The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece titled “In Defense of the $75 Appetizer.” The appetizer in question is offered at the illustrious Le Bernadin, and consists of layers of steak tartare, langoustine tartare and osetra caviar, garnished with homemade potato chips (sounds like a bargain, to tell the truth). Actually, the dish carries a $45 supplement to the $125 prix fixe menu, but would work out to $75 if ordered a la carte.
Interestingly, the piece was written by Charles Passy, who used to review restaurants for a local newspaper and now lives in New York. I suspect that Charles is suffering from sticker shock induced by looking at Manhattan menus on a regular basis, and by the fact that he’s no longer a food critic and has to eat out on his own dime. He quoted a commentator on Gawker who observed that there were only three types of people who could afford to eat at places like Le Bernadin—the rich, food critics, and other chefs who run restaurants that cater to the rich. Sadly, this is right on target, but Charles still seemed to think the price was justified by the quality of the dish and the creativity of its conception.
Do you think $75 is a lot of money for an appetizer? Think again. In 1977, in Paris, I dined at Lasserre, one of the three-star Michelin palaces at the time (it still garners two Michelin stars). As a starter, I had a whole black truffle roughly the size of an egg, wrapped in puff pastry and smothered in a truffle sauce. The cost was $25, which translates to $96.94 in 2012 dollars. At the time I wasn’t rich, or a food critic, or a chef—simply someone acutely aware of his own mortality, and also the need to experience whatever I could when the moment was ripe.
Yes, there are children starving all over the place, including here in America, and $96.94 could temporarily relieve a patch of human suffering if you could figure out how to get the money directly to those in need. The beauty of the $96.94 appetizer, though, goes beyond creating fond memories or having singular experiences. It’s the kind of indulgence you need to have, every so often, to make the rest of life on planet earth worth the effort.