It's a steak with the texture of foie gras, and it comes from cattle that, according to legend, are fed beer and massaged by human hands. In its raw state, the meat is pale — almost white — packed with what Chef de Cuisine David Varley of Las Vegas' Bradley Ogden restaurant calls "an ungodly amount of fat."
This marbled delicacy is the product of Japanese beef cattle, or "Wagyu," raised both in and outside of Japan, and it dominates high-end steak menus internationally. We spoke with chefs and managers at fine steakhouses worldwide, as well as beef producers, butchers and meat experts, to compile our list of the world's most expensive steaks. Wagyu entrees account for all of our top ten.
Kobe beef, an appellation that applies to Wagyu cattle raised in Japan's Hyogo prefecture and adhering to production standards of that region, is perhaps the most famous brand of Wagyu — and the priciest. Chef Varley's "Triple Seared" Japanese Kobe in Las Vegas runs $33 an ounce, bringing the bill for an eight-ounce serving to $264.00. At Tokyo's Aragawa, you can expect to pay 30,000 Yen ($301) for a 250 gram (about eight ounces) charbroiled Kobe filet accompanied by mustard and pepper.
A few hours by bullet train to the west of Tokyo, the Kobe Renga-tei Steak Restaurant in the city of Kobe covers its Wagyu with a fine Japanese paper before cooking on a copper and iron grill. "This is how professional sumo wrestlers cooked wild boar meat around 200 years ago in the Edo period," proclaims the restaurant's Web site, adding, "All of our chefs are women. This provides for an especially warm and cozy atmosphere." Accompanied by Scottish salmon, seasoned salad and including dessert, the "Select Special Filet Course" goes for a warm and cozy 24,000 Yen ($206).
Outside of Japan, cattle with Wagyu genetics (sometimes crossbred with domestic strains like American Black Angus) are now raised in the U.S. and Australia. Wagyu production outside of Japan increased during the 2001 to 2005 U.S. ban on imports of Japanese beef and has continued to gain in popularity since. Chris Albrecht, Chef de Cuisine at New York's Craftsteak, recently served up an entire Wagyu "103" rib eye (meaning it had very long rib bones and all of the meat attached, including shortribs) to a large private party for $2,800, a gross price that puts it at the top of our list.
At Wolfgang Puck's new steakhouse, CUT, in Beverly Hills, Chef Ari Rosenson is noticing a steady demand for both Japanese- and American-raised Wagyu. "I'm amazed," he says. "People are really interested and curious about it. I can't keep enough in house. And we're seeing a lot of repeat customers." Rosenson's menu features an eight-ounce rib eye of "True Japanese 100 percent Wagyu Beef from Miyazaki Prefecture, Kyushu, Japan" for $160.
According to Bryan Voltaggio, executive chef at Charlie Palmer in Washington, Wagyu cattle are "raised slowly and naturally, which can take up to four times longer than the typical process used in the U.S." Jay Thieler, executive director of marketing at Snake River Farms, which raises "American style Kobe" in Idaho, describes the same patient method for the Wagyu breeds his company raises on U.S. soil. "You don't hurry them to market," he says. He adds that the extended raising period produces more "internal muscular marbling," the fatty streaks that give Wagyu its unique, rich texture. Extended life spans translate into more costs, which further compound the price of the meat.
The preparation at most fine restaurants is a relatively quick combination of initial broiling or searing followed by finishing on a grill or oven for about 15 minutes. CUT's chef Rosenson says all his steaks get the same treatment: They're seasoned with salt and pepper, put in a 1200-degree broiler, which sears and caramelizes the meat, and then finished slowly over a charcoal and oak grill.
For non-Wagyu steak varieties, dry-aging is what enriches the flavor — and price. (Most restaurants on our list also feature dry-aged options for their non-Wagyu selections.) According to Dennis Kelly, author of The Complete Meat Cookbook, dry aging, where steak is hung in a climate-controlled chamber for up to six weeks, "causes enzymatic changes in the meat; moisture evaporates, and the meat takes on a different, gelatinous texture — the flavor gets more beefy. Like cheese, steak as it ages takes on tremendous character."
The moisture loss involved in dry aging — along with a resulting outer crust that needs to be trimmed away — result in a substantial loss in mass (up to 25 percent), thus increasing costs. For this reason, according to Bradley Ogden's chef Varley, most chefs will generally not dry-age the already-pricey Japanese Kobe steaks. Instead, they are seared, grilled, and shuttled directly to the plates of well-heeled diners, where the meat yields like butter under the knife.