Low-Ball Luxury

Low-Ball Luxury

STARBUCKS MAY HAVE SINGLE-HANDEDLY created the affordable luxury category when it introduced better coffee at premium prices. The chain's growth depends on the premise that people at all income levels like to treat themselves. What's a little latte, even when the economy is stumbling? By now, your guests have been conditioned to celebrating in small ways. Low-cost items satisfy their cravings; they

STARBUCKS MAY HAVE SINGLE-HANDEDLY created the affordable luxury category when it introduced better coffee at premium prices. The chain's growth depends on the premise that people at all income levels like to treat themselves. What's a little latte, even when the economy is stumbling?

By now, your guests have been conditioned to celebrating in small ways. Low-cost items satisfy their cravings; they also provide an entry point for younger guests who are on a budget but want to trade up or try out a new place. Bottom line: If you aren't offering at least a taste of something special with a high perceived value, you're leaving money on the table. The ideas we've collected here may inspire you.

Luxury ingredients aren't necessarily costly.

At Nick's Cove in Marshall, an hour north of San Francisco, Roasted Marrow Bones are served with a roasted tomato confit, pine nuts and crostini. For $13, guests can enjoy the rich flavor of marrow and the simply prepared dish incorporates something many kitchens discard.

Revival Bar+Kitchen in nearby Berkeley also serves bone marrow — with quince butter, Belgian endive and toasted baguette, for $10. “There are few foods quite as uniquely satisfying as marrow from the bone,” says manager Dan Mayer. Because Revival has a whole-animal program, Mayer says the restaurant also offers house-made charcuterie plates — “from four to eight varieties, all of them utterly luxurious and delectable” — for as little as $6.

Denver's Luca d'Italia has been showcasing pork products on its Prosecco Saturdays. For $25, guests get a short lesson in charcuterie, bottomless Prosecco and three courses of pig-sourced food that they are unlikely to find elsewhere, such as chocolate blood pudding and house-rendered lard shortbread.

“Right now, everything pork is hugely popular,” says chef Hunter Pritchett. “We're finding, though, that our most demanding clients want more than a shoulder or loin. They're looking to be educated about the animal in general. And when they eat, they'd like to see demonstrations of our ability and, hopefully, our artistry as chefs — bringing, say the familiarity of a butter cookie up just a notch to a treat we made from lard rendered in house. And the Prosecco — well that's just a beautiful way to spend a Saturday afternoon.”

Prix fixe menus provide a small taste of luxury at an attractive price.

Vincent's, an Escondido, CA, French spot, offers a Trois et Trois early bird menu — three days, three courses, three choices — for $30 on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Among the choices are Roasted Duck Breast over Flageolet Ragout with Sage Au Jus, Blackened Prime Rib-Eye with Roquefort Sauce and Smoked Salmon and Watercress Salad.

Patina in L.A. lures value-conscious Angelenos with $59 Market Menus that showcase the best of the season. A recent selection included a seasonal garden salad, Butternut Squash Ravioli, Slowly Cooked Ling Cod and Green Apple and Coconut Battera; for a $15 supplement, diners could try two artisanal cheeses.

The B.O.B. in Grand Rapids, MI, packages a three-course meal with stand-up comedians as part of its Friday Night Live promotion. Packages range from $19 to $35; the most expensive includes selections such as Morel Chowder, a 14-ounce New York Strip Steak and Cinnamon Ginger Beignets.

Bar food is a great place to showcase quality in small doses.

Morton's The Steakhouse has a Bar Bites menu that includes a healthy selection of small plates with high-value ingredients. Choices, which start at $6, include Mini Crab Cake BLTs, Smoked Salmon Pizza and Petite Filet Mignon Sandwiches.

On the small plates “smorgasbord” menu at Trillium in Denver, where entrees can top $30, are a $7 lobster terrine, Maple Sugar-Cured Rainbow Trout and Truffled Tater Tots.

