Kobe or Not Kobe?

That is the question. Here’s the answer.

I’m anti-Kobe burger. Why take a piece of meat prized for its marbling and ruin, grinding it up and cooking it so the fat disperses? And if it’s so damn expensive, why does my neighborhood bar offer it for just $10? So I felt vindicated when Larry Olmstead’s article “Food’s Biggest Scam: The Great Kobe Beef Lie” posted on Forbes.com.

Finally! Someone had recognized publicly that it was impossible for so many restaurants to serve the pricey delicacy, beef from black cows raised according to the strict tradition of Japan’s Hyōgo Prefecture. Because of an embargo following an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease about two years ago, and more recently the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the U.S. cannot import any beef from Japan. Zero.

Most restaurant folks can more or less agree that, for this reason, any Kobe you see in the U.S. these days is a misnomer, but Wagyu, the uniquely bred cattle used for Kobe beef, can be raised outside of Japan. In wine terms, Kobe would be Champagne and Wagyu would be the grapes from which it was made—also able to be grown outside of Champagne, France.

So, what’s Wagyu? The true beauty of this special beef lies within the marbling. Brett Ottolenghi, owner of Las Vegas purveyor Artisanal Foods, which distributes Australian and New Zealand Wagyu to Strip restaurants, talked us through the domestic process of grading beef. “The USDA grading scale doesn’t take into account tenderness or flavor, [it] only looks at marbling,” he says. But marbling for Japanese beef is different. The Japanese scale of grading beef ranges from 1 to 12, with 1 indicating no marbling. On the Japanese scale, USDA prime would get a 4 or 5, half-breed Wagyu ranks anywhere from 2-9, but purebred Wagyu (such as that from Australian producer Cabassi) goes all the way from 7 up to 12, which, we imagine, induces a state of nirvana. Cabassi is trying to reproduce and even improve upon Japanese Wagyu techniques.

“After three years of feasting on lush grass in New Zealand, even the filet is beautifully marbled, and more important for me than the marbling is the flavor,” Ottolenghi says of beef by New Zealand producer First Light. He describes the thin white striations through the meat as “white snowflakes falling through a red sky.” Thin, even marbling of intramuscular fat, no lumps.

Locally, Ottolenghi pointed us in the direction of chef Robert Moore at Jean Georges Steak in Aria, and Michael Wolf, executive chef at Serendipity 3 at Caesars Palace. Both serve Wagyu, though in very different capacities.

Moore relies on Wagyu from Australia, something he never would have considered before Japan shut its cows in. “The [Australian] government always has a certain amount of space per head,” Moore says. “They double that space, so that the cattle have more room to move. They don’t just feed it the corn kernel, they feed it the whole stalk.

“The rest is pretty secretive. But they do have Japanese Kobe cattlemen down there raising the beef on the ranch, and Japanese government officials overseeing their feeding process as well as their grading system to ensure that their beef program is really good. Ten years ago if somebody came to my back door with Australian beef, I’d say get the hell out of here, you’re wasting my time.”

At Serendipity 3 I get over my über-meat slider ennui, and commit to trying the Wagyu sliders. Chef Wolf assures me these will be well worth my transgression. “If you have a Wagyu tartare, would that be better than prime tartare?” he asks me. I sheepishly concur. “OK, so if we can agree on that, we can agree that the burger tastes better as well, right?” One bite into the perfectly medium-rare slider and my misconceptions melt away with the fat on my tongue.

Now that we know what we’re eating and why, back to the central question of what to call it.

Shane Lindsay of Cabassi has been in the Wagyu beef business for 17 years, and has worked on Japanese Wagyu ranches while he went to school at Hiroshima University, so he’s probably the foremost expert on what this beef should be called. While it is true that wa means “Japanese” and gyu means “cattle” or “beef,” Lindsay argues that Wagyu is indeed a specific breed of cattle.

“It’s a breed, there’s a breed association that manages the evolution of that breed, it has a history for that breed. That is, to me, irrefutable that Wagyu is a breed; it is not just any cattle born in Japan. And it doesn’t exclude any cattle that are not born in Japan. Cattle of a certain heritage, that have a certain gene pool are Wagyu whether they’re born in the U.S. or Scotland or Australia or China. They are Wagyu.”

Although the USDA allows vendors to use the phrase “American-style Kobe beef,” Lindsay prefers that Wagyu should be the name of choice to describe the top of the beef chain. “Wagyu is the only one that is acceptable. If there was anything else, we’d just be making it up.”