Bova Prime is one of the busiest restaurants on Las Olas in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Chic, modern, cylindrical chandeliers loom over a two-story dining room that is paneled in long white curtains. The menu lists three items that, to devotees of fine food, might seem inexpensive: a $38 Kobe skirt steak caprese with tomato, mozzarella, and arugula; a $14 Kobe meatballs "polpette," with Parmesan brodo, Tuscan kale, and cannellini beans; and the $21 Kobe beef trio burgers with fontina, grilled onions, house-cut fries, and pickle chips.
The problem is that the meat isn't what's advertised. It's not Kobe — the product of cattle raised in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan that in some cases drink beer and receive sake massages. Its listing on the menu is an apparent violation of federal standards and state law.
"I wasn't aware of that," says Jeff Shulman, Bova Prime's manager. Shulman said changing the menu is the owner's call, but he said diners should be able to figure out what they're really getting anyway. "Anyone would know that a $14 meatball is not Japanese Kobe."
Several South Florida restaurants include the same type of misleading information on their menus. And scores of customers every day pay top dollar thinking they're ingesting the world's most precious meat.
The list of offending eateries in Broward and Palm Beach counties includes upscale and casual, local and national chains. There's Truluck's, Max's Grille, China Grill, and two spots at the Breakers, Tapestry Bar and the Flagler Steakhouse. In Miami, there's 8 oz. Burger Bar, Au Pied de Cochon, Bancroft Supper Club, China Grill, Gordon Biersch, Prime 112, Meat Market, and Plat Bleu at the Delano.
Contacted by New Times, representatives of each of these places admitted to serving high-quality American or Australian beef from similar cattle even when the item was listed as Kobe beef on the menu.
Indeed, the issue repeats in cities across the nation. Though the federal government has known of the trend for almost a decade, not much has been done.
"It's basically become a free-for-all," says Charles Gaskins, spokesman for the American Wagyu Association, a Washington state-based industry group with more than 250 members. "We're aware of the guidelines, but people do what they want... Some of them use the term Kobe in their farm names."
Kobe refers to beef from the black Tajima breed of Wagyu cattle, which are raised in Japan under strict ministry of agriculture oversight. Wagyu have a genetic predisposition toward heavy fat marbling in the muscle. Prime cuts such as filet, rib eye, and strip loin are distributed the world over, prized for their rich flavor and tender, velvety texture.
Of course, Kobe is expensive, and an ounce sells for $16 to $30, according to Anshu Pathak, owner of Kobe Beef Inc., a leading online purveyor.
American and Australian farmers have tried to come up with a cheaper product. Since the 1970s, American farmers have imported Wagyu cattle and cross-bred them with domestic Angus. The meat is darker, with less marbling and a bolder flavor and texture. American Wagyu costs $4 to $10 per ounce, depending on the cut.
This beef began to gain popularity between 2001 and 2004, when Japanese meat imports into the United States were temporarily banned during the mad cow scare. Now Wagyu is relatively widespread.
At Truluck's in Boca Raton, chef David Nelson blames his suppliers for the menu items labeled "Kobe beef slider" ($13) and "stuffed Kobe bacon burger with king crab and Boursain cheese" ($16), which he admits use an American product from Snake River Farms in Idaho. "We're a corporate restaurant. Notations on the menu come down from the corporate chef," Nelson says. "It's also the meat purveyor's responsibility to send the product we specify."
Chef/owner Sean Brasel of high-end steak house Meat Market on Lincoln Road in Miami lists a genuine Kobe item in a menu section called "Reserve Cuts." The "six-ounce Japanese A5 Kobe tenderloin" goes for $95. Then there's the meat labeled "Kobe skirt steak" ($31) and "white truffle Kobe tartare" ($21), which come from Snake River Farms in Idaho, not Japan.
Brasel explains that listing the real provenance of the skirt steak would be "redundant." "Customers know [those items] are not Japanese Kobe because of the price. In the other section with more expensive cuts, I specify."
