“One night I’d rolled in like a drug dealer, hundreds of dollars stuffed in my pocket because I knew the Pines didn’t take credit cards…To settle the check at the end of a long, slow night, I needed about $100 more than I had brought. I knew from the Web site that there was an A.T.M. in the restaurant. It was broken.”
NYT critic Pete Wells pens a brilliant note about the ignominies of expensive cash-only restaurants. The Pines, alas, now takes Visa and Mastercard. But no American Express. Let’s hope the no Amex policy changes soon. If you’re going to charge Manhattan prices, you have to take Manhattan currency, baby.

Pete Wells on Why Restaurants Can Be More Important Than Post Offices4

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells makes a profound point about the importance of restaurants and fundraising in our post-Hurricane Sandy New York. Here’s what he has to say: 

  • A good restaurant can be more important to its neighborhood than the post office. I suspect that’s why so many people have been donating to the many fund-raising sites set up by flooded restaurants. I can’t think of many for-profit businesses that people would pay to subsidize without getting a direct return on their investment. But if the place where families go to celebrate birthdays just disappears one day, it can leave a big hole in the community.” 

What Wells is saying reminds me of the way society, particularly the wealthy, subsidizes artists. Whether through foundation-supported grants, or direct gifts from high-net worth individuals, artists depend on our support to do what they do. And I’m not just talking about buying their paintings or photos; I also mean simply giving them money, without the expectation of something immediate or tangible in return, because we know that doing so will let the artist continue his or her lifestyle, and hopefully make our world a better place. 

Sometimes, members of the culinary cognoscenti tend to think of restaurants in very transactional terms; just look at my blog, The Price Hike, dedicated to tracking the minute (and sometimes not-so-minute) price changes at restaurants across the U.S. You really don’t get more transactional than that, and I’m okay with that, because, well, that’s what I do, and we only have so much money to spend! 

But the reason this quote by Mr. Wells strikes a cord with me is because he’s encouraging us to contemplate the joy of restaurants in terms that transcend “I pay $58 for a steak and I get twenty-two ounces of USDA Prime in return,” or even, “I’m donating $500 to this GoFundMe account and hopefully the restaurant will give me a signed cookbook as a present.”

This quote is about restaurants not just as businesses but as community centers, places that make us happy for reasons we can’t necessarily put a finger on, and sometimes it’s hard to put a quantifiable price on that.  

“As opera, dance, theater, film and journalism strive and sometimes struggle to adapt to the decreasing attention spans (and tight disposable incomes) of Twitter-addicted millenials like myself, it’s heartwarming that the culinary arts are having a boom of sorts in their expensive, long-form incarnations.”

That’s me, Price Hike Editor & Bloomberg Food Critic Ryan Sutton, responding to a fine piece by Pete Wells that largely laments the recent proliferation of expensive tasting menu-only restaurants.

Wells sees a bit of an epidemic in this trend. I argue that it’s just another wrinkle, and sometimes a positive wrinkle, in our increasingly diverse culinary world. Agree/Disagree? Let us know in the comments. 

Is There an Epidemic of Tasting Menu-Only Restaurants? Not Necessarily.

  • Across the country, expensive tasting-menu-only restaurants are spreading like an epidemic…A high-end anomaly a few years ago, three- or four-hour menus now look like the future of fine dining.

So writes New York Times food critic Pete Wells in his largely skeptical take on tasting menu-only restaurants, an odd, albeit interesting world where meals last over three hours, where bread courses are dictatorially delayed until mid-meal, and where dining rooms are filled by “big game hunters,” eager to spend a thousand dollars per couple for the privilege of feasting at a trophy establishment. Instagrams of the now-closed El Bulli must be the ultimate taxidermy, non?

Smart eaters will read the NYT piece in its entirety because it’s a fine lament on an expensive & idiosyncratic slice of modern gastronomy.

But what I focus on here at The Price Hike are prices, and it’s Mr. Wells’ statement about this “epidemic” of expensive tasting menus that piques my interest, as well as another one of his musings: “I can’t feel good about watching great restaurants that were already serving an elite audience taking themselves further out of reach.”

The NYT critic raises good questions. As much as I love American Omakase spots like Alinea, Blanca and Brooklyn Fare, committing the necessary financial resources toward a pricey tasting (or dealing with the subsequent gastro-intestinal distress) isn’t exactly my regular brand of bourbon.

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The Menu Doctor: Brushstroke’s $329 Menu

Eater’s Manhattan field office reports that New York Times Food Critic Pete Wells might be filing on Brushstroke in the near future. Whether that’s the case or not, I’m a BIG FAN of this excellent restaurant; I awarded three stars in my Bloomberg News column last year.

