Hundred-Dollar Question

Kobe Beef--the legend, the steak--Hits Minnesota, and Dear Dara dives in

So, Coastal is expanding into this tippity-top of the line beef, and is also carrying Berkshire Pork, an heirloom breed that is naturally raised, and trying to build a name for itself. "We feel like we do the best fish," Lauer explained. "So we wanted to do the best meat, and see what the response to that would be." Lauer said lots of local chefs are sampling the Kobe beef now, so expect to see it popping up on menus all over town.

When I visited, they were selling a Kobe New York strip, the signature cut, at $29.99 a pound, Kobe rib eye at $27.99, a top sirloin for $14.99, and a cut called a "center cut ranch steak" for $11.99. I tried them all.

Let's start low and end high. Skip the $14.99 sirloin; it's unremarkable at best. The one I tried looked sodden and strawberry-red before it was cooked, like something that's been soaking in a vacuum-sealed bag of blood. And the flabby appearance and cottony texture didn't improve too much by cooking. It was just plain old middling-to-average steak. The $11.99 center cut ranch steak was fascinating, if only because it has an alternate name of shoulder heart clod, which kind of makes me want to start a death metal band, and kind of makes me want to freak out the neighbors by dressing as Morticia Addams and calling from the porch, "Come in for dinner, dear, your shoulder heart clods are cooling!"

(Sadly, this cut was not named by the poet Rimbaud, but is a newish way of cutting and using the beef shoulder for steaks instead of for stews, as devised by the Cattlemen's Beef Board & National Cattlemen's Beef Association. On this front, look for new steaks in stores near you, called things like a "Western griller." If this intrigues you, check out the Beef Board's research-and-development website: www.rdranch.com.)

I'm betting that the shoulder heart clod, at $11.99, with some beautiful marbling and great Grenache-brick red color, is the steak we'll probably see most at nice, mid-price restaurants. The one I tried was rich and irony and very traditionally dense, beefy, and meaty tasting. Order it and you get the Kobe name to sell, but a low enough retail price that the restaurant can actually profit. I found it a perfect middle-of-the-road steak: not as winey and deep as the dry-aged rib eyes I tasted a few weeks ago, not as grassy, herbal, or dry as the pasture-raised beef in natural markets, not as luxurious as the premium Kobe cuts Coastal also sells. It's the kind of steak that's solid and meaty, and cries out for chefs to start tricking it out in cabernet-peppercorn reductions and such. When they do, you will like it.

Now, the big guns. The $29.99 Kobe New York strip I tried was a category apart from any steak I have ever seen. It was like thinking about a mountain, and then having the Andes walk into the room. I thought I had seen marbling, that distribution of fat in a steak that makes flavor as it melts. I had not. This was at least two or three times more marbled-looking than the highest grade of American beef, prime. There were just ribbons and little crackle-lines of fat all through this thing; imagine one of those faux crackle-finished pieces of wood furniture, and you'll get the idea. When I put mine in my smoking-hot skillet, so much fat drained out that I understood the phrase "steak fry," as in, steaks cooked outdoors in a pan are "fried," for the first time. So much poured out that I suddenly saw why some East Coast restaurant menus advertised dishes like "wild mushrooms in Kobe fat"--there is enough to harvest.

Me, I cooked mine for two minutes a side in a smoking-hot skillet and finished it for two minutes in a hot oven, just like the brochure said. And, please note, I almost had a nervous breakdown while doing it, so terrified was I of screwing up a $30 steak. But things went well. It came out rare, which is how this stuff is supposed to be eaten. If you want a medium steak, there's no reason on earth to spend this much. If you're someone who orders steaks "blue" (raw on the inside, charred on the outside millimeter) your moment has come.

It was like nothing I've ever tasted. It was not really like steak at all, it was like o-toro, that premium, deep-water, ultra-fatty tuna belly that is among the most prized of all sushi cuts. It looked like premium tuna, too, like red oil, floating on water; it was an intense scarlet-purple, and glossy to the point of reflecting points of lamplight. It all but dissolved in the mouth, like a pat of butter made of steak. One of my friends calls foie gras "meat-butter," and every bite of this Kobe New York strip was that kind of a sensation: meat butter, steak gelato, beef chocolate-truffle filling--take your pick. I was truly gobsmacked, flabbergasted, and kerfluffled.

I had never before really felt a connection between butter, from cow milk, and beef, from cow muscle, until that instant. This Kobe steak doesn't so much taste like something as it just collapses the senses, like a lightening bolt to the noggin, and you are left with nothing but a stunned sense of deliciousness. When you see $100 Kobe steak on a menu, this is what they ought to be serving you: sheer beef insanity.

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