Just how much more succulent can Japanese beef get? With the opening of Shaburi on East 39th Street last month, the bar was raised again. The new restaurant offered a $69 shabu-shabu featuring Matsuzaka beef—“Better than Kobe,” diners were assured. Connoisseurs of super-fatty meat dipped the bright red slices into bubbling broth and swooned at the exotic delicacy.
Except that it’s bull. Matsuzaka, which comes from the Mie prefecture south of Tokyo, has been illegal to import since the first cases of mad-cow disease showed up in Japan in 2001. In fact, no Japanese beef, including Kobe, is allowed on American soil. “There is no actual Kobe beef in this country,” explains Tim DeCamp of Austin Meat Co., Shaburi’s New York purveyor. “It’s Kobe style.” Real Kobe beef, like real French champagne, comes from only one place: the environs of Kobe, Japan.
So what is the meat on the menus? In the early nineties, American cattlemen brought in a few hundred Japanese cows, called Wagyu, and fattened them with traditional Japanese techniques. Shaburi’s mysterious “Matsuzaka” is actually American Wagyu from Idaho’s Snake River Farms. “It’s Matsuzaka grade,” says a restaurant spokesperson. But according to Shea Gallante, the chef at Cru, who serves Wagyu skirt steak on his bar menu, “You can’t compare the real thing to the American product. Real Kobe is so richly marbled it’s almost white, like fatback.”
Many diners assume they’re getting real Japanese meat, and sometimes they are. Contraband Kobe regularly shows up in New York. One midtown steakhouse chef buys small amounts when he can and offers it up as an occasional special at $100 a steak. “I’m just trying to make people happy,” he says. “It’s like raw-milk cheese—when they have it, they have it. But it’s getting harder to find.”
Rather than run that risk—a restaurateur was arrested in Los Angeles last year for smuggling in $92,000 worth of real Kobe—some restaurants and meat purveyors are simply attaching superlative Japanese labels to the highest-grade American Wagyu. Shaburi isn’t the only one. Gari on the Upper West Side and Kai across town both feature exorbitant dishes made from what their menus call “Mishima” beef. Real Mishima—from a small island with a dwindling herd—is among the most highly prized beef in Japan. But these restaurants admit their “Mishima” is Wagyu from ranches in Texas. “It’s a marketing term. We named it after the Mishima line,” explains Bruce Hemmingsen of the Strube Ranch, which supplies Gari. “We wanted to let people know that we’re putting out the elite. But you really shouldn’t say it’s better than Kobe.”