May 9, 2007 - MEET the monster that devoured Le Bernadin.

Maximum-fat Japanese Wagyu, or Kobe, was introduced to the four-star seafood temple by chef/co-owner Eric Ripert last fall, simply because he liked "this amazing product" that had not been available in the U.S. for five years. 

But it's proven so popular at Le Bernardin, it's warping the way customers order and messing with the exalted eatery's economics.

"About 40 percent of our customers ask for it," Ripert says with a laugh that's only 50 percent mirthful. "It's too much. It became, surprisingly enough, a signature dish. 

Enter Kobe beef - a raging bull amidst the delicate likes of flash-pickled scallop slivers and fluke ceviche. The Kobe/escolar "surf 'n' turf" combo chosen by four in 10 diners is one of 12 choices in the third-course, "lightly cooked" category on Le Bernardin's four-course, $107 prix fixe dinner menu. 

There's no Kobe on the $57 prix fixe lunch menu. Ripert says the restaurant's profit margin at lunch is so narrow, he and co-owner Maguy LeCoze can't afford to offer it without charging a supplement - a route they're loath to take. (The $107 dinner is supplement-free except for caviar and lobster.) 

If it's amusing that Kobe beef has stampeded its way into the house, it's less surprising that so many customers ask for it. A 4-ounce cut without an extra charge is a phenomenal relative bargain at one of the city's priciest restaurants. 

Those same 4 ounces would cost $80-$100 if ordered as an entrée most anywhere else. 

And, of all the Japanese Kobe available here, Le Bernardin's is the only one that didn't leave my mouth filled with fatty residue. 

Ripert, a man enamored of fish in all its forms, oddly seems to be the only chef who gets Kobe right. 

"It's such a fatty item that if it's too thick, you're basically eating raw fat in your mouth, and it's unpleasant," he said. "If it's too thin, the beef cannot caramelize, so you don't get the feeling of a juicy piece of meat." 

The Kobe I've had elsewhere has been either carpaccio-thin or hamburger-thick. At Le Bernardin, it's served at a perfect quarter-inch. 

That's thick enough to allow it to be seared for 30-45 seconds on each side, a process that melts just enough outside fat "to leave a crunchy meat feel," Ripert says. "The remaining fat inside is heated to medium-rare, and it gives the impression of something melting." 

Ripert and LeCoze don't know quite how to handle the Kobe craze. For all the trouble it's caused, it's too popular to drop - "but if we sell too many," he said with a chuckle, "we're going to have to reconsider.”