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Manhattan Dining in the New Gilded Age

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One of my idiosyncratic pleasures are NYT restaurant reviews where the most interesting news is the price quotes. The classic of the genre is Frank Bruni’s review of Cipriani, which is apparently the Olive Garden for particularly clueless plutocrats. (“Regulars accept and revel in this, or have bit by bit deluded themselves into believing that the $36.95 spaghetti with tomato and basil has something special to recommend it. (Trust me: it doesn’t.)” The detail that a $37 plate of spaghetti and tomato sauce gets a “.95” price, like an electronics superstore, is outstanding.) We have another key entry in the genre, as Pete Wells has reviewed Masayoshi Takayama’s new restaurant:

Now three months old, Kappo Masa is not the most expensive restaurant in New York. That distinction belongs to Mr. Takayama’s home base, Masa, in the Time Warner Center. (Price of dinner for one before tax, tip and drinks: $450.) Still, it is expensive in a way that’s hard to forget either during or after the meal. The cost of eating at Kappo Masa is so brutally, illogically, relentlessly high, and so out of proportion to any pleasure you may get, that large numbers start to seem like uninvited and poorly behaved guests at the table.

Price of a maki roll of chopped fatty tuna wrapped in rice with caviar piled on each of the eight pieces: $240. I could never bring myself to order it, or two dishes filigreed with white truffles: the fried rice with mushrooms ($120) or the Ohmi beef tataki ($150). So I can’t tell you how any of them taste, but I can tell you that by the time I spotted something for less than $80, it struck me as a steal.

But if you’re eating at a place where fried rice costs 120 bucks, you’re at least guaranteed high quality, right?

In fact, Mr. Takayama charges similar prices across town at Bar Masa. But the food and service allow Bar Masa to pass for an à la carte version of Masa itself. Kappo Masa is nowhere near as good. The raw ingredients may well be the same, but they are often handled carelessly, seasoned indifferently and served inattentively.

Price of bland, watery cauliflower florets with maitake mushrooms that were grilled over far too much heat so their insides were raw and woody while their exteriors was burned to a char that peeled off in blackened flakes: $28. [!]

Price of yellowtail collar left on the grill until it lost the silky, puddinglike richness that is the whole point of this cut: $28.

Price of noodles extruded from ground shrimp, a gluten-free invention of Mr. Takayama’s, sloshing around in a greasy pond of way too much melted butter and not enough of the serrano chiles that may have given the dish a little spark: $24.

But hey, at least you know what you’re getting into, right?

Menu price for cress with wasabi dressing: $18.

Amount I paid: $38, making this the first restaurant where I have actually looked over the check before paying and missed a $20 overcharge for a salad. I hadn’t been drinking that night, either. If I had, I might have become even more numbed to gouging.

The conclusion:

And yet if you are one of those people who suspects that Manhattan is being remade as a private playground for millionaires who either don’t mind spending hundreds of dollars for mediocrity or simply can’t tell the difference, Kappo Masa is not going to convince you that you’re wrong.

Every gilded age will have its people willing to take advantage of the suckers, new money and old money alike.

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