Saturday, July 7, 2007

Kobe Club NY

By now I am sure that you have heard about the brouhaha that erupted back in February when restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow took out a full page ad, at considerable expense, in the NY Times to lambaste the Old Grey Lady on the credentials of her food writers. The ad was the result of the NY Times critic Frank Bruni failing to give Chodorow's new venture, Kobe Club NY, any stars at all.

Chodorow recently summarized the situation from his perspective in Zagat online stating "Really, there were only two points. One was, let's just be honest about your credentials. And number two is, just understand that when you criticize a restaurant, it really hurts the people who work at the restaurant."

As far as my credentials go I am just an amateur food blogger, but I have, over the course of the last seven years, eaten more steak than many people will eat in a lifetime, probably 3-4 per week on average. I am a very regular client at Peter Luger, Wolfgang's, Smith and Wollensky and Keens, as well as having dined at almost all of the big name chophouses in NYC. In short I feel that I know steak quite well, and unlike a professional critic I actually pay my own way.

I think the latter comment that Chodorow makes about bad reviews is completely spurious. The point of a newspaper or magazine review is to serve the reader, not the restaurant in question nor even the restaurant business as a whole. And how are the people that work at a restaurant, who serve you and cook your food, "innocent bystanders" in a bad review as he claims in his original missive in the Times? In my experience it is usually precisely the fault of the staff when a restaurant gets a bad review. With all that out of the way, and I hope that I have provided enough qualifiers for what is to come, if not for Mr. Chodorow then at least for you the reader lets get on with the review.

Given Chodorow's claim in his NY Times advertorial that Kobe Club "is booming" I expected a packed house and a lengthy wait at the bar despite my reservation. Indeed when the restaurant called to reconfirm the reservation that I had already confirmed that morning I thought that the place must really be over booked. In fact when I arrived at 7.30PM on a Friday evening the Kobe Club was virtually empty with only three tables occupied, by the time I left a couple of hours later only four tables where seated. If this was your average steakhouse I would say that it would be closed within a month. There is simply no way that a restaurant can survive, let alone thrive when it is this empty on a Friday night, not in NYC. However, this is not an average steakhouse and given the potential high cost of a meal here, the very deep pockets of the owners, not to mention the substantial intellectual defense of the establishment mounted by Mr. Chodorow himself, I can see this place remaining open for a while, driven by pride and ego alone.

If there has been one thing that most reviews agree about Kobe Club it is that the room is fairly ugly. I am in complete agreement, the decor is tacky and ostentatious, a completely over the top amalgam of quasi Asian themes with a bizarre leather sheen. Many reviews have eluded to a certain Marquis de Sade aesthetic but I don't see it, there is nothing dangerous or edgy here, the swords are securely bound to the ceiling and the fireplace is just a plasma screen, the only seriously dangerous thing here are the prices. It is almost as if the goal was to design a space that is purposefully unpleasant to dine in, perhaps as a way to lessen the shock of the inevitably high bill. I am sure that hanging Samurai swords, indeed pointing them at your guests, violates all sorts Samurai traditions but you soon realize that aside from the Kobe steak itself and sprinkling of a few Asian ingredients into normal steakhouse fare there is not much in the way of genuine cultural understanding. This is more an adult theme park than the serious gastronomical exploration the restaurants name implies.

In perhaps the tackiest move of all the steaks come festooned with little paper toothpick flags denoting the steers country of origin. Frankly at these prices you would think that the restaurant could come up with a better way of differentiating the steaks, ironically no matter what flag you get the fine print running up the side is the same, they read "Made In China." Another major annoyance was the blaring music, a mixture of contemporary and classic rock hits playing way too loudly in an empty room full of Samurai swords results in cacophony. Loud music in restaurants is a pet peeve of mine, I see no reason for music at all let alone concert level volume.