During my review process, I didn’t notice any supplemental charges, wagyu or otherwise, on the $135 menu, with the exception of a $15 rice tariff during a later meal (I believe that was on the $85 menu). But over the past few months, I’ve noticed that Brushstroke now gives diners the opportunity to experience a bit more luxury for (alas) a bit more money. Currently, the $135 menu can go up to $255 with supplements (or $329 after tax and tip). Here are the current upcharges:

  • Chef’s sashimi selection: $26
  • Yuzu Perfumed Akamutsu (Grilled Rosy Seabass): $38
  • Oregon Wagyu Strip: $28
  • Golden Crab and Lobster Claw Rice Pot: $28

Is Brushstroke still a buy at $135? Or $255? Your call, word. In the meantime, we look forward to the prospect of a New York Times review. Stay tuned.

“YOU know a movie is in trouble when a voice-over narrator has to explain the plot that the combined efforts of screenwriter, director and editor failed to make clear. Something like that is going on at Eleven Madison Park, which just eliminated its $125 prix fixe option and now offers only one menu, a $195 blowout that lasts about four hours.”

The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells argues that the stories and “homilies” at the (weeks-old) Eleven Madison Park 3.0 is undermining the fine cooking of Daniel Humm.

We at The Price Hike believe that any dish with multiple components deserves a proper explanation, just as a nice painting has a little placard next to it, offering novice and advanced viewers alike with some much needed context. That said, no diner ever wants a didactic experience, at any price point. 

We’ll report back on EMP 3.0 in the near future. Meanwhile, check out the fine column by Mr. Wells, or read our own musings on the higher entry-level price point, here and here

The High-End White Versus The Low-End White

Michael White is one of America’s best Italian chefs, so it was surprising when he opened one of the most disappointing New York pizzerias in quite some time. I awarded one star to the Wiscopolitan Nicoletta in my Bloomberg News review today, while Pete Wells of The New York Times dropped a zero-star goose egg. TONY’s Jay Cheshes, in turn, handed out two-stars, relatively negative by his standards.

To help soften the blow, The Eater People brought back their “critical cats" feature. Those kittens are so cute! 

Of course, we like to focus on prices here at The Price Hike, so it’s worth nothing that Nicoletta isn’t just White’s most poorly-reviewed restaurant. It’s also his cheapest, with pies ranging from $16-$22.

Economic woes notwithstanding, this critic has preferred White’s more ambitious options. Here are my reviews of his pricier spots:

  • Convivio: Three Stars ($59 set menu, now-closed)
  • Marea: Four Stars ($97 for four courses)
  • Ai Fiori: Three Stars (menus at $89, $125). 

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“[Mission Chiense] could almost certainly charge twice as much as it does on Orchard Street, where currently the most expensive dish is $15 and where four people can eat like pashas for less than $100. The prices (like those at Pok Pok Ny, in Brooklyn, opened by another out-of-towner) should give some proprietors of other loud, cramped, chaotic local restaurants a shiver of guilt, and cause them to glance nervously over their shoulders. Charging fine-dining prices in a dive may bring you gold, but it won’t buy you a stairway to heaven.”
Pete Wells contemplates the prices at Mission Chinese in his two-star New York Times review of the restaurant. A few weeks ago, in an interview with Chef Danny Bowien, we at The Price Hike also wondered out loud whether Mission was undercharging for its spicy fare. For further reading, consider checking out the Bloomberg News review of Mission Chinese by Ryan Sutton (that’s me!). 

Jungsik Gives Up Pricey Prix-Fixe-Only Dining

 

Jungsik, the high-end Korean restaurant in Tribeca’s old Chanterelle space, has kept its word and now offers a la carte dining. Previously, guests were required to choose from a prix-fixe menu that ranged from $80 for three courses to $115 for five courses. Dishes on the new a la carte menu range from $12-$42, per Jungsik’s website

The longer 10-course tasting, a recent addition to the Jungsik experience, remains in place, though that menu is now $155, a $5 hike from the previous price point. The tasting is available with wine pairings for $260, or $335 after tax & 20% tip. Recall that Tribeca’s Atera offers a 20-course tasting menu of excellent, avant-garde Oregon food for $150, or $240 with wine. Things are getting pricey down near the Financial District! 

Yes, Jungsik is still New York’s most expensive Korean establishment, but the addition of the a la carte option makes the venue entirely more accessible. If you order five courses under the new scheme, which previously cost $115, you might spend as little as $93 or as much as $113. That’s right folks. It’s a PRICE DROP.

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