Kobe Beef: The new blue-plate special

Almost 10 years ago, I set out to find what was then a little-known delicacy called Kobe beef. The meat had a nearly mystical backstory: The steer were raised on centuries-old farms in Japan where they were practically considered members of the family. They were hand-massaged daily, the better to redistribute remarkable stores of fat throughout the flesh, and served a steady diet of beer and sake. Um, yes, please. I’ll have that with a side of unicorn bacon.

Kobe’s mystique was heightened by how hard it was to find the stuff. Only tiny amounts were exported, and most of that was spoken for long before it left Japan. I finally called the Japanese embassy, which tipped me off to a shipment destined for an exclusive Manhattan restaurant. When I arrived for my $125 New York strip, I was seated in a hushed section of the dining room. One waiter came to the table bearing a large, smooth rock that had been sitting in a hot oven. Another carried the steak, a piece of meat so shot through with delicious veins of fat it almost looked white. Delicately, the waiter picked up one slice of raw beef with chopsticks and placed it on the sizzling rock until it was seared on the edges and just barely warm at the center. He watched carefully while I chewed, swallowed, and took a sip of water. Only then did he lay the next piece on the stone. It remains one of the most reverential and weirdly religious eating experiences of my life.

Magazine convention now requires me to flash forward to a scene that perfectly illustrates how far Kobe beef has fallen in the past decade. But I can’t do it. There are just too many options. Should I describe the buffet line at the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas, where at least one teenager was asking for his already-gray piece of Kobe prime rib to be prepared “more doner”? Should I take you to Scores, the New York topless club, where a friend of mine paid a stripper to massage his shoulders while he ate so he could more fully understand the Kobe beef on his plate? To Philadelphia’s Barclay Prime, home of the Kobe Cheesesteak? Or Miami’s Prime 112, where you can get a Kobe hot dog? Or any of the dozens of places selling Kobe meat loaf, Kobe quesadillas, spaghetti and Kobe meatballs, Kobe empanadas, and so on—all for prices well above what the same dishes would fetch if made with standard American beef?

Some of these are very good, many are mediocre, and some are awful. But one thing is clear. Kobe beef has moved out of the universe in which we judge edibles by such measures as nutrition, sustenance, tastiness, etc. It has become something else entirely: a social signifier. In other words, jackass food.

All of these foods—along with such fellow travelers as truffles and foie gras—are, in the right hands, transcendently delicious. But they can also function as cultural shorthand for luxury, opening the door to all manner of jackassery.

For starters, we have intentional fuddling of terms: In every one of the above cases, the term Kobe is incorrect. The original Kobe beef did indeed come from Kobe, Japan, and was the product of a special variety of cattle called Wagyu, which was bred for maximum fat marbling. About a decade ago, American entrepreneurs began crossing Wagyu with our own Angus steer and shipping that beef right back to Japan. Then a Japanese outbreak of mad-cow disease in 2001 led the two countries to mutually ban beef imports. Until the restrictions were lifted in December, no genuine Kobe beef was sold in the U.S.

Wagyu are at least twice as expensive to raise as normal cattle. To turn a profit, American ranchers needed to sell not only prime steaks, like rib eyes and filets mignons, but also the less sexy cuts like chuck and round. Enter the Wagyu burger.

At its best, American Kobe (the compromise term used by honest restaurateurs) is still a wondrous food. The steaks are tender as the softest filet mignon yet deliver all the rich, gamy beef flavor of a rib eye. The off-cuts can be magnificent too. “What you get is a really soft, really good mouth-feel,” says Chris Santos, chef and part owner of the Stanton Social, a New York restaurant that moves some 350 tiny Kobe “sliders” on a typical Friday night. “The meat is so marbled that the patties will actually collapse if the kitchen is too hot.” But there is good Wagyu and bad Wagyu. Evan Lobel, who sells aged Wagyu steaks and other cuts at his family’s New York butcher shop and online, contends that a low-end piece of Wagyu is far inferior to a regular prime steak. “It gives the opportunity to add a couple of bucks to the ticket,” Lobel says, “but it can give the breed a bad name.”

Restaurateurs also continue to trade on the -massage/beer mystique, though no steer in America (and precious few in Japan) is actually raised that way. At the New York steak house Old Homestead, where you can drop $41 on the nation’s first Kobe burger, the waiters go at it hard. “This cow, she never touches the ground. She is massaged 24 hours a day,” ours cooed, his hands performing seductive movements. Perhaps worrying that he was overdoing it, he added, “Not by the same person, of course. They take turns.” Old Homestead’s Web site repeats the massage claim, though co-owner Greg Sherry happily admits it’s strictly bullshit.

None of this is to say that you can’t have a positive Kobe experience. You can. But that would be a lot easier if restaurants would stop coming up with ever more outrageous ways of making you pay for privilege. Which, naturally, brings us back to Las Vegas. For it was from that city that a press release recently flowed announcing “the most extravagant and expensive burger experience ever conceived.” This was the Fleur-Burger 5000, topped with truffles and a slab of foie gras. Concocted by chef Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys at the Mandalay Bay Casino, the FleurBurger 5000 is named for its price tag, a cool $5,000. To be fair, your money also gets you a set of fine Italian stemware, a numbered certificate signed by Keller himself, and a pretty nice bottle of wine—a 1990 Chateau Petrus, which itself is on the wine list for $5,000 (The Petrus got 100 points from Robert M. Parker Jr., placing you just one spoonful of Beluga caviar away from the jackass superfecta.) Think of this burger as the Vegas version of a Happy Meal. And while you might expect a $5,000 burger to tuck you in at night, give you a lap dance, and teach you blackjack strategy, there’s no denying that it’s a juicy, beefy, extremely tasty piece of meat. Its target consumer, former wine director Staffan Gyllensten confides, is a casino whale losing enough at the baccarat tables to sign the restaurant bill to his comped room and never think about it again.

Kobe seems destined to join such classic Vegas status foods as prime rib, king-crab legs, and lobster tail. And what happens in Vegas never really stays in Vegas: Like a fun-house mirror, the city reflects and magnifies the nation’s worst and silliest impulses. Soon enough, the Kobe craze will come beaming back from the Strip in even more grotesque incarnations. Many jackasses will be born, and, yes, some people will also be exposed to some very tasty beef. But either way, you can bet very few of them will be hand-fed with chopsticks.