Living in Milwaukee, we often assume that our restaurants don't compete with some of those in bigger cities in terms of selection, general excellence and price. While some would argue that is not the case, a few days ago I would have asserted that our restaurants are at least more reasonable than similar establishments in bigger cities with higher costs of living.
Boy, was I wrong.
The 2008 Zagat Restaurant Guide just awarded London the title of most expensive city in the world to eat with a startling average rate of $79.84 per head for a three-course meal including service and a drink. Runner-up Paris slid in at $72.24 per head and Tokyo trailed in third at around $71. The United States trailed far, far behind, with the average meal in New York City, which came in at a comparably paltry $39.
So, where would that put Milwaukee in the grand scheme?
In 1998, the late food critic Dennis Getto defined "more expensive" restaurants as those where diners could expect to spend $18 or more on a dinner not including service and drinks, and noted that prices "continue to edge up steadily."
And indeed he was right. Dining out an average of two to five times a week, I would estimate the average meal ticket in Milwaukee for a three-course dinner with a drink and gratuity at right around $30 per person in 2007. Add to that an astounding gain of 3.3 percent in the Milwaukee-Racine Consumer Price Index for the cost of dining out since the first quarter of 2006, and a 3 percent increase in the cost of alcohol, and we aren't running so far behind Chicago and New York City in dining out costs. We're getting closer by the day.
And remember that we are talking averages here.
So, when OnMilwaukee.com asked me to find the most expensive meal in Milwaukee, I envisioned something in the $95 per person range including at least three courses, a beverage and service; knowing that the Zagat study had also cited the most expensive fine dining averages to come in around $208 (in Tokyo) and that $200 in Chicago will buy a three-course kitchen table feast at Charlie Trotters, where diners sit nearly on top of the kitchen line and the celebrity chef himself.
After visiting half a dozen of contestants on my list, Milwaukee Street's Carnevor, 724 N. Milwaukee St., wins the title for most expensive meal with five entrees coming in over $75, and topping out at $160 for what our waiter touted as a stand-alone 7-oz. Kobe beef selection of which "(Carnevor) is one of only 20 restaurants in the nation to serve."
Our server professed the Kobe beef to be A5, which is the highest designation awarded to the legitimate Japanese product. The Japanese Wagyu, not to be confused with its less expensive American counterpart, returned to the United States market in the fall of 2006 after a five-year hiatus and, is a fatty, rich steak in the best possible way.
Our waiter described the cows being "hand-massaged" to help ensure the slaughtered beef is as tender as possible, and with a price tag that breaks down to $22.85 an ounce at Carnevor, quite frankly, it damn well better be, especially since diners in New York City are only paying approximately $25 an ounce in comparison. (Keep in mind that New York City's cost of living comparison ranks just about double Milwaukee's.)
Carnevor and Potawatomi's Dream Dance (eight ounces for $140, which comes to $17.50 an ounce) are the only restaurants in Milwaukee that proffer the Japanese Wagyu. Nanakusa and other local eateries have the American Wagyu on their menus for about half the price of the $75 American Wagyu at Carnevor. And while we didn't sample the Japanese Kobe ourselves, I was able to locate a couple gentlemen in Milwaukee who have tried the Japanese Wagyu multiple times with co-workers and found the beef to be delicious.
"We could definitely tell the difference between the American and the Japanese steaks," said Carnevor diner Brian, who frequents the restaurant with his firm. "We've ordered (the American and Japanese Wagyus) multiple times and the Japanese beef is very good. You can really taste a difference." This particular party has always had the same serving team when they have dined at Carnevor and found the service too, to be excellent. A-five perhaps?
Another Carnevor diner says the Japanese steak is a personal favorite of one of his employees, who eats all over the United States on business. And the service, they too found to be superb, although my recent visits to Carnevor found that not to be the case. But, then again, I wasn't eating a $160 steak, so I likely didn't have Team A5.
But the real question is, was the $160 price tag worth it? Not if it's out of your own personal pocket, according to Brian. "I wouldn't have ordered it if it wasn't on the company card."
Our most recent Carnevor server would beg to differ, since she claimed that they had already sold a half dozen of the high-priced beauties late on a Thursday evening. Although, with Carnevor's mixed clientele, perhaps there are quite a few diners there on the company dollar looking for the sweet, sweet taste of a beef laden with nearly perfectly distributed butter-like fat that makes the delicacy melt in one's mouth.
So, in Milwaukee or New York City, if you're looking for the most expensive meal, consider ordering an appetizer, a salad, soup or dessert, a beverage, and the specially fed and massaged Japanese A5 kobe beef. In either city, you're looking at dropping around $220-$250 per person for the three courses, beverage and service; a far cry from the $95 I had originally posited for Milwaukee's most expensive meal.
But, if that's not rich enough for your blood, you could always travel next year to the Dome Restaurant in Bangkok, where in February it served a $30,000 per person meal, not including tip, for 10 courses with wine.
Talk is cheap. Food is expensive -- and getting more so, regardless of where you lay your head.
Amy L. Schubert is a 15-year veteran of the hospitality industry and has worked in every aspect of bar and restaurant operations. A graduate of Marquette University (B.A.-Writing Intensive English, 1997) and UW-Milwaukee (M.A.-Rhetoric, Composition, and Professional Writing, 2001), Amy still occasionally moonlights as a guest bartender and she mixes a mean martini.
The restaurant business seems to be in Amy’s blood, and she prides herself in researching and experimenting with culinary combinations and cooking techniques in her own kitchen as well as in friends’ restaurants. Both she and her husband, Scott, are avid cooks and “wine heads,” and love to entertain friends, family and neighbors as frequently as possible.
Amy and Scott live with their boys, Alex and Nick, in Bay View, where they are all very active in the community. Amy finds great pleasure in sharing her knowledge and passions for food and writing in her contributions to OnMilwaukee.com.