A number of L.A. spots have raised the bar on traditional sports bar fare. Mezza serves Braised Moroccan Chicken Wings with Picholine olives and Golden Raisins. A takeout menu at the Deli at Little Dom's features jumbo baguette sandwiches in varieties such as Sicilian tuna, prosciutto and mozzarella and truffled chicken salad. Monsieur Marcel sells a caviar cheese spread.

Duck, lamb and lobster roll sliders, duck fat-laced mashed potatoes and truffle mac and cheese are among selections on the menu at two Bounce Sporting Club locations in New York City.

Wine drinkers like deals, too.

Pensiero Ristorante in Evanston, IL, knocks a third off bottles on Tuesdays. The discount applies to any choice under $100. “It has proven very successful and we have attracted a group of Tuesdays regulars who come in and explore our award-winning wine list,” says g.m. Marcello Cancelli. “We have definitely seen an increase of business that night and a consequent rise in wine sales. It helps when you have quality wines to sell.”

“I have a Groth Cabernet on my menu that I offer at $79, which is $20-$30 below what it usually costs in a restaurant,” says Steve McDonagh, owner of Chicago's Hearty Restaurant. “I do it because I love the wine and it's an incentive for those in the know. I have guests who come in for dinner because they can have a super bargain on the bottle. It's kind of a hidden treat on my menu.”

Small bites, small price tags.

Just a taste of luxury is enough sometimes. At Chicago's C-House, for example, the “Candy Bar” dessert menu features $2 tasting portions of house-made confections. The nine daily varieties include choices like pate de fruit, a milk chocolate caramel bar or a pumpkin-spice “Rollo.”
For $13, guests at Vie in Chicago can enjoy a taste of peekytoe crab in a creamy golden beet soup. The crab is used as a garnish, along with house-cured olives, pickled artichokes, tarragon and lots of butter. “I would consider this an affordable indulgence due to the fact not much crab is used, so it can have a lower price,” says chef de cuisine Nathan Sears. “The delicate sweetness of the beets and the brininess of the olives combined with the great artichoke flavor really accents and heightens the crab flavor so it can carry through the soup.”

The Southern Mac & Cheese Store, a food truck and retail operation in Chicago, sticks to a simple format: gourmet mac and cheese at affordable prices. Truffle white cheddar, duck and foie gras varieties provide a taste of luxury.

Speaking of foie gras, The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland sells a memorable foie gras and clams dish for $6. “We make foie gras butter and steam open manilla clams in a broth made of bruleed onion, house-made vinegar and the foie butter,” explains Jennifer Plank, sous chef. “The clams lend their juices beautifully to the meaty and rich flavor of the foie. It's a great play on surf and turf, and for $6 you cannot go wrong.”

For many, exotic equals luxury.

Your guests want something new and unique, whether it's ingredients or preparations. According to a recent Technomic study, “current market forces are making craveability and culinary expertise increasingly relevant to consumers, many of whom say they are more interested in experiencing new flavors as they dine out.”

Hot chocolate? Ho-hum. Barcelona Hot Chocolate using cocoa imported from Spain served with fresh vanilla bean whipped cream? Heaven, for visitors to Angel Food Bakery in Chicago.

Relax a little.

Upscale chefs have learned to diversify, which explains the explosion of burger, pizza and sandwich spots and food trucks backed by big names. Wolfgang Puck has developed a range of brands and products that he likens to Armani's fashion empire: haute couture (Spago and Cut), ready-to-wear (Wolfgang Puck Express and Wolfgang Puck Bistro) and mass market retail (grocery items). Now he is focusing on airport travelers, who want better-quality food.

Sage Restaurant Group recent launched Bodega #5 in Chicago, a way to piggyback on the popularity of the pricier Mercat a la Planxa. Located below Mercat, nothing on the lunch menu at Bodega tops $5.
Eddie Lakin, owner of Edzo's Burger Shop in Evanston, IL, has won fans among Northwestern University students and foodies by selling simple food with indulgent touches: dry-aged Angus beef burgers, white truffle-parmesan fries, gingerbread milkshakes. “Our philosophy is to make great food and charge reasonable prices and allow word of mouth to circulate.”