Not all chefs understand they are misrepresenting products. Chef Patrick Broadhead of Max's Grille in Boca Raton serves a $22 "giant Kobe beef meatball" with pasta. "We get it from a number of vendors, and it says Australian Wagyu on my invoices. I was not aware it was misrepresentation to use the word Kobe or that there was a law requiring country of origin," he says. "If I were to put Wagyu beef on the menu, no one would buy it. So I have to dumb it down."
Executive chef Maria Manso at the Delano in Miami Beach says her Plat Bleu menu offers "Kobe beef sliders" for $28 and then reveals they are American Wagyu. "The menu labeling comes from corporate," she explains. "We leave it up to the servers, who are well-trained to explain where it comes from if a customer has an issue or a question. There's no reason to change it." Calls for comment from owner/operator China Grill Management were not returned.
It's perhaps more understandable that casual-dining establishments would mislabel their victuals. Take Chattanooga, Tennessee-based Gordon Biersch, which has locations in 17 states and Taiwan. The "Kobe sliders" ($10.95), popular at its Brickell Avenue outpost, are American Wagyu. To meet demand, corporate executive chef Bill Heckler also recently introduced a $13.95 "German Kobe burger," using the same beef, on his Oktoberfest menu.
Heckler says he will update the Gordon Biersch menu nationwide in January to accurately denote the provenance of the meat. He emphasizes that the company trains servers to answer customers' questions about the product. He believes the majority of diners don't know the difference. "To my knowledge, use of the word Kobe was an acceptable marketing term," Heckler explains. "I recently had a situation with my rep where I specifically ordered Kobe beef from Japan and got American Wagyu instead. I wasn't happy."
Neighborhood burger joint 8 oz. Burger Bar in South Beach offers $7 "mini Kobe corn dogs," also from Snake River Farms. Contacted by New Times, owner Eric Fried said he would immediately update the menu to include the word American.
"I was not aware that I was misrepresenting the product," Fried explains. "It certainly wasn't our intent to mislead customers. It's common sense, because I'm not charging Japanese prices."
Ann Margo Peart, public relations manager at the Breakers, says the Palm Beach resort didn't know the menu needed to specify the origin of Kobe beef. "If that is the position taken by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation," Peart wrote in an email, "then we will immediately cease use of the term Kobe Beef."
Of course, blame doesn't lie with the restaurants alone. Inspectors, who regularly visit them, have done little to fix the problem. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service became aware of the issue almost a decade ago, explains spokeswoman Bridgette Keefe. In 2005, the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service launched a Certified Kobe Beef Program. It set guidelines for the Japanese product's representation in the American marketplace. States use these standards to build their food regulations.
In Florida, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) is charged with enforcing a 52-year-old state law that forbids misrepresenting food. The law is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 per violation. In extreme cases, prosecutors could charge restaurant owners with a second-degree misdemeanor, which could mean a fine of up to $500 and up to 60 days in jail.
The department's 186 inspectors conduct twice-yearly reviews of each of the state's roughly 45,000 restaurants. Yet there hasn't been a single violation in the past three years for mislabeled Kobe beef, says Jennifer Meale, DBPR's communications director. By contrast, the department issued at least 33 violations in August alone for mislabeling of foods such as grouper, snapper, and crab.
The reason no one has been fined or criminally charged, says Meale, is that there have been no complaints in regard to Kobe beef. "It is important that consumers partner with the department to make us aware of any possible cases of misrepresentation," she says. "We encourage consumers to file complaints by visiting myfloridalicense.com."
Bova Prime also sells the real thing. It's "imported Japanese, grade A5 Kobe steak" and goes for $30 per ounce. The place can even present you with a certificate of authenticity. After logging on to a website, you can trace the biography of your dinner, including birth date, gender, parentage, breed, farm, and slaughterhouse.
"We have a glossary of product terms on the left-hand side of the menu," Shulman reassures.