BEEFED UP! WHAT ECONOMY? PRICEY WAGYU STILL SELLS
LED by Eater.com, the blogs went bananas over the
closing of Kobe Club last week. Ha, ha!, they belly-laughed at the expense of owner Jeffrey Chodorow. He thought he'd prove Bruni, Platt and Cuozzo wrong, who all tore the joint to pieces back in February 2007! He dared to defy the Eater Deathwatch, currently snoozing but then at the top of its game!
In fact, Kobe Club stank to the bone, and it's a puzzle how or why Chodorow kept the often near-empty venue afloat for so long -- an overpriced, gruesome setting (2,000 ceiling-suspended knives) for food ranging from mediocre
But here's the bigger mystery that's gone overlooked in the wake of Kobe Club's demise:
Confounding common sense, Manhattan restaurants offering purebred Japanese Wagyu beef -- the pricey product for which Kobe Club was named and which was its signature dish and inspiration -- claim they're selling more of the stuff than ever.
That means unadulterated, ultra-fatty Wagyu that typically costs customers $25-and-up per ounce, not its inferior, mongrel American and Australian cousins. This at
a time when diners are supposedly shunning luxury ingredients
for bread and water.
This in a year when such fine restaurants as Fiamma and Town have closed. Strangely, steakhouses seem full, even though they're often more expensive than other eateries -- to some the appearance of eating "simply" seems to matter more than how much they spend. "A $40 steak is still comfort food to a lot of people," says Old Homestead co-owner Marc Sherry.
So, what's my beef with admittedly luscious Wagyu, apart from its irksomely elitist pricing?
It's one of those rarefied, super-expensive items like fatty bluefin tuna that lets owners and chefs take their places for granted. Why sweat over the chicken when enough customers buy Wagyu to make every night a grand slam?
And, along with organically raised domestic cuts that are too lean, the 50 percent-fat fatty Wagyu helped turn some steakhouses' focus away from the traditional gold standard: dry-aged, USDA Prime.
I confess to having enjoyed Wagyu in tiny quantities when I ate it in the line of duty, but never in my free time. An ounce or two is about as much as a normal human can eat without rupturing arteries and feeling as if one's mouth is full of irremovable grease.
Even so, Wagyu became the splurge of choice for hedge-fund rascals who guzzled $1,000-a-bottle wine with impunity. Once pure-bred Wagyu was allowed into the US in 2006 after a five-year hiatus, it started popping up in the oddest places -- most noticeably at Le Bernardin, which is totally fish-focused. (Just as odd, Eric Ripert's Wagyu, properly seared, was the best in the field.)
Ripert says it's as much in demand as ever -- not surprising, since a small cut of Wagyu paired with escolar as part of his four-course, $109 dinner prix-fixe menu doesn't cost diners an extra dime.
But at BLT Steak, Wagyu is $26 an ounce with a 5-ounce minimum per diner. Yet, chef de cuisine Chris Lim says sales have actually increased in the 2 ½ years he's been there.
Lim says BLT Steak sells a whole tenderloin's worth of Wagyu each week. At a minimum of 8 pounds per tenderloin, that works out to $3,328 in Wagyu sales weekly.
"We even have some people who stop in and buy Wagyu for their dogs," he says.
Sherry says Old Homestead sells an average 150 Wagyu burgers ($41 each) and "between 40 and 100" of its 10-ounce, $150 (a relative bargain) Wagyu sirloin steak each week -- no less than before the crash. Customers are grooving on it as well at Morimoto, which boasts of selling more Wagyu than it did a year ago -- and at $30 an ounce!
There are a few signs of sanity out there. Le Bernardin reports few takers for its 8-ounce Wagyu steak for a $125 supplement -- "It doesn't happen often," Ripert says.
There's no pure Wagyu at Chodorow's Center Cut. And mercifully gone is BLT Burger's bun-busting Wagyu number, which cost a staggering $62.
Although customers usually pay as much or more for Wagyu as they did two years ago, eateries can now get hold of it for much less -- Le Bernardin, Ripert says, now pays $56 a pound compared with $75 a pound in 2007, a result of more competition among suppliers.
That, combined with insatiable demand, means restaurants can make real money on Wagyu -- a guarantee the Great Recession won't put the beast out to pasture anytime soon.