Sometimes, you have to put your wallet where your mouth is.
We all know it: A fine-dining experience is going to come with a fine-dining price. There’s nothing wrong with that. Restaurants are for-profit enterprises, and great food can come at great cost.
How much cost? Looking around menus at some of Charlotte’s finest restaurants turns up a few things that will make you suck in your gut long before dessert:
At BLT Steak, the $51 rib-eye (22 ounces, bone-in) just barely edges out the $50 Sauteed Dover Sole With Soy Caper Brown Butter. Sides are extra, so figure in another $23 if you want a baked potato and creamed spinach. (The restaurant has added a loyalty-rewards program, so you can save a buck or two if you eat there a lot.)
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It isn’t fair, though, to just look at prices without understanding what goes into putting these things on your plate. Restaurant pricing is a fine dance between cost and profit.
At Passion8 Bistro, chef/owner Luca Annunziata says it takes two days to produce just the main ingredient in his $17 appetizer of veal sweetbreads: Trim away the silverskin, soak the sweetbreads in cold water, blanch them in a bath of milk and water, clean them again, then press and chill them. That’s all before they’re sliced and cooked.
They’re served in a dish inspired by veal piccata, so the other ingredients have to be prepared, too: Dehydrated capers, lemon powder, micro-basil and parsley roots, finished with a white wine and mascarpone mousse, most of it from local farms.
Blowing it out with a dish like that, Annunziata says, helps to educate his customers on what they can expect from him: “To trust me and have fun with me, by taking this peasant food and taking it to the next level.”
On the Passion8 entree list, the price-topper is a $37 rib-eye. It’s not just local, grass-fed prime beef, he says.
“The (demiglace) we serve with it is made in-house; it takes two, three days.”
It’s served European style: Order it, and the server will bring your plate of steak and roasted vegetables, then pour the demiglace at tableside so you can anticipate it before you dig in.
“It’s the whole experience when you get that steak dropped in front of you,” he says.
Experience is a part of what you’re paying for, of course. At Bentley’s on 27, chef Marty Heller is always aware that his food has to match the restaurant’s setting, on the 27th floor of the Charlotte Plaza with views above the skyline.
“As soon as they walk in the front door in this restaurant, the guest is starting to get chill bumps. Once they step in, they’re like, ‘Wow, this is unbelievable.’ I have to try to keep up with that ‘wow.’ ”
So, yes, there’s a $35 appetizer (Caviar Oysters, with a half-dozen oysters in their shells floating in Tattinger Brut Rose and topped with creme fraiche and ossetra caviar).
Highest-priced on the Bentley’s menu: The $52 rib-eye, served with Yukon Gold potatoes whipped with 3-year-old cheddar and apple-smoked bacon, grilled jumbo asparagus and a red wine bordelaise sauce that takes three days to make.
“Luxury and wow,” Heller calls it. “You’re not going to get it anywhere else. You’re going to remember it.”
Customers sometimes demand an experience that is going to impress, says chef Greg Zanitsch at the Fig Tree in Elizabeth. Before they make a reservation, some people will call to make sure he has the $42 Elk Chop on Horseradish Spaetzle With Smoked Bacon-Braised Purple Cabbage and Boursin-Dijon Sauce.
It’s so popular, the restaurant sometimes goes through a 16-serving case in a day. It’s grass-fed New Zealand elk, supposedly descended from elk that Teddy Roosevelt sent there as a gift in 1906.
“Getting it to us to get it on the plate – it’s expensive,” he says. But he tried venison and U.S.-raised elk, and they weren’t the same.
“The customers knew I had changed,” he says. “It’s been on the menu now for two years. It wouldn’t bother me to see it go away, but we’d feel the repercussions if we took it off.”
While some women do order it, it’s really popular with male guests, says Zanitsch: “We’re a birthday and anniversary celebration place. So he gets to try something new and it looks like Fred Flintstone.”
If you just can’t bring yourself to shell out more for a single dish than you would for nine weeks of a Charlotte Observer subscription, there are good buys on menus, too.
“I’ve always really loved our chicken dish,” says Zanitsch. “Right now, it’s with apple and pecan risotto.
“It’s a nice dish, you’re not going to go hungry, it’s $26 and you get a salad. And you’re getting half a chicken.”