Kobe. Beef, not Bryant. It sounds fancy and rare, and it is…incredibly so. Sorry to say, it has most likely never graced your plate.
What’s the big deal?
There are a mere 3,000(ish) trademarked Kobe cows a year. Like Champagne, the “Kobe” term is scrupulously regulated. Genuine Kobe beef comes exclusively from the Tajima-gyu breed of wagyu cattle in the Japanese prefecture of Hyogo. There are strict rules for how the animals are raised (the sake massages are real), what they are fed — the finest Japanese grain and beer — how they are slaughtered, and so on.
The cattle first arrived in Hyogo during the second century. The mountainous region was relatively isolated for many centuries, and the cows were fed a particular rice-centric diet, factors that contribute to Kobe beef’s uniqueness. Copious and gorgeously marbled intramuscular fat gives the meat velvety richness; think beef foie gras.
Kobe has a funky beauty — bright white fat splattered, Jackson Pollock-style, through crimson meat. Its flavor is subtler than a Nebraska steer: sweet, perfumy, and minerally. A sort of divine experience — a speak-in-tongues steak epiphany.
And it’s hard-to-come-by epiphany. “No matter how much you have spent, how fancy a steakhouse you went to, or which of the many celebrity chefs who regularly feature ‘Kobe beef’ on their menus you believed, you were duped.” Larry Olmsted wrote in his 2012 article for Forbes, “Food’s Biggest Scam: The Great Kobe Beef Lie.”
Later that year, the USDA lifted its ban on Kobe imports. Still, the amount of the extraordinary stuff reaching our fair shores is minuscule. Of the tiny Kobe supply, only 10 percent ever leaves Japan.
Maybe you’ve tried wagyu, a generic name for Japanese cattle. Because Kobe beef is exceedingly expensive, — and land and grain are highly pricy in Japan — some Kobe beef producers have contracted out their animals to be raised in America and Australia, where cow care is cheaper. Kobe-style beef is a thing, just as méthode champenoise (wine that is made just like Champagne, just not in Champagne) is a thing. Sometimes, it’s truly fantastic.
For the real deal, you will pay. At 212 Steakhouse, on East 53rd Street, Kobe striploin, tenderloin, and ribeye are $15 per ounce. That’s $240 a pound. 212 Steakhouse is the only restaurant on the East Coast approved by the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association (the Kobe authority in Japan) to offer authentic Kobe beef, and it’s a happy thing that they do. Like foie gras, it needs but a quick sear, so the outside is crisp and the inside is quivering, nearly raw and unctuously melty. It’s obscenely rich; the flavor goes on and on. You won’t need a hulking plate-full of Kobe. You may die. A little goes a long way.
In Japan, wagyu sashimi is big, paper-thin slices of raw beef marinated in dashi and green onion. They don’t offer this at 212 steakhouse, but I start the night with some tender grilled octopus, spiked with red wine vinegar and scattered with roasted red peppers, sip a brawny Tuscan red, and end it with some old-school chocolate soufflé. This is Kobe beef, New York style. It’s the sort of luxury that lives up to itself. Not every day, but on a really good day, when there is something to celebrate, like New York winter, meat with stories, and endless possibilities, carnivorous and otherwise.