Jeffrey Chodorow, head of the China Grill Management restaurant empire, has always brought a Ziegfeld Zeitgeist to the table. Sure, he hopes customers laud service and cuisine at CGM's two dozen-plus venues. But he also wants them to consider the dining experience as akin to attending the theater or spending an entertaining evening out on the town. Part of the showmanship consists of creating a theatrical setting, as has been done locally at Blue Door, Social Miami, Tuscan Steak (to a lesser extent), and China Grill. The new Kobe Club, which flanks the last of these venues, shatters the steak house mold via design that is part speakeasy dinner club, part Goth dungeon. The dark room is clad in black leather banquettes and booths, with an LCD image of hellish flames licking one wall, chain links hanging from another, and a thousand or so samurai swords suspended from the ceiling with points dangling downward (truly cutting-edge décor).
The S&M theme is reinforced when diners receive the check: quite a spanking! Appetizers run $16 to $34, while meats are priced according to cut, size, and country of origin (America, Australia, Japan). American prime steaks are available for $29 to $52, but the least expensive Wagyu is a four-ounce American filet for $50; same weight Australian is $65, and Japanese costs $105. Double the size, and the price increases to $85, $115, and $195. Strip loin cuts run $5 to $10 more, while 10-ounce rib eyes are $105, $150, $260. If the most lardaceous beef in the world isn't enough to sate your gluttony, add a half or whole 2.5-pound Maine lobster ($45/$79).
The final bill will hurt less if you choose a six-course tasting menu for $95 (American), $135 (Australian), or $165 (Japanese). The first four courses are all the same, beginning with an amusing amuse-bouchée of Kobe hot dog rolled in poppy-seed-dotted puff pastry (cow-in-a-blanket, so to speak). The bright red morsel possesses the beefy gravitas of Hebrew National, luscious when slathered with cornichon relish and whole grain mustard. The white-plate presentation, clean and unpretentious, is emblematic of all foods flowing from executive chef Tim Nickey's kitchen.
By now, most folks know Wagyu cows suckle on sake, beer, caviar, pretzel sticks, and whatnot, and receive daily belly massages and pedis twice monthly. Some people, however, remain confused when it comes to differentiating between Wagyu and Kobe. The latter is simply the distinctive domain where these cattle are raised — like Idaho for Idaho potatoes. Or to take a different global perspective: Wagyu cows are to Kobe beef what Champagne Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes are to French champagne.
The breed's delicate diet and unctuous genetics (Japanese Wagyu contains nearly 50 percent fat, compared to 25 for American Wagyu and 12 for common steak) render this luxe protein exquisitely soft. The characteristic taste and texture can be clearly savored in the second course: beef tartare. Composed of American, Australian, and Japanese meat lightly infused with ginger, mustard, wasabi, and capers, the egg-enriched, fat-flecked patty dissolved upon the tongue in a blissful manner.
The foie-gras-like, melt-in-your-mouth qualities are showcased to even fuller advantage in course three: a sumptuous cube of braised American-raised Kobe-style short rib capped with juicily seared diver scallops, pooled in deep demi-glace, and ringed with roasted chanterelle mushrooms and asparagus spears. Before the sticky succulence of the sauce left our mouths, we segued into a single ravioli dome of ground beef cheek rendered just as tenderly as the rib. Papery discs of black truffle piqued the cheek, but a base of "truffle broth" turned out to be funghi-flecked demi-glace too similar to that of the prior dish.
We didn't exactly go Wagyu-goo-ga over the main course, a four-ounce square of Japanese Wagyu strip loin. The rectangle of meat had been pan-seared at too high a temperature, creating a thin, crisp-fried, chicharrón-like crust. The intensely marbled interior was overcooked as well — to medium — which stole the steak's tenderness and made the texture seem like the beef equivalent of pork belly more than foie gras. I blame the kitchen, not the cow, for this one, although the flavor nonetheless burst with buttery, intensely meaty notes.
A cylinder of hash browns with "lobster, chorizo, and crème fraîche" chaperoned the steak. But after we poked through the moist chunks of potato, our eyes confirmed what our taste buds suspected: not a single shred of shellfish. Rather than serve us a new portion with the crustacean properly incorporated, the waiter brought a small dish of lobster tidbits — a surprisingly lazy gesture from so upscale a den. Service was genial and generally on the ball, though when patrons at a neighboring table ordered their steaks medium-well, I was surprised the waiter didn't advise them on the textural consequences of doing so.
Regarding beefy flavor, Australian Wagyu falls between mild American and potent Japanese. A four-ounce strip loin from Down Under, cooked rare, was imbued with all of the divine aforementioned attributes that the Japanese rendition lacked; it was a fantastic steak. Patrons get to choose one of a dozen "sauces, butters, and toppings" — such as Gorgonzola cream, lobster béarnaise, and for a four-dollar surcharge, foie gras or black truffle butter. Just for the fun of it, we tried a demi-glace smoky with nubs of bacon. But applying anything more than salt and pepper is like putting a burqa over Penelope Cruz. On the other hand, a glass of wine would pair just fine. Kobe's global selections are aptly focused on big reds and priced in a manner that suggests each grape was first massaged with Wagyu beef.
Many steak house customers subscribe to Fran Lebowitz's notion that "Vegetables are interesting but lack a sense of purpose when unaccompanied by a good cut of meat." Not to worry: Vegetables here respond to their high calling, especially velvety creamed corn comprising crunchy-fresh kernels spiked with sake, white pepper, black truffles, and truffle oil. The cuisine is overly dependent on that last ingredient, though — the kitchen crew must pour enough of the stuff each night to grease up a team of sumo wrestlers.
All meals start with rapturously warm, custardy popovers perfumed with Parmesan and, yes, truffle oil. Desserts are considerably less inspiring. The meringue of a baked Alaska, piped to resemble a beehive, was fittingly filled with honey-almond ice cream but was frozen to a rock-hard state. And dark pearls of "chocolate caviar" served with mini pancakes and raspberry-tinted mousse works better on paper than palate.
Not everyone will be infatuated with Kobe Club's fatty Wagyu and fat-cat prices, but steak aficionados will surely enjoy the show.