Grass-fed Wagyu that tastes like corn-fed USDA Prime

March 16, 2011

 
Grass-fed Wagyu flat iron steak and burger from Pilot Brands in New Zealand (photo: Steve Dolinsky)

While I was attending the Terroir Symposium in Toronto earlier this month, I met Mark Schatzker, the author of Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef. Earlier that day, he had led a tasting of several cuts of beef, one of which was a grass-fed wagyu from New Zealand. I missed the session (since I was presenting at the same time) but later that night, he introduced me to his friend from Pilot Brands, a New Zealand-based company that raises and markets beef, lamb, goat and venison. I was intrigued by the idea of a wagyu breed that was strictly grass-fed, and yet maintained higher levels of "good" monounsaturated fats.

A quick refresher: Wagyu is a breed from Japan that is genetically prone to have more intramuscular fat, but is NOT raised in the legendary Kobe prefecture, so it can therefore not be called Kobe. One of the biggest scams in the U.S. these days is when domestically-raised wagyu is passed off as Kobe; kind of like selling California sparkling wine and calling it Champagne.


Raw, marinated Wagyu (notice the marbling) from Pilot Brands beef in New Zealand (photo: Steve Dolinsky)

So yesterday, I had lunch at La Sardine, across the street from Harpo Studios, where chef and owner Jean-Claude Poilevey is considering carrying the grass-fed Wagyu on his menu. Typically, the Wagyu I've had in the past has been either corn/grain-fed or "finished," (grass-fed at the beginning, but then corn-fed the last few weeks of its life, before processing, which defeats the purpose of grass-feeding in the first place). The corn/grain contributes to the fatty marbling in the beef, but isn't so good from a health perspective (cows, by nature, are ruminants, and are designed to digest grass; feeding them corn makes them unnaturally fatty, but also makes them more prone to illness, which usually requires antibiotics). By feeding and finishing the cows strictly on grass, the animals don't need any antibiotics and maintain those healthier fats. My skepticism stemmed from past experience - in Canada and Europe - where, despite the best efforts of raising animals on a strictly grass diet, the resulting beef was too lean, and therefore, more often than not, a tougher chew (see: Tallgrass Beef's strip steaks). On the other hand, most of the corn-fed wagyu I've seen produced in Wyoming or Texas is just too fatty - slice into the side of a cut and all you see is a curtain of white fat. The best thing these heavily-marbled cuts are for would be a small, one or two-ounce portion, quickly grilled on a hot stone or hibachi, then eaten Korean-style with lettuce and other vegetables. The fat tastes great on the way down, but you usually pay for it later. Consuming more than eight ounces in a sitting is just overkill.


Grilling Wagyu burger (foreground) and flat iron steak at La Sardine (photo: Steve Dolinsky)

At La Sardine, Poilevey both grilled and sauteed the six to eight-ounce steaks. Before they hit the heat, you could easily see more marbling, but if they were to be graded by the USDA, they would most likely be classified as Choice, rather than the fattier Prime. That didn't matter one bit. Once cooked to medium rare, the steaks presented beautifully, with very little shrinkage, and had a great beefy flavor, without being overwhelmed by fat. They also prepared a flat iron steak (from near the shoulder blade), which didn't look all that great raw, but cooked up perfectly medium rare; they also had a burger they were messing around with, and if Poilevey decides to put it on his menu, it will be among the best tasting/healthy burgers in town: juicy, just enough beef-to-fat ratio and very meaty tasting. I preferred the grilled to the sauteed steaks, and even though they kicked up a fair amount of flame - thanks to the quick-melting fat from within the steak - they had a wonderful, deep, beefy flavor and didn't engulf the steak in flames like the super-fatty corn-fed Wagyus usually do. There was not as much intramuscular fat as you'd see in the typical Flintstone-sized cuts from Gibson's or Gene & Georgetti's, but honestly, they didn't need it. These steaks had just enough fat, and knowing that they were all-natural, 100% grass-fed and finished, made them taste that much better.


Grilled (left) and sauteed (right) grass-fed Wagyu, topped with marrow (photo: Steve Dolinsky)

Postscript: two hours after I ate them, back at the office, I felt great, rather than bloated and obscenely full.