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.