What’s up with the prices in Asia’s fine-dining establishments, questions Chris Dwyer.
The seven-course Prestige Menu at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London is the most expensive dinner set they offer. It includes pressed foie gras, Cornish turbot and their rightly famous ravioli of lobster and langoustine. While it’s very unlikely that Ramsay himself – the man who put the “f” in chef – actually cooked your dinner, it comes with a famous reputation and has held three Michelin stars since 2001. Seven courses will set you back £155 (US$202).
Inakaya sits on the 101st floor of Hong Kong’s International Commerce Centre, the city’s tallest building. Whilst some seats boast impressively vertiginous views, the restaurant has no Michelin stars. One dish they serve is grilled kinki fish that will lighten your bank account by HK$1,738 (US$222).
While some say it’s unfair to compare apples with oranges – or indeed turbot with kinki – there seems to be a substantial difference between the cost of fine dining in Asia versus Europe or the United States. Naturally, there are some temples to gastronomy – in France in particular – that can still cost a small fortune, especially when dining à la carte, but by and large the bill at the end of your meal in Asia easily outstrips what you’d expect to pay elsewhere.
The most famously expensive meal in Asia comes at Shanghai’s Ultraviolet restaurant. French chef Paul Pairet was garlanded with three Michelin stars for his unique multi-sensory experience – which is as much about theatre and performance as it is eating. That includes covering the table in astroturf for one course, while video and light projections abound throughout the four-hour extravaganza. If you can somehow manage to wangle a reservation, the total of 20 dishes per person on Friday or Saturday night can run a lucky – for some – RMB8,888 (US$1,320). That does include premium drink pairings… so it’s a bargain, I guess.
There’s even a Chinese take on – ok, blatant copy of – Ultraviolet’s theatrical dining at another Shanghai restaurant called Liangshe, where dinner (with no Michelin stars) costs RMB4,800 (US$713) per person. That’s more than dinner for two at three-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park in New York, 2017’s “best restaurant in the world”, at least according to the always contentious World’s 50 Best listing.
Elsewhere in Asia, Tokyo has rarely – actually never, as far as I know – won prizes for representing great value for money. If you’re going to go large, then it doesn’t get much larger than the country’s most famous steakhouse, Aragawa. As is often the case in Tokyo