For those who like their steaks rare—or ultrarare—a beef even more precious than Kobe is now on the menu at Wynn.
Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture is home to the strictest beef grading rules on earth, standards that make the USDA scale of Choice, Select, and Prime seem amateurish by comparison. Inspectors grade each animal on five different variables, the most crucial one being the beef marbling standard. The Japanese are obsessed with marbling, and when Canadian food writer Mark Schatzker visited the country for a chapter in his book Steak, he described a quality cut as “So fatty that ‘meat’ may no longer be the correct term for it… beef ornamented with wisps of fat that looked like crochet work, a pervasive filigree that reached into every nook of red muscle.”
That is why beef from Japan is so prized worldwide, and in Hyogo they take this very seriously, because it’s the only place on earth where real Kobe beef can originate. Kobe is the most famous and expensive steak on earth. But because the name was never afforded trademark protection in the US, it is widely misused in restaurants, and an estimated 99 percent or more of all beef sold as Kobe in this country is not Kobe at all, or even Japanese. So little is exported that the Kobe Beef Association licenses individual restaurants and hotels to receive it. In the entire United States, only three such licenses have been granted: to restaurants in New York, Hawaii, and Las Vegas, where it is held by Wynn. But the exotic and varied nature of Wynn’s beef program doesn’t start and end with Kobe. From domestic hybrids to a breed even more elusive than Kobe, the Wynn beef repertoire is gaining international renown.
“At SW and Mizumi, they have real Kobe, which is very rare,” says Joseph Elevado, Executive Chef at Andrea’s in Encore. From Kusunoki Farm in Kumamoto Prefecture, Andrea’s carries high-end Japanese wagyu rated A5, the highest score the country awards. All real Japanese wagyu beef is scarce in the US, but other regional meats are available in far greater supply than Kobe.
“We all know a USDA Prime New York strip— that’s the benchmark,” says David Walzog, Executive Chef at SW Steakhouse, which has a huge variety of beef options. Prime is the highest grade that American beef can receive, awarded to less than 2 percent of all meat produced in this country and typically available only to top-tier steakhouses. All the regular domestic steaks served at SW are Prime. “If you consider that steak to be a 10 in terms of marbling, beef flavor, and ‘steakiness,’ then something like the Snake River Farms domestic wagyu we offer would be a 13, with more mouthfeel, richness, and layered fat. In comparison, Kobe, Ohmi, or the A5 wagyu would be around 18 to 20.” Considering that Prime is already a very high standard, that’s a quantum leap—and the reason that dedicated red-meat lovers are making special trips to Wynn and Encore to sample all the myriad offerings.
Almost all high-level Japanese beef comes from purebred black wagyu (which means cattle) and has similar taste, texture, and appearance. But like wine, Japanese beef is highly regionalized, with some places more famous for quality, especially Kobe, Ohmi, and Matsusaka. “They are the holy trinity of Japanese beef,” says Walzog, “the most prestigious, and we carry two of the three: Kobe and Ohmi. The Ohmi has the most characteristic beef texture. It’s still very silky, soft on the palate, and much richer than American beef, but the Kobe has more fat dominance.” SW also carries a third regional Japanese wagyu, from Ideue Farm in Kagoshima Prefecture, with more balanced fat content.
Wagyu cattle have been exported for breeding in other countries, especially Australia and the United States, but they are often crossbred with less expensive and more productive cattle to increase yields and reduce costs. Because the greater amount of fat in Japanese beef needs to be rendered by cooking, most chefs don’t like to use it raw, so Australian wagyu is the choice for the signature beef carpaccio at The Country Club—A New American Steakhouse. “The carpaccio has been on the menu since the very first day—along with the corn chowder, it’s a staple of this place,” explains Executive Chef Rene Lenger. “When I eat Kobe, I want it to be at least medium rare. The Australian wagyu is a crossbreed so it has less marbling, and the flavor comes through better when cold.”
Several of the restaurants at Wynn offer domestic wagyu beef from Snake River Farms, which Elevado explains is from wagyu heifers crossed with Angus bulls, called “Wangus” in the beef industry. “The marbling is much better than Prime, but not as much as in Japanese beef,” he says. While everyone agrees that imported Japanese wagyu is distinctive and recognizable, not everyone thinks it’s the best, and some diners find it too fatty, like eating butter. All the chefs interviewed recommend consuming it in much smaller portions, no more than four to six ounces per person. Elevado suggests that wagyu novices try the domestic version first, as a stepping-stone to the intensely fatty Japanese beef. Many visitors try a sampler of Kobe, Ohmi, and Ideue at SW, Kusunoki and Snake River at Andrea’s, or Kobe and Hokkaido Snow Beef at Mizumi.
The latest addition to the Wynn family of exotic steaks, Snow Beef is even rarer than Kobe. It is produced by just one farmer, on the cold, snowy island of Hokkaido, the northernmost in Japan, known for its skiing and its long winter. “They call this farmer the ‘wagyu meister,’ and he has devoted his entire life to raising them,” says Devin Hashimoto, Executive Chef at Mizumi. “Because it’s so cold and they use corn as feed, you get this uniquely sweet taste from the beef. He only slaughters four head a month: One stays on Hokkaido, one goes to a restaurant in Singapore, one gets split between two places in Seattle and San Francisco, and one comes here. During Golden Week, we have a lot of Japanese guests come in, and we had people from Tokyo and Kyoto who don’t get up to Hokkaido telling us that they had to come to Las Vegas to finally try it for the first time.”
Imported and domestic wagyu are not the only choices for beef lovers at Wynn. All the restaurants still do a brisk business in USDA Prime beef, often dry-aged, which concentrates and elevates the flavor, with SW serving classics like a dry-aged tomahawk chop, a 44-ounce porterhouse for two, and a rare double rib eye. To offer yet another taste profile, Walzog recently added a grass-fed natural domestic steak from a boutique Oregon farm. Slightly leaner than traditional grain-fed domestic beef, with a fat ratio closer to that of wild salmon, grass-fed is the standard in the world’s largest beef-consuming nations, Argentina and Uruguay, and is becoming increasingly popular in this country. The Country Club also offers grass-fed steaks alongside grain-fed, but Chef Lenger is more excited about bison. “We try to source more natural ingredients—we use organic fish and we have the grass-fed beef,” he says. “We get the bison from Colorado. It’s 100 percent natural, and we work with just four or five ranches. It is very good meat, and you can use it for steaks, chops, or burgers, but if you’re a little health-conscious, it has less calories and cholesterol. We have the rib eye now, and I want to add tenderloin and a bison burger to the menu.”
According to Walzog, a lot of guests who eat at SW are inspired to try more beef dishes at the other restaurants as well. “People love all the choices, and they’re going crazy for the dynamic of the varied offerings,” he says. “And because we’re one of only three registered users of the Kobe Beef Association in the US, they feel comfortable indulging, because here they know what they’re getting.”