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By any name, Kobe and its copycats are tender, pricey cuts

Kobe. American Kobe. American-style Kobe. Kobe-style American. Wagyu. Washu. It’s imported directly from Japan. It’s impossible to import it directly from Japan.

Never has so much that’s so confusing been connected to one slab of meat.

And that’s not to mention the aura of mystery — much of it intentional — that surrounds Kobe beef in all of its permutations. So we’ll attempt to separate fact from fiction.

First, the importation issue. Yes, it was true that all beef imports from Japan were suspended because of the risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease, but that ban ended in December 2005. While you may be told otherwise by people who should know, it is indeed possible that the Kobe beef on the restaurant menu has been imported from the region around Kobe, Japan.

Or, well, maybe not. That’s where “American-style Kobe” comes in. And although you may not see it listed this way on a menu, “Australian-style Kobe” as well.

Experts say the difference between Kobe and Kobe-style is visible. The top grade of Japanese Kobe is as much as half meat and half marbling, which is why the Japanese sometimes call it “white steak.”

“The texture of that when you have that raw and it’s cold, it’s hard as butter,” said Matt Seeber, executive chef at Craftsteak at MGM Grand. “That’s what translates into that luscious mouth texture and the juiciness and the softness of the whole thing and being able to cut it with a fork.”

“If somebody’s saying on their menu that it is Kobe beef, it should be from there,” Seeber added. “If they’re calling it Kobe-style, that’s different. American Kobe, Kobe-style; it all falls under the same umbrella. It’s more truthful than saying Kobe beef.”

And this is the difference: While the Japanese government has tightly controlled the export of live beef cattle, it has made exceptions here and there. Some of those cattle — all of them of the Wagyu breed; hence another word that shows up frequently on restaurant menus — were crossed with American (or Australian) cattle, to produce the Kobe-derivative Wagyu beef that’s seen on American menus today. (So “Kobe” beef is Wagyu, but “Wagyu” beef may not be Kobe. And Washu is a Wagyu cross developed in the Pacific Northwest.)

Seeber said Craftsteak uses beef from Blackmore Ranch in Queensland, Australia, that’s 100 percent Wagyu, and Snake River Farms in Idaho, that’s 51 percent Wagyu and 49 percent Black Angus. The restaurant also uses Japanese A-5 Kobe beef (the highest designation) imported from Japan.

Ron Lutz, owner of The Butcher Block at 7625 S. Rainbow Blvd., also carries Japanese A-5 Kobe beef, plus Australian Wagyu from Greg Norman Signature Wagyu and Darling Downs Wagyu, both in the Darling Downs region in Queensland.

The beef is graded on a scale of 1 to 12. Lutz said the Australian Wagyu he carries usually is grade 8, “because the price for the 12 is ridiculous.”

But “even the 12 does not compare to the Japanese,” Lutz said. “The marbling in that … nothing compares.”

“The Japanese have taken it to the extreme,” Seeber said. “They are the original and the best.”

Seeber noted that the texture is the appeal for most of his customers.

“People seem to throw that out there before anything else,” he said — “the tenderest, juiciest steak they ever had. Not the best-tasting. I don’t get that a lot.”

For that reason, you won’t find Kobe burgers or meatballs on Seeber’s menu.

But Lutz contended that, since the flavor is in the fat, Kobe and Wagyu do indeed make a better burger.

“It’s just incredible,” said Lutz, who sells ground Wagyu. “The only way you can get the flavor is from that fat.” (And Seeber pointed out that it’s best to keep it simple: “If you’re going to serve it with five, six other things in your mouth at the same time, it may be hard to tell that it’s really better flavor.”)

All of that fat can have its downside, though. Seeber said he actually prefers the Snake River Wagyu simply because it’s not as heavily marbled.

“It’s what most people can handle,” he said. “People want a big 14-ounce steak with a bone in it, and it’s soft and juicy. The Wagyu is all that, but it’s so rich and so heavy that a 6-ounce portion is sufficient. And that 6-ounce portion is going to cost them three times as much as that 14-ounce steak.”

At Craftsteak, Seeber noted, Japanese A-5 Kobe beef runs roughly $30 an ounce, versus $5.60 an ounce for domestic Black Angus.

Lutz said he has No. 8 Wagyu Greg Norman rib-eyes for $49 a pound, or strip loins for $39 a pound. Japanese A-5 tenderloin is $149 a pound, he said. As for Black Angus, Lutz offers Choice boneless rib-eyes for $12.99 a pound, Choice bone-in rib-eyes for $11.99 a pound, Prime bone-in rib-eyes for $16.99 a pound and Prime boneless rib-eyes for $17.99 a pound.

Why are the Kobe and non-Kobe Wagyu so much more expensive? For one thing, only a small percentage of cattle have that degree of marbling. For another, the cattle are raised to maximize tenderness and flavor.

“They massage them, they feed them sake,” Seeber said. “It’s more folklore than anything else. They have done a lot to sort of keep that mystery surrounding it.”

Stephane Chevet, executive chef at Shibuya at MGM Grand, toured two beef ranches in the Shiga prefecture, one of six prefectures that can officially use the Kobe appellation.

“There’s a lot of talk about the Wagyu beef getting massages, they give them sake and beer,” Chevet said. “All of this is actually not the current practice. Nowadays the cattle are so genetically perfect that they no longer have to do those different techniques.”

Scientific advances also have changed things. For example, Chevet said, years ago the cattle were given beer when the humidity was high to stimulate their hunger. But more recently, it was discovered that if two animals share a feeding area, they’ll compete for the food and both will eat more.

“The massage that they’re giving is now more the thorough brushing of the skin,” he said, “just to brush the leather to stimulate the blood flow through the muscles.” And each farm, he said, has developed a proprietary feed.

“Each of them is telling you they found the best way,” he said.

The special treatment, it seems, extends right up to the moment of death. As the cattle are waiting at the slaughterhouse, Chevet said, “there’s Mozart music to make them calm down. They found out it is much better if the cattle is unstressed, which makes the meat more tender.”

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474.

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