Being a food critic isn’t necessarily a dangerous job, but professional eaters do encounter some hazards. Excess poundage, for one. Unexpected food allergies, for another. (How was I to know that stewed chicken feet would make me break out in a rash?) Food poisoning, while rare, is never pleasant.
And then there’s choking, something that had never happened to me until last week, while eating at a local restaurant. Our party of seven had just received appetizers all around, and the dining companion on my left put one of her beef medallions on my bread plate. I was conversing with the gentleman to my right, and as I finished my portion of the exchange, I forked the bite-sized medallion into my mouth and began to chew. And chew. On he chatted, on I chewed. The meat was as tough as shoe leather, and I was not making much progress. He asked me a question and waited for a reply. Not wanting to talk with food in my mouth, I had to make a decision. Spit or swallow? Swallowing seemed the appropriate thing to do.
Good manners, yes. Good sense? As it turned out, no. The piece of meat lodged somewhere in the back of my throat. I tried to swallow and could not. I tried again but could not. The man I was speaking with looked at me rather oddly. I tried to speak but could not. I also could not breathe, and it began to dawn on me that I was in trouble. My companion handed me a glass of water and said “drink.”
As it turned out, that was not a good idea. With a piece of food lodged in your passageway, there is nowhere for the water to go. So back out of my throat the water came, into the napkin I had over my mouth. I was beginning to feel lightheaded. The woman to my left realized what was happening and took charge. “Stand up,” she ordered. “Turn around!” Standing to my rear, she circled her arms around my waist and Heimliched me. It took two tries, but on the second, the piece of meat dislodged and flew into my napkin. My eyes were watering, my knees shaking, but I could breathe again. Mandy Barnett is not only beautiful, brilliant and a hell of a singer, she saved my life, and I am forever in her debt.
So here is my advice: When in doubt, spit it out. And learn how to perform the Heimlich maneuver. It’s not difficult, and it works.
As I was struggling for breath, my life didn’t exactly pass in front of my eyes, but I was struck by the irony of the potential obituary: Kay West, food critic, chokes to death on tough beef. I had another fleeting thought: This would never have happened if the meat were Kobe beef, the exceptionally fine grade of meat that was recently added to the menus at Sunset Grill and Midtown Cafe.
Randy Rayburn, owner of Sunset Grill and Midtown Cafe, did not become one of Nashville’s most successful restaurateurs by luck or accident. The man is always thinking, trying to figure out not how to maintain, but how to improve. Over the last few years, he has become increasingly irked at the national steakhouses who’ve opened restaurants in town. “They are not doing better food,” he says. “They are just doing bigger food. I’m not going to fight that battle, but I can be better.”
At the Chicago Restaurant Show this past May, he came across the booth for Snake River Farms, a family-owned business in Boise, Idaho. He sampled some of their product, American Kobe beef. “It was the best piece of beef I have ever eaten,” he says. The company’s client list included the top restaurants in the U.S.Bellagio, Tru, Daniel, to name-drop a few. “Eureka!” thought Rayburn, “I’ve found it!”
The history of Kobe beef, named for the area of Japan where the cattle are raised, goes back to the second century A.D., when the Wagyu breed was brought from the Asian mainland to the Kobe region of Japan. Over hundreds of cattle generations, the Wagyu’s genetics were refined, focusing on the quality of the eating experience, and today, Wagyu cattle are world-famous for their marbling, tenderness and flavor.
Nearly 10 years ago, Snake River Farms flew a small herd of Wagyu cattle to the U.S. from Japan and began crossbreeding its Wagyu bulls with premium American Black Angus to create American Kobe beef. (Japanese Wagyu bulls are most often crossed with dairy cattle.) The Snake River cattle are cared for in small herds in quality living space. They enjoy a varied diet of barley, golden wheat and alfalfa, and are fed a minimum of 350 days; they’re free of hormones and antibiotic residue.
Though many cuts are available to purchase, Sunset executive chef Brian Uhl began with the tenderloin, adding a 5-ounce filet to the specials menu. At Midtown, chef Jimmy Phillips added the 5-ounce and an 8-ounce filet to his nightly dinner menu. In addition, Sunset offers a Kobe hamburger at lunch and dinner.
According to Uhl, the Kobe beef should be cooked between medium rare and medium. Cooked too rare, the special fat in the steak won’t be heated enough to be effective; cooked to more than medium, the fat will be cooked off and the filet will be dry. “If someone wants well-done meat, we tell them to get the Black Angus Prime,” Uhl says.
As a tutorial conducted by Phillips in the Midtown kitchen demonstrates, it is the exceptional marblingachieved when finely textured flecks of fat punctuate the lean red musclethat creates American Kobe beef’s flavor and tenderness. Although it has a higher percentage of marbling, this beef has about half the saturated fat of ordinary American beef. Even the smell of the uncooked meat is different than prime, the highest grade of American beef, mostly because Snake River cattle are not fed any animal by-products.
At Midtown, Phillips seasons the filets with salt and pepper, then grills them. He says he considered plating the meat with a side of an Asian bent, but instead decided on roasted fingerling potatoes and root vegetables. “The beef has an earthy flavor that I think is complemented by these vegetables, which we finish by sautéing briefly with some of the rendered fat from the beef cut. For greens, I do sautéed spinach, but I am thinking of switching out to kale. The steak is served with a caramelized shallot-sherry demi-glace.”
The flavor of the beef, taken right off the grill and tested with no sauce or sides, is remarkablefull, a little bit sweet and incredibly juicy. As notable as the flavor is the texture. This steak can be cut with the side of a fork, and if allowed to sit on the tongue, it seems to melt away, leaving behind a delectable aftertaste.
The price of these filets might also leave an aftertaste$39.95 for the 5-ounce, $69.95 for the 8-ouncethough it doesn’t appear to be bothering Kobe devotees. “The other night, we had a party of eight come in, and every one of them ordered the 8-ounce filet,” says Phillips. “They came in just for the Kobe.”