Lavo, a Midtown bro-deo famous for its "F*ck the Hamptons Bikini Brunches," is a very specific kind of Italian-American nightclub and restaurant. The venue's YouTube channel features videos of deep-fried Oreos, garlic bread, and underdressed women, who occasionally chug Champagne, and when, appropriate, spit it out. But what really raises the eyebrows of all the crack economists crunching numbers at Suttonomics Central is Lavo's "Kobe beef" program.
Real Kobe comes from Wagyu cattle raised in the namesake Japanese city. The steers' pristine genetics and lavish lifestyle (i.e. feedings of beer mash) produce meat with such obscene, spiderlike marbling, it often looks closer to toro or fatback than a typical steak.
This all makes for very expensive beef. A proper 16-ounce cut of high-grade Kobe strip can easily run $160. Lavo, in turn, serves $17 Kobe rice balls, $22 Kobe meatballs, $25 Kobe carpaccio , $35 Kobe spaghetti with meatballs and, occasionally, $60 Australian Wagyu rib-eyes.
"Is that Australian steak the same type of Kobe that you make the meatballs out of," I asked our waiter.
"No, the Australian steak isn't Kobe," she replied. "Kobe has to be from Japan."
Right on. So where do you get your Kobe meatballs from?
That about sums up the Lavo experience. And as the charts below will show, the meatballs and carpaccio are among New York's most expensive versions of those dishes.
But are Lavo's Kobe preparations worth it? Is this the type of place like Carbone where one can enjoy humble Italian-American dishes at top-tier prices? To help answer that question, I invited fellow Eater critic Robert Sietsema to join me for dinner. The next day, we talked about it over gchat. Voila:
Sietsema: First off, how do we really know it was Kobe beef and not random Wagyu? That is, beef that was raised in the Hyogo Prefecture?
Sutton: We don't. And our waiter couldn't confirm where it's from. Should a regular patron have to call up the PR agency and fact check? But even if it is from Japan, the true origin of this beef is less important than how it's advertised, which is to say as something purportedly fancy to make you spend more money. And the origin is also less important than how it's prepared -- incorrectly.
Sietsema: And why would one want to put said beef in a rice ball all ground up? It was fun that we cherry-picked all the Kobe dishes off the menu and tried them in sequence. I thought the carpaccio was quite good. But you're right, the question that lingers is WHY serve it like this?
Sutton: Indeed — is taking a cut that's purportedly so soft and marbled and textured and then grinding it up, and covering it in soft rice and frying it, is that how you best show off Kobe? The rice balls, incidentally, were $17.
Sutton: Yes, they were tasty, but they were also a lot pricier than at an Italian-American deli. Obviously, you're paying for "real estate" and "the experience" here at Lavo, but still, were the arancini that much better than cheaper versions?
Sietsema: They were very small for rice balls, though I didn't hate them. Still it was impossible to tell the wad of meat inside wasn't from, say, Western Beef, rather than Japan. Grease and salt are the twin gods of that dish. With a little jizz of ricotta on top.
Sutton: Well that's the thing; It's hard to hate any of the food at LAVO. It mostly tastes good. It plays to our fat/salt/sugar receptors brilliantly, but so does McDonald's.
Sietsema: Indeed, sir.
Sutton: So let's talk about the $25 carpaccio. It was arguably the best of the preparations, despite its flaws. As it showed off the unctuous umami nature of the cut. One big problem was that it was under-seasoned. It needed salt to make it pop.
Sietsema: I like how the little (bad) cheese wafer modestly covered the arugula. I've tasted that baby arugula many times before. Undressed, it's made to be discarded.
Sutton: The cheese wafer almost ruined the dish — expensive Kobe contrasted with chewy/stale parmesan wafer.
Sietsema: The dressing on the arugula was the kind of detail a far better restaurant would not have forgotten.
Sutton: The arugula was a throwaway too, yes. And that's no small matter. Even if the Kobe is good, which it was in the case of the carpaccio, the care in the cooking (or plating) isn't sufficient enough to show it off properly. And that brings us to a larger point — even though we don't have to sit in silence, Indian-style, in a Buddhist temple, to contemplate the beauty of Kobe, would we really want to order such a majestic style of beef at Lavo, with all the clubby music (at 7:30 p.m.), and with all the crappy wine by the glass service (no pre-purchase tastes, no bottle presentation).
Sietsema: No that's not a good pairing, so to speak.
Sutton: It's more Kobe as a marketing device, a way to justify the prices, rather than using Kobe to elevate the dish. And that brings us to the $34 meatballs with spaghetti. What did you think?
