On my first visit to Jeffrey Chodorow’s new midtown beef palace, the Kobe Club, I sat at the tip end of the bar, which, as you may have heard, is shaped like a samurai sword and covered in sheets of glistening black stingray skin. I dined on three kinds of Kobe beef (the “Samurai Flight,” for $190), each one stuck with a paper flag denoting the beef’s country of origin. The sheer novelty of a steakhouse devoted solely to Kobe beef compelled your faithful critic to name the restaurant one of the city’s top new steakhouses in the magazine’s annual roundup of the best new places to eat in 2007. This was an error. On further inspection, Mr. Chodorow’s restaurant seems to me less like a steakhouse than a bizarre agglomeration of restaurant fashions and trends, most of them bad. The glorification of Kobe beef, of course, is one of these. Tired Japanese themes (samurai swords dangling from the ceiling, edamame in your mashed potatoes) are another. So are the complex menus, the egregious pricing, the unceasing bongo-beat soundtrack, and the zebra-striped, unisex bathrooms done in what might be described as a neo-seventies Bob Guccione motif.
With its sense of raffish excess and its dark, tacky glamour, Kobe Club is a place Mr. Guccione might well have enjoyed in his prime. The room, on West 58th Street, is small for a steakhouse (it’s the former home of Alain Ducasse’s doomed venture Mix) and lit in gloomy shades of black, like the basement of a goth dance hall. Past the samurai bar in the main dining chamber, you’ll find the swords hanging from the ceiling (there are 2,000 of them), along with long links of chain, some of which are strung with chunks of coal. A video image of a roaring fire dances endlessly on one of the walls, and the back of the room is lined with darkened booths built to look like grottoes in a cave. Inside these little grottoes, the air smells vaguely of truffle oil, the napkins are looped with chain mail, and everything is sheathed in black, including the leather banquettes and the Conan-size menus, which contain a bewildering array of categories and subsections (eight in total, not counting dessert) and are so heavy you could use them to hammer nails.
If you enjoy Kobe beef in all its extravagant forms (the 28-ounce Wagyu porterhouse costs $390), you might be fine with these theatrics. Otherwise, you’re in for a long night. The first dish to appear in our grotto on a recent visit was the Kobe Club beef tartare: a glistening snowball of American, Australian, and Japanese Wagyu (“Wagyu” being the proper name for the beer-sodden, fat-marbled cattle popularized originally in Japan) that cost $32 and was almost too rich to eat. It was followed by a single, vaguely rubberized scallop sitting atop a block of overcooked “Kobe” short ribs, a trio of tasty beef-cheek ravioli, and a good though massively engorged foie gras “steak” balanced on greasy brioche toast. Also included in this tidal wave of grub were giant “double stuffer” crab cakes topped with too many cornichons, strips of Peter Luger–style bacon scattered with bland nuggets of black truffle, and a helping of toro tartare that tasted as if it had been made days in advance. The lady to my right took a bite of her toro, then put down her fork. “Someone’s robbed it of its tunahood,” she said.
Of course, Chodorow (China Grill, Asia de Cuba) is a showman, not a cook, and if he has to choose between serving the freshest tuna or buying another hundred samurai swords for his ceiling, he’ll choose the swords. He’ll also do what canny franchisers often do, which is to substitute bulk for quality. A football-size serving of organic chicken had to be sent back to the kitchen because it was semi-raw inside, and the tuna “porterhouse” I sampled was as big as a car battery but devoid of taste. If you want fish, order the sole meunière, which is bombed with plenty of lemon and butter. If you want salad, the chopped salad I enjoyed was decent, if overdressed, and large enough to feed an army of rabbits. Among oversize, non-Kobe steak items, the filet tastes like it’s been microwaved, and the $52 “Sizzling” strip loin is composed of greasy slabs of beef laid over an even greasier pile of onions. “It’s an insipid piece of meat,” declared my colleague the Steak Loon. “They wouldn’t even serve it at Tad’s.”
But, as I say, if you’re a Wagyu addict and you have the cash to support your habit, you can find plenty to like at the Kobe Club. Like any decadent pleasure drug, the meat is priced according to weight and country of origin. And like any decadent pleasure drug, the more you pay, the better the high. The most expensive Wagyu is the filet from Japan ($90 for four ounces, $160 for eight ounces), although I preferred the strip loin, which was less mushy and white with fat, like the belly of the most elite Japanese tuna. The American Wagyu ($35 for four ounces of filet) is dull by comparison, so if you can’t stomach the price or the richness of the Japanese beef (even four ounces is too much), order the Australian Wagyu, which has a nice balance between beefy, mineral flavor and pure, unadulterated fat.