The decor, both visual and aural aside, things got off to a good start gastronomically with a delightful amuse bouche in the form of a sliver of Kobe Beef hot dog in a blanket served with some tangy mustard. It was a simple touch but it indicates that the restaurant does not take itself as seriously as the stark interior would lead one to believe. Similarly the fried Malpeque oyster with creamed spinach & lobster béarnaise sauce appetizer was excellent, the plump, crisp oyster lavishly enveloped by the velvety sauce and topped with caviar was a steal at only $16 for four. I should also note that the sides are reasonably priced, a credible creamed spinach cost only $7 as did a rather disappointing hash brown with carmalized onion. The latter had that slightly stale character as if it had been prepared too far ahead of time and reheated, doubtless the result of a virtually empty restaurant. There are more upmarket sides such as hash browns with lobster, chorizo & crème fraîche or lobster & black truffle whipped potatoes and even these only go for only $10 and $12 respectively. But my past experience with Wagyu is that the beef is so rich and complex that it is best to keep things simple.

And what of the beef? It is after all the raison d'etre for Kobe Club. I avoided both American and Australian varieties, frankly I want the real deal. Kobe is like Champagne, it can only come from one place. The genes of Wagyu are as closely guarded as those lush white grapes from Northern France. I agree with Chodorow when he states that the last thing NYC needs is another traditional steakhouse. For this reason I stayed away from the American Prime on offer. With little indication of its aging process and pedigree I felt no need to sample something that I felt could be better handled by any of half a dozen traditional steakhouses in NYC. I am sure the beef at Kobe Club is dry aged but the menu does not mention it. In any event I was here for the Wagyu and thus ordered a 4oz strip for $110, and a 10oz rib eye at $240. The waiter suggested the Samurai flight, a trio of Japanese filet, strip and rib eye for $395 but I declined. I don't eat filet mignon unless it is attached to a portehouse at Luger's, Keen's or Wolfgangs's and even then I try to pawn it of on my dining partner, I was thus reluctant to order one that cost $115.

Both steaks came with sauces, a horrific wasabi & shiso béarnaise and some other forgettable concoction. Why anyone would put anything on a $240 steak is beyond me and frankly Kobe Club should have enough faith in their clients and their beef to offer their steaks a la carte because both the strip and the rib eye were outstanding. Cooked perfectly medium rare as ordered with a nice char on the outside, both steaks were succulent and brimming with flavor. The rib eye in particular was incredibly marbled with thick veins of fat running through the entire cut. Thankfully the steak was served whole, not sliced as is often the case with Wagyu. The rib eye was not ultimately the equal of Cut by Wolfgang Puck in LA but is was very close. Cut's rib eye was almost pure fat where as the rib eye at Kobe Club had a more recognizable beef structure. Never the less it was a truly excellent, melt in your mouth luxury experience, but at $240 it had better be. The strip was also excellent, deeply marbled, although to a lesser degree than the rib eye, it had a hearty beefy flavor, sort of a mid point between a traditional American prime steak and the the Wagyu rib eye; but with more tenderness and succulence than the former. Again an excellent choice but again at its high price it should be.

Rib eye on left, strip on right.

While I abhorred the sauces served with the steak the trio of unique salts from France, Hawaii and the Himalayas that also accompanied the beef were interesting and provided a sense of luxury. I should note that the service was very good, although I suppose this is easy to manage in an empty restaurant. I wish I could report that the meal ended on a high note but unfortunately the desert, a sickeningly cute Baked Alaska beehive and chocolate bee suffered from the same stale syndrome that affected the hash browns, it tasted as if it had spent too much time in the walk-in. Too bad because over all the food was a of a high standard and the steak fantastic.

A disappointing end to another wise good meal

I have eaten at traditional steakhouses, Italian steakhouses, Japansese steakhouses and chef driven steakhouses but Kobe Club may be the first ego driven steakhouse I have eaten at. Given the controversy surrounding the Times review I expect this place to remain open for a while, even if my experience is indicative of the type of volume they are doing. Perhaps the economics change substantially enough when you serve $200+ steaks that you don't need to completely fill your restaurant or perhaps I was there on an off night. In the final analysis the steak at Kobe Club is outstanding but for what it costs it seems impossible for it not to be so. As for the rest of the meal, aside from a few missteps it was of a generally high caliber. Unfortunately the decor is so ugly and the music so loud that it is disconcerting to dine there, and ultimately for a meal that cost almost $600 for two people with a bottle of wine everything should be outstanding, at Kobe Club only a few things are.

Kobe Club NY
68 W 58th St
New York, NY 10019
(212) 644-5623