A Cut Above 

Swanky Forbes Mill Steakhouse set out to give customers "the ultimate steak experience," and, well, it succeeded.

The contradictions of luxury foods are acute in America, where education, wealth, and hipness vie to be the primary marker of status and everyone has the credit to pursue his or her class aspirations. With the masses fattening up nicely, the ideal diet for the enlightened has shifted toward the greenest of vegetables and the leanest of meats. Yet the culinary tastemakers who cook for the richest of us lament that skinny is so middlebrow as they poach fish in butter and bake the flakiest pastries with home-rendered lard.

Which leads us to American Kobe beef — or rather "Kobe-style" beef, and to Forbes Mill Steakhouse in Danville, which, to my mind, has just surpassed all its competitors with its luxuriously rich, wallet-siphoning steaks.

Ron Garald, Dean Devincenzi, and Darin Devincenzi, owners of several Marie Callender's franchises and Double D's Sports Grille in Los Gatos, opened the first Forbes Mill Steakhouse in Los Gatos three years ago. From the start, they specialized in Certified Angus Prime and American Kobe steaks, and aimed for what manager Mark Powell calls "the ultimate steak experience." The flagship has done so well that the trio has opened a second location in the Danville Livery, renovating an old Tony Roma's. Thanks to the big bucks they sank into the place, it now whispers — okay, croons — money. Danville's monied are already flowing through the door in twosomes, quartets, and stag parties, so make your reservation a week or two in advance.

The American steakhouse has never been a place to experiment with food trends, and Kobe beef is as close to the culinary fringe as Forbes Mill plans to go. As for appetizers, salads, and desserts, the cooks stick to the classics and execute them solidly. From the shrimp cocktail, plump prawns hanging over the edge of a martini glass filled with cocktail sauce, to a Caesar salad served whole leaf, each inch of romaine smeared with the anchovy-tinged dressing, it's the kind of food you, your mother, and your grandfather can agree on. Chef Brian Weselby splits the entrées between steaks and bistro-style seafood, meat, and chicken dishes — Powell says the halibut is Danville's No. 2 seller. A few of the appetizers I tasted were merely pleasant, such as tender fried calamari whose breaded crust hadn't quite crisped up, or a salad with pears, candied walnuts, blue cheese, and a sugary dressing. Mere quibbles. I was there for the steak, and boy, was it goood.

What makes Forbes Mill an "ultimate steak experience"? Briefly, Certified Angus beef is a designation that promises high-quality beef from Black Angus cattle, and "Prime" is the highest quality designator the USDA awards. The Prime-Choice-Select scale is largely indicative of the marbling of fat amid muscle tissue. The Japanese scale, which American Kobe beef processors use to grade their steaks, measures marbling on a scale from one to twelve. Angus Prime scores a four. Most American Kobe scores five to nine. The $300-a-pound Kobe beef from Japan? That's a twelve, and it reportedly resembles foie gras.

"American Kobe" is a convenient label for beef from wagyu cattle, a Japanese breed that lays in fat the way a pastry chefs folds in butter. According to R.L. Freeborn of Kobe Beef America, US ranchers imported a number of wagyu in the mid-1990s and crossbred them with Angus cattle. The American public didn't catch on until around the turn of the millennium, probably during the low-carb craze when steakhouses and animal fats came back into vogue. These days, you can find Kobe burgers and braised short ribs on high-end menus, always at premium prices. Part of the reason wagyu cattle store so much intermuscular fat is that they grow slowly — hormones don't help, so most wagyu ranchers don't use them — and it takes up to twice as long for the beef to reach the market. Hence the $65 price tag on Forbes Mill's eight-ounce filet mignon.

Even with an expense account, that was too rich for my blood. On the first night, my friend and I observed the scientific method by comparing a Kobe New York strip (then $48) against an Angus Prime New York strip ($28). Both were seared in Forbes Mill's 1,600-degree broiler. Both were served on square white plates with a few spears of crisp broccolini, a braised turnip slice or two, a couple of baby carrots, and perhaps a swirl of reduction sauce. Both arrived a textbook medium-rare — red but not too red in the center, juices flowing each time we cut into them. (Ordering a Kobe steak medium-well is like washing your fur coat with Formula 409 — all the fat melts away, ruining the effect.)

We enjoyed both. The Angus had a slightly grainy texture — but only in comparison to the Kobe — and a stout, earthy flavor. The milder, sweeter Kobe steak almost tasted as if it came from a different species of animal. The texture: fantastic. Every bite was creamy and mellow, as if the beef had been larded with butter. My friend and I both chewed each bite as slowly as possible, ever so slightly overwhelmed.

On my second visit, I tried a juicy Kurobata pork chop, from a breed of hog that, like wagyu cattle, also puts on more fat — heavens be praised — as well as a Kobe "baseball" steak, an inexpensive cut carved out of the top sirloin. It was much richer than the standard baseball steaks I've tried. Compared to the Kobe New York strip, though, the baseball was clearly the basic model. If you're going to splurge, go for the primo cut — just split it with a few friends. Most Japanese diners eat just two ounces of Kobe beef at a sitting. Forbes Mill's New York Strip weighs ten ounces, and after eating half of one I felt like a foie gras. Even our waiter admitted, "I don't know if I could finish a filet mignon by myself. It's pretty rich."

Forbes Mill is masterfully designed to convey casual luxury. It's lit as if it were the last moments of sunlight, low and golden, and the room is wrapped in beiges and rusts, with dozens of windows looking out onto the tree-filled parking lot. The tables are spaced so closely that on busy Friday and Saturday nights, the sound hits cocktail-bar levels. Better to go early or late, because even at two-thirds full the room becomes romantic again.

Although the fleet of glass refillers and silverware placers missed a couple of small details, the lead waiters on both nights were some of the best I've met in months. Friendly, but not jokey, keyed in to the progress of our meal, their smooth, confident presence echoed the tone set by the room. As much as the Kobe beef, they contributed to the feeling I left with of being pampered and plumped, of an evening spent free of petty annoyances or disappointments. The void in my bank account felt like a gift, not a loss — which was perhaps the most luxurious feeling of all.

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