Jeff Bezos goes to space, Elon Musk scoops up Twitter. Rich people are always looking for new and creative ways to burn cash.
And judging by some of the expensive options on area menus, restaurants seem happy to help them.
Spurred on by a curiosity of how the other half dines, along with my editor’s blessing, I scoured the online menus at the glitziest spots in town for the most expensive items available. Among the top commodities: Steak. Fish. Caviar. Crab cakes. And lobster pasta.
One, by one, I ate them all.
But was any of this high-priced food worth it? It was hard for me to say. (I do live on a journalist’s salary. The intricacies of chicken wings are much more my domain.)
To shed some light on the rarefied world of luxury foods, I reached out to Matthew Fort, a longtime food and drink editor for The Guardian and UK television personality, who has written extensively about caviar and its appeal. Reached by phone in the UK, Fort told me “there’s a tremendous amount of bollocks about various aspects” of gourmet foods.
Fort thinks the high price we pay for these items makes us think they’re more valuable. “If you are told that something is going to be very, very expensive you are inclined to think that it must be worth the money,” he said. Pay a lot for an item that you think tastes bad? Well, “it makes you look like a fool, doesn’t it?”
As a result, he said, “It’s very difficult to keep your sense of judgment” when eating things that are super expensive.
Keep that warning in mind as you read about my adventures eating Baltimore’s priciest items.
Bar One: Lobster tail linguine ($72)
My first stop was to Bar One, a relatively new arrival to the Harbor East waterfront. After arriving, my dining companion and I were directed past the elegant front lounge, where plush couches and primo views are reserved for those paying for bottle service (bottles run from $250 all the way up to $3,600 for Hennessy Paradis). We were seated at a table in the comparatively subdued rear dining room.
We opted for the $72 lobster tail linguine, one of the priciest dishes on the menu. The meal was a master class in comfort food, served with sun-dried tomatoes and broccolini all in a creamy white truffle sauce. Expensive, but a treat.
Papi Cuisine: Double crab cake platter ($70)
Then I headed to South Baltimore’s Papi Cuisine, known for its crab cake egg rolls and basically all things crabby. Inside, the vibe is festive and fun, even during a weekday lunch. (The space was formerly the Hot Dry and Minnow before that). I ordered the $70 double crab cake platter, which includes a choice of two sides, with options that range from macaroni and cheese to tasty kale).
At Papi Cuisine, you get what you pay for: two, 8-ounce monster crab cakes that are perfectly crispy on the outside, moist on the inside, and held together with just a whisper of filler. If you really want to get into the crass economics of it, a single pound of imported jumbo lump crab meat can cost around $50 online. Crabmeat from Maryland can sell for almost $100 per pound. At that rate, 16 ounces of crab cake for $70 sounds like a relative bargain.
Somewhere along the line, both crabs and lobsters went from being working class staples to being some of the most expensive proteins in the land. That’s true of many foods — once the rich get a taste for it, prices run sky high.
Gordon Ramsay Steak: Japanese A5 Wagyu steak ($240)
Yet other foods have always been associated with the elite. Take Wagyu beef, for example. In Japan, eating beef and other meat was essentially forbidden for more than a millennium — until 1872, when the country’s Emperor publicly ate meat to ring in the new year and encouraged others to do the same.
Nowadays, Japanese Wagyu steak is regarded as among the best in the world, and none more so than A5, the highest grade of meat available.
Located inside Horseshoe Casino, Gordon Ramsay Steak offers plenty of high-priced items to separate you from your winnings. After settling into the dimly-lit dining room adorned with larger-than-life glamour shots of the titular celebrity chef, I went for the triple-seared Japanese A5 Wagyu Steak at $40 per ounce, or $240 for a 6-ounce steak. As with most things, the secret ingredient is fat, or, in this case, how uniformly the fat is dispersed throughout the meat. Wagyu is so richly marbled it melts in your mouth like butter.
Azumi: The Royal Platter ($175)
Japan has introduced Western consumers not only to the world’s highest grade steak, but also to the best — and freshest — fish the world has to offer.
Harbor East is the home of some of Baltimore’s priciest restaurants, including Azumi, a Japanese-style sushi restaurant on the ground floor of the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore with a view of the harbor. Here, you can eat like a king with the $175 Royal Platter, which comes with two California rolls, 12 pieces of sushi and 14 pieces of sashimi. You might as well spend the extra $10 for the king crab roll, brought out to the table on fire. (Please: Wait till it stops burning before you eat it.)
Why is sushi so expensive? A lot of it has to do with travel and perishability, according so Sasha Issenberg, author of “The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy.” Getting tuna from the ocean to your plate while it’s still fresh enough to be eaten raw? No small matter: that tuna has to go by airfreight, much pricier than going by ship.
“There’s a whole race against time element with high-end fish, especially tuna, that ultimately gets paid for by the diner,” said Issenberg. And fish prices themselves can vary wildly, too, depending on factors like the weather conditions faced by fishermen.
Think sushi is pricey at Azumi? Issenberg told me that in Japan, it’s easy to spend $400 on sushi without even trying. At the same time: “There are better $35 sushi lunches in Japan than anywhere on earth,” he said. “I think middle-class eating in Japan is some of the best bargain food in the world.”
Magdalena: Caviar ($185)
Lastly, I scooped up the $185 1-ounce caviar service at Magdalena in Midtown-Belvedere’s The Ivy Hotel. In lieu of the traditional beluga caviar, which has been mostly banned in the U.S. since 2005, Magdalena sells a Kaluga hybrid between two species of sturgeon. Dish out the meal using the mother of pearl spoons, a caviar must (a metallic spoon will make the fish eggs taste horrible, thanks to a chemical reaction) and try pairing this dish with an ice cold gin martini, as recommended by the restaurant’s beverage director.
Magdalena serves its fish eggs with housemade potato chips, making this pricey dish feel approachable to those who have never tried it. However, I thought the saltiness of the chips overpowered the subtlety of the caviar.
Fort sounded aghast when I told him Magdalena served caviar with chips. The proper way, he thinks, is to dab the fish eggs on your hand and to allow the warmth of your skin to heat them ever so slightly.
Though Fort is a true caviar connoisseur — his memory of his first time eating the stuff could rival Proust’s madeleine — he readily admits, “There’s absolutely no reason on God’s earth that fish eggs should be regarded as a luxury food. They aren’t intrinsically valuable,” he said.
I asked Fort what was the best thing he’d eaten recently. He described an enormous pear from his local farmer’s market.
“The perfume of it was absolutely exquisite. The inside was like ivory,” he said. “I ate a bit and it was so beautiful, it was so extraordinary that I had to sit there and meditate” before finishing. “That pear was beyond price.”