Expensive tastes

Written by Dilip Bobb | Updated: Nov 25 2012, 07:30am hrs
What's the most expensive meal you have ever eaten Till a decade ago, the most expensive restaurant in India used to be the Zodiac Grill at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai. Back then, the bill per person averaged R3,000, an eyebrow-raising amount for a meal in those days, and that was without any accompanying wine. Today, dinner at the same venue is closer to R8,000 and no one bats an eye, never mind raising a brow. If you order the beluga caviar, just that one dish is priced at R9,500. Taxes are one reason restaurant prices are reaching stratospheric levels but now we have a new marker: the celebrity tag, either a famous restaurant abroad or a famous chef, usually both.

The same Taj Hotel now has Wasabi, in Mumbai and Delhi, made famous in America by legendary chef Masaharu Morimito (the restaurant is called Wasabi by Morimito). The chef's tasting menu includes nine courses that feature oysters, foie gras, black cod miso and seared teriyaki Kobe steak imported from Japan and costs R16,500 plus taxes. The Wagyu steak here is worth the R6,000 price tag but all this is sans alcohol. You might need a stiff one after the bill arrives, though. The Taj also uses its celebrity chefs to up the dining ante. They have a Chef's Studio in their iconic Mumbai property overseen by Hemant Oberoi, one of India's reigning celebrity chefs. It offers a private dining area by appointment only and a table for eight where the food is served on Versace designed Rosenthal dinnerware surrounded by Ercuis cutlery, Riedel wine goblets and Limoges porcelain. You watch your food on giant plasma screens as its being prepared and the nine course meal, which includes Wagyu steak as well as truffles and caviar and an experience of molecular gastronomy, will come to anything between R60,000 to R1 lakh depending on what you order by way of dishes or from the very exclusive, and expensive, wine list.

The Leela in Delhi has taken it to another level with their opening of Le Cirque, the legendary New York French restaurant, among the most expensive in Manhattan. The Delhi franchise has that in common along with some signature dishes from the original. A five course meal here with a glass of wine, will deplete your bank account by a cool R13,000 or so. Such extremes of food luxury and the presence of restaurants like Le Cirque are in line with international trends where restaurants are cashing on on their Michelin stars and the celebrity status of their chefs to make a mockery of the global economic downturn.

At four of the most celebrated restaurants in the world, an average meal with their signature dishes would be the equivalent of R25,000 or more. At Nobu, in Copenhagen, voted the best restaurant in the world, the average cost per person including a glass of wine, is listed at R25,500. There is some debate about which restaurant comes in second, the Fat Duck, located in Bray, England, or El Bulli, the Spanish sensation located in Catalonia (now closed till 2014). Both excel at molecular gastronomy, a marriage of science and art. At Fat Duck, if you are lucky enough to get a reservation, expect to pay the equal of R20,000 for the degustation menu, an array of small dishes, while at El Bulli, where you could wait a year for a table, the 40-course degustation menu costs the same. The most expensive restaurant right now is another celebrated eatery, the French Laundry in California's Napa Valley where the average bill for a meal would be $900 (R50,000).

Yet, for most, these restaurants are the pinnacle of the culinary arts, and well worth the price. This is superfine dining and the chefs get as much pleasure out of preparing their extraordinary fare than diners get from eating there. At Noma, it takes longer to prepare a single ingredient of a single dish than it does to eat the entire meal and only 25 diners are served at one sitting. This is gastronomic nirvana and no one can start to count pennies when that is the ultimate objective.

Having said that, and eaten at all the Indian restaurants mentioned, here's the flip side. The best meal I ever had was on a cruise in Scotland. We docked on a remote island just as local fishermen were returning with their catch. We bought some lobsters, still alive, and the captain of the boat, who doubled as cook, messed about in the tiny galley with all the ingredients he had on board and produced the most divine dish. He labeled it Drunken Lobster', which had nothing to do with the dollops of white wine he had added. There were four of us and the total cost was the equivalent of R110 per head. Go figure.

The writer is Group Editor, Special Projects & Features, The Indian Express