Hundred-Dollar Question

Kobe beef, the Lamborghini of steaks, at Coastal Seafoods
Sean Smuda

Dear Dara,


Unfortunately, your article of May 11, "The Great Steak Hunt," doesn't include a recent addition to the local steak scene, Kobe beef. The Kobe beef steak I tried was fabulous. It was the most flavorful steak I've ever eaten. However, I've rarely eaten steak and to the best of my knowledge have never eaten a steak at a restaurant. After the steak was done I cut it with a butter knife and pulled the meat apart with my fingers. It was literally melting apart in my mouth. Only the most minimal amount of chewing was needed.


--Stu in Minneapolis


Dear Stu,


Your letter has the double distinction of both being highly articulate on a point of riveting fascination to me, and of being extremely expensive to reply to. How expensive? It cost this newspaper $99.41 to have a dialogue with you about Kobe beef, my friend--that's the bill I ran up in order to taste a couple of different Kobe beef cuts from Coastal Seafoods. Hey, when steak costs $29.99 a pound, a hundred dollars runs up on you mighty quick. Yes, I said $29.99, for a single pound of a single large herbivore. Welcome to the next level of luxury, Minnesota: Kobe beef dwells among us.

Not familiar with the Lamborghini of beef steaks? Well, here's the deal: Back in the mists of time, cattle were introduced into Japan to work in agriculture, probably from original British bloodlines. Like Galapagos turtles, these cattle bred with one another, and thus a breed never before seen was brought into the world. (This isolation, of course, included the famous period when Japan was closed to foreigners, including foreign cattle.) This breed is known as Wagyu, which, conveniently enough, means Japanese cattle. Within the Wagyu breed there are even more distinct bloodlines, just as, say, there are different sorts of terriers in the terrier family of dogs, but that doesn't really concern us.

What does concern us is that when a culture of Japanese connoisseurship rises up around something, be it flower arranging, sushi preparation, or rare Weezer bootlegs, boy howdy, you better back off, because they are going to get some stuff done. Hence Japanese beefsteak connoisseurs developed Wagyu beef strains that they concluded were the best in the world. Many Westerners agreed and, over time, came to associate this phenomenal Japanese beef with Kobe, the prefecture in Japan where they most often ate it; just like Champagne comes from Champagne, Kobe beef used to come from Kobe. Except the Japanese weren't as vigilant about their brand management as the French were, and now, all over the Western world, when you eat Wagyu cattle you're eating Kobe beef.

If you have heard of Kobe beef, chances are you associate it with misty, sexy legend: The cattle spend their lives drinking beer, eating sake lees, and reclining tipsily in their stalls while beautiful geishas massage them and brush their hair with sake, that kind of thing. Some say this is hogwash and marketing. Others say it is reality, but only applies to certain $300-a-pound beasts glimpsed only in Japan. In any event, here we're talking about the $30-a-pound stuff, which is domestic American.

Yes, I said domestic. In the 1990s, American and Australian breeders began rearing and slaughtering Wagyu in their home countries and then shipping the meat to Japan for final processing. In 2001, however, Japan banned U.S. beef imports because of mad cow fears, leaving the American Wagyu folks in serious need of a new market. That's about when Kobe beef started showing up on American menus, in the most conspicuous of conspicuous consumption dishes, like $40 hamburgers in fancy New York City restaurants. Kobe beef would occasionally show up in Twin Cities restaurants, including at dear, departed Tonic, but I never had enough of it to form an opinion one way or another.

But that was then, and this is now. In the beginning of March, Coastal Seafoods started testing the local response to Kobe beef, raised in Nebraska, at their Minneapolis location. As of this writing, Coastal has expanded the meats to their St. Paul shop too. Minnetonka, make a little noise if you want in!

If you think it's a little counterintuitive for a place named Coastal Seafoods to sell Nebraska beef, you should know that it's something of a natural expansion for Coastal, which, in addition to its three retail locations, has an almost immeasurable impact on our local restaurant culture as a restaurant supplier. Many, many of our top restaurants get all their ocean fish and shellfish from Coastal, and even huge operations like the Oceanaire Seafood Room work with Coastal to bring in some of their specialty products. For instance, look for $30-a-pound Alaskan Yukon River King salmon to show up in the third week of June or so; it will be at the Oceanaire, at Coastal, and maybe a few of the tippity-top restaurants, like Levain.  

"The Yukon River is five times longer than the Copper River," general manager Tim Lauer told me when I talked to him for this story. "And if you have to swim upstream for 2,000 miles, you have to build up an insane amount of fat to get you through the journey. Copper River King salmon are about 12 percent fat, but these Yukon kings average 34 percent fat. They're amazing."

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:

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.

That said, I seriously recommend serving this stuff in sushi-bar portions. I can't possibly imagine eating a whole one of these Kobe New York strips. My sweetie and I each had about a single inch from the inside of one of these steaks, and then we both collapsed speechless into soft chairs, and spent the rest of the evening gurgling and zonked, like napping babies. It is that rich. If you serve a whole one of these to a dinner guest, it will be kind of like serving them a whole foie gras: generous, but also cruel, with a King Midas touch. Don't do it. I recommend maybe one steak for four people, served in an appetizer portion. That said, I do wholeheartedly recommend it, it's the meat thrill ride of the summer.

The rib eye, at $27.99, is kind of an also-ran, but definitely more of a steak-eaters' steak: Again, it's incredibly marbled, lush, rich, and fat, fat, fat, but has a more conventional strawberry, liver, and wine steaky flavor profile, and just doesn't have the jaw-dropping impact of the New York strip. For my money, the rib eye wasn't any better than any of the dry-aged rib eyes I tried during the course of reporting my "Great Steak Hunt" story, and costs nearly twice as much as those did.

Gentlemen, ladies, carnivores of all ages, I now draw a curtain on the Steak Capades of 2005. I cede the field to you. Take up your knives! Your forks! You have nothing to lose but the contents of your wallets and the clarity of your arteries. Godspeed. (Coastal Seafoods, 2330 Minnehaha Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.724.7425; 74 S. Snelling, St. Paul, 651.698.4888; 840 E. Lake St., Wayzata, 952.249.3878.)

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Coastal Seafoods

2330 Minnehaha Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55404


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