Sietsema: Yikes! $34 was about twice as much as that not-very-large dish was worth. Look at the way moisture is weeping around the base of the pasta. That shouldn't happen. Though as you point out, the pasta was perfectly cooked, made with good dried pasta, as it should be.
Sutton: Pasta was A+. Salted, and firm.
Sietsema: The supposed Kobe adds less than nothing to the dish. It creates expectations the recipe can never fulfill.
Sutton: The point of a meatball is to take leftover meat and extend it with breadcrumbs, and milk, and cheese. Kobe is so fatty and delicious it doesn't need moisturizers or extenders, which is why it shouldn't be in a meatball in the first place. The ball was spongy, with no exterior char.
Sietsema: I thought meatballs were good. But the supposed Kobe added nothing to the preparation, or as Elvis Costello says, "Less Than Zero." And you have to be dumb enough to believe Kobe and Italian American food have some sort of confluence. Or just be eating Kobe to say "I'm eating Kobe."
Sutton: There is no confluence. It is Kobe as a global luxury good, like an Hermes hand bag. Though buying this particular Kobe feels more like buying an Hermes hand bag from one of those shady dudes on a street corner in Times Square. It is the impression of being fancy, rather the reality of it.
Sietsema: Yes, why not make the meatballs out of Florentine beef, or the kind of Italian beef peddled at Eataly. At least that makes some sort of geographic sense. Or maybe not, since this is fundamentally Italian-American fare. Retrofitted with some modern Italian attitude.
Sutton: Every culture has the right to serve expensive food. Sometimes the effort at luxury is indigenous, like Astrid y Gaston in Peru. And sometimes it's international. I like what Carbone is doing, using high-end global ingredients like Scottish langoustines for scampi, but that intrinsically works, because they show off the product on the plate. Here at Lavo; they hide the product. They mask the Kobe.
Sietsema: Then again, go to, say, Bamonte's, and you won't find the spaghetti al dente, like it is here.
Sutton: Fair point. But let's talk about the steak now. What did you think? Worth the $60, which is about the same price as the strip at Minetta.
Sietsema: Definitely not. It had an odd texture. Don't you think?
Sutton: Very odd indeed. The outside was charred well, but there was sinew. Yes, I had to keep removing gristly bites from my mouth. And not all of the luxurious intramuscular fat was rendered out.
Sietsema: It was like a greasy marshmallow inside. No tooth to speak of, except for that piece at the end. There were perhaps two good bites.
Sutton: Good Wagyu from America or Australia has a hint of chew, but then it collapses in the mouth in a beefy bliss. This showed little sign of the tenderness that either dry-aged steak or Wagyu normally has, with the exception of a few lucky bites.
Sietsema: This was actually softer inside than it should be, like steak for the toothless.
Sutton: Well for me, I found the texture softer inside for certain bites, others took excess mastication. The texture was inconsistent.
Sietsema: It was also a rather thin piece of meat. Not the luxury you might hope for in a $60 steak.
Sutton: And while those lucky few bites had a gorgeous beefiness...Most of the steak was one note, like any old commodity beef
Sietsema: It was at the end of the meal that the place really drops its pants. Our deep-fried Oreo zeppole was so trashy. I felt like I was at the Texas state fair. And, you know what the best thing of the meal was?
Sutton: The garlic bread.
Sietsema: You hit the nail on the head.
Sutton: Nothing wrong with deep fried Oreo zeppoles (which were actually nice and gooey and delicious I thought) or garlic bread of course, but what are they doing on the same menu as Kobe?
Sietsema: The garlic bread is real Italian American cooking, and arguably the only "authentic" thing we ate. And when I asked for more, it was readily provided.
Sutton: Agreed — and while my review meals at Lavo were pretty terrible, a few years back, I'd like to think if they took the Kobe off the menu, Lavo wouldn't be the worst place to eat. Because it would be a sign they weren't trying to rip people off, a sign they're not commodifying luxury, selling it for cheaper than it normally is because it's not as good as it usually is.
Sietsema: We are neglecting one factor. Price!
Sutton: Yes. $300 for two after tax and tip for two appetizers, two entrees, one side, one dessert and two drinks each — including two terrible cocktails.
Sietsema: The price point is way too high, Kobe or no Kobe.
Sutton: Cheap for Kobe, but expensive for mediocre food.
Sietsema: I'll take Bamonte's or Frost any day of the year.
Sutton: I'd take Carbone, which would cost as much — A place with more of a personality, instead of a place where at lest one waitress wore a form fitting white shirt with perhaps one too many buttons undone.
Sietsema: The place is a factory. An expensive factory.