the muscle. Prime cuts such as filet, rib eye, and strip loin are distributed the world over, prized for their rich flavor and tender, velvety texture.

Of course, this beef is expensive, selling for $16 to $30 per ounce depending on the cut, according to Anshu Pathak, owner of Kobe Beef Incorporated, a leading online purveyor.

So in 1976 and later from 1993 to 1994, some American farmers tried to come up with a cheaper product. They imported a few dozen Wagyu cattle and then cross-bred them with domestic Angus. The offspring looks similar to the pure-bred Japanese, but the meat is darker, with less marbling and a bolder flavor and texture. American Wagyu costs four to ten dollars per ounce, depending on the cut. (Australians produce something similar.)

This beef began to gain popularity between 2001 and 2004, when Japanese meat imports into the United States were temporarily banned during the mad cow scare. Now it's relatively widespread.

At the Bancroft Supper Club in Miami Beach, manager Karen Martin blames the restaurant's distributor for the menu items labeled "Kobe beef mini burgers" ($18) and "Kobe beef carpaccio" ($18), which she admits are Australian Wagyu. "The invoices say Kobe," she explains. "That's why we list it like that." She will work with chef Tim Andriola to make the description change.

Chef/owner Sean Brasel of high-end Lincoln Road steak house Meat Market lists a genuine Kobe item in a menu section called "Reserve Cuts." The "six-ounce Japanese A5 Kobe tenderloin" goes for $95. Then there's the meat labeled "Kobe skirt steak" ($31) and "white truffle Kobe tartare" ($21), which come from Snake River Farms in Idaho, not Japan.

Brasel explains that listing the real provenance of the skirt steak would be "redundant." "Customers know [those items] are not Japanese Kobe because of the price. In the other section with more expensive cuts, I specify."

Not all chefs understand they are misrepresenting products. Executive chef Maria Manso at the Delano in Miami Beach says her Plat Bleu menu offers "Kobe beef sliders" for $28 and then reveals they are American Wagyu. "The menu labeling comes from corporate," she explains. "We leave it up to the servers, who are well-trained to explain where it comes from if a customer has an issue or a question. There's no reason to change it." Phone calls to owner/operator China Grill Management were not returned.

It's perhaps more understandable that casual-dining establishments would mislabel their victuals. Take Chattanooga, Tennessee-based Gordon Biersch, which has locations in 17 states and Taiwan. The "Kobe sliders" ($10.95), popular at its Brickell Avenue outpost, are American Wagyu. To meet demand, corporate executive chef Bill Heckler also recently introduced a $13.95 "German Kobe burger," using the same beef, on his Oktoberfest menu.

Heckler will update the Gordon Biersch menu nationwide in January to accurately denote the provenance of the meat. He emphasizes the company trains servers to answer customers' questions about the product. He believes the majority of diners don't know the difference. "To my knowledge, use of the word Kobe was an acceptable marketing term," Heckler explains. "I recently had a situation with my rep where I specifically ordered Kobe beef from Japan and got American Wagyu instead. I wasn't happy."

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