At $100 for a 16-ounce porterhouse steak, Wagyu beef might be a hard sell. Evan Lobel, of famous New York butcher shop Lobel's, is undaunted.
He's already selling at least 100 of his beyond-prime porterhouses each month, plus 150 or more bone-in strip steaks starting at $89 a pound, 100 bone-in hip steaks and so on — well over $55,000 worth of meat — to a star-studded roster of clients.
"It's probably the most expensive Wagyu out there," says Lobel by phone as he stands in the icebox of his family's shop. "But we're going to give people the most extraordinary product."
If you're wondering what Wagyu (pronounced "Wah-gyu," sometimes "Way-gyu" ) is, and why it's priced more like foie gras than beef, many of Lobel's customers wonder the same thing: "'They're saying, 'What the hell is Wagyu?'"
The ne plus ultra of beef is commonly known as Kobe, but Kobe is merely the prefecture in Japan where insanely expensive meat, sometimes $500 a pound for the real thing, happens to be produced. These are the well-known cows whose diet is reputedly augmented with sake and beer, and regular massages to soften their meat and enhance the marbling of their fat.
Kobe beef comes from Wagyu cattle, much as French Champagne comes from pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. If you happen to eat Kobe-style beef in the United States, it's probably from Wagyu cattle raised over here, though the folks in Kobe haven't waged a geographic labeling war like the winemakers of Champagne did.
With tight restrictions on their export from Japan, the first four Wagyu bulls entered the United States in 1976; more regular imports of breeding stock only began in 1993.
Wagyu beef is exquisitely tender, with soft fat that can all but melt at human body temperature, meaning it must be handled with care — should you be lucky enough to get your hands on some.
With such delicate intramuscular fat, steaks must be briefly seared to leave the interior just barely cooked, more like a fine hunk of tuna than beef. The texture is meant to be closer to pate — or, indeed, foie gras. Any more than a few moments over heat and Wagyu steaks are wasted.
"The whole secret is medium rare and only salt and pepper," says Beverly Yamamoto, who with her husband, Gary, raises nearly 4,000 Wagyu cattle in Texas. "Gary does not allow anybody to put anything on his meat."
Patrons can ask for it by name at such restaurants as The Saloon in Chicago and New York's V Steakhouse. According to the American Wagyu Association, more than 60 U.S. breeders and ranchers now handle these cattle.
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The Yamamotos got their cows directly from the source. In 1999, they bought the entire herd that Japanese breeder Shogo Takeda, who pioneered the breeding of Wagyu on the northern island of Hokkaido, brought to Iowa to set up a trade in Wagyu sperm and embryos.
"He agreed to let us purchase his animals, but for three years he wanted to teach us how to do it," says Beverly Yamamoto.
Breeding and barley
Takeda believed 60 percent of the quality of Wagyu beef came from genetics, with the remainder from proper feeding, Yamamoto says, so they studied both — meticulously breeding full-blooded Wagyu bulls with Angus cows and slowly increasing the purity of the bloodline past 15/16ths, which effectively qualifies as full-blooded Wagyu.
At the same time, Takeda shared his feeding secrets with the Yamamotos, who stumbled into the Wagyu business when the East Texas ranch they hoped to build required an agricultural permit. (Fishing fans may know Gary Yamamoto, a competitive fisherman and lure manufacturer.)
Takeda's feeding regimen, which helps build tender fat inside the animals' muscles, leans more toward grains like hops and barley — not unlike the Kobe beer-sake regimen — than the all-popular corn diet.
Both the breed, which is often notably docile, and the feeding regimen produce fats that researchers at Washington State University, Texas A&M and elsewhere have found to contain more healthier omega-3 fatty acids and less unhealthy fats.
In Japan, where Wagyu simply means "Japanese cow," cattle are graded on a 12-point scale far more detailed — and demanding — than the USDA's grading system. Well-marbled meat the USDA typically considers prime beef might only rate a 5 or 6, and even top Wagyu beef generally scores a 10. A 12 is almost unheard of.
Lobel's, the Upper East Side butcher shop that gained fame for its meticulously dry-aged meats, generally seeks a 7 or above from "a place in Texas," which it won't divulge. The Yamamotos, who distribute through steakhouse supplier Allen Brothers, offer a range of grades and prices.
Lobel's has offered Wagyu since 2002, but in July it became one of the only purveyors of bone-in, dry-aged Wagyu beef. Bone-in beef often limits the number of cuts available from a single cow and significantly jacks up the price.
While standard Wagyu already frequently heads north of $40 per pound, the new Lobel's offerings often cost more than double that. These are not steaks to screw up on the grill, though Lobel's Wagyu customers, who include actor Robert Duvall and wine critic Robert Parker, appear unfazed. "They're looking for something different," says Evan Lobel.
Should you want something more modest, Lobel's offers Wagyu brisket ($62.98 for 4 pounds); the Yamamotos offer ground beef ($69.95 for 10 pounds) and even hot dogs that contain Wagyu.
Bringing back breeds
And should you prefer a more rustic option, Lobel's in June began selling sides of heritage-breed beef and pork. The meat comes from breeds largely forgotten by the commodity meat industry: Devon and Galloway cattle, Tamworth and Gloucestershire pigs. Beef is pasture-fed on small farms across the Northeast; Flying Pigs Farm in Shushan, N.Y., provides pork from vegetarian-fed pigs in large open pens.
Sampling these heritage meats may prove a tad expensive. As with many direct-from-farm meats, the smallest cut at Lobel's is a whole primal, or section of an animal, and prices begin at $14.98 per pound — though you can only get that if you buy a half-steer, which will set you back about $2,400.
No matter: The shop has an uncanny knack for luring well-heeled customers only too happy to pay top dollar for Evan Lobel and his brothers to hunt down extraordinarily good meat. And more of that money may find its way back to the farm.
"They're pretty sure when they pay that price they're going to get an absolutely wonderful experience, time after time after time," says Ken Kleinpeter of the New England Heritage Breeds Conservancy, which sources Lobel's and other meat retailers throughout the region. "The only way we can save some of these old breeds is if there's a way farmers can make money on them."
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