Rob McFarland finds you don't need a second mortgage to afford New York's most expensive restaurants.
IN OCTOBER The New York Times awarded Thomas Keller's Per Se restaurant its highest accolade of four stars, saying, "no restaurant in New York City does a better job than Per Se of making personal and revelatory the process of spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars on food and drink".
I'm here to tell you a secret. You don't have to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars to eat at Per Se. Or at many of New York's other top restaurants for that matter.
Several of the city's best eateries have a bar menu or a more affordable offshoot where you can get a taste of the chef's culinary genius without the hard-to-swallow price tag. Here are some of the best.
Per Se's standard nine-course chef's tasting menu will relieve you of $US295 ($275) or $US400 with matching wines. It's a culinary tour de force, serving up Keller's inspirational cuisine with a side dish of mesmerising Columbus Circle views.
What many people don't know - and which isn't even mentioned on the restaurant's website - is that adjacent to the main dining room is a separate area called the salon, where you can order a la carte from the very same menu.
The salon doesn't accept reservations but you can drop in and leave your number for when a table comes available.
It only seats 25 with five tables of four lining the wall and five seats at the bar.
Sure, you don't get to enjoy the same panoramic views as the main dining room but you do benefit from the same flawless service and outstanding cuisine.
The chef's menu changes daily but in general appetisers range from $US25 to $US40, mains $US30-$US45 and desserts $US10-$US15. There are still opportunities to splurge such as the $US125 100-day dry-aged American wagyu but if you choose wisely you can enjoy three courses of Keller's award-winning cooking for $US70. And the best bit? Service is included.
Highlights on the day I dined included a gateaux of duck foie gras followed by a deliciously plump Novia Scotia lobster in butter.
By American standards the portions aren't huge but after three courses I was pleasantly full, as opposed to the stretcher-me-home feeling that can so often follow a tasting menu.
For an even more affordable option, nip downstairs and you'll find Keller's Bouchon Bakery, a modern, buzzy, French-style cafe where the breads, pastries and delectable macaroons all come from Per Se's pastry kitchen. A three-course lunch here will set you back a wallet-warming $US24.95.
Time Warner Centre, Columbus Circle; perseny.com; bouchonbakery.com.
Together with Per Se, Daniel Boulud's eponymous Upper East Side flagship restaurant is one of only six Manhattan restaurants to hold The New York Times's coveted four-star rating.
The three-course prix fixe menu costs $US108 ($US168 with matching wines) or there's an eight-course tasting menu for $US220 ($US350 with paired wines). If those prices seem steep, it's worth knowing you can settle back in the restaurant's less formal bar and lounge area and order a la carte.
With appetisers in the $US38-$US51 range and mains from $US57 to $US75, it's still not exactly a bargain but it does mean you can say you've sampled some of Boulud's three-Michelin-star cuisine.
Personally, I'd recommend sitting at the bar and watching the world go by with one of the restaurant's trademark elderflower-infused White Cosmos ($US19). The night I dined P. Diddy and a mystery blonde were ushered in by a cavalcade of Men in Black-style bouncers.
As you head downtown, Boulud's eateries become more informal and affordable.
The French-inspired DB Bistro Moderne near Times Square has a great three-course pre-theatre menu for $US45 or you can't go wrong with its decadent DB Burger ($US32), a sirloin burger filled with braised short ribs, foie gras and black truffle.
Make it down to the Bowery and you'll find Boulud's entry-level DBGB Kitchen and Bar. This lively, open-plan restaurant provides a great value three-course lunch for $US27, which allows you to sample one of the 14 varieties of house-made sausages.
Go a la carte and you'll find a bewildering array of salads, soups, sausages and seafood as well as my favourite Boulud burger, the aptly named Piggie ($US19), which comprises a beef patty smothered in a heavenly mixture of pulled pork and jalapeno mayonnaise.
Daniel, 60 East 65th Street; DB Bistro Moderne, 55 West 44th Street; DBGB Kitchen and Bar, 299 Bowery; danielnyc.com.
Masa takes pride of place in New York culinary folklore as the city's most expensive restaurant.
There is no menu; you simply eat whatever chef Masayoshi Takayama and his team decide to prepare. Oh and you'll pay $US450 for the privilege (not including sake). According to The New York Times, the food is "exceptional, offering tastes and preparations that can be unforgettable". It declares Masa "the city's greatest sushi restaurant".
But what if you'd rather spend $US450 on a new TV? Don't despair, simply pop next door.
Bar Masa is Masa's more affordable offshoot, offering many of the same dishes for a fraction of the cost.
Bar Masa doesn't take reservations but when I turned up at 7:30pm on a Thursday there were still plenty of tables available. The narrow restaurant seats 26 in a long line of tables against the wall or you can sit at the bar, where the counter is an impressive single piece of polished wood.
The menu can be a little overwhelming with pages of sushi, sashimi, soups and salads that fall mostly in the $US14-$US40 range. I'd recommend consulting one of the well-informed servers to help you make a selection.
We kicked off with a couple of Masa's signature cocktails: the deliciously spicy ginger shiso mojito, made with rum, muddled ginger and shiso leaf, and the dangerously moreish lychee nigori, comprising lychee-infused vodka, sake and St Germain.
What followed was a procession of the lightest, most delicious Japanese food I've ever tasted. Beautifully sweet Kegani hairy crab garnished with chrysanthemum petals; Nakaochi blue fin tuna scraped fresh off the bone and lightly seasoned with wasabi and soy sauce; spicy "dancing" shrimp served with a feisty jalapeno dipping sauce.
Even the less extravagant dishes - the soba salad with figs and the salmon and avocado sushi rolls - were simply outstanding.
The biggest challenge you'll face at Bar Masa is not ordering the entire menu. In which case, you may as well dine next door.
Time Warner Centre, Columbus Circle; masanyc.com.
The writer was a guest of Per Se, Daniel and Bar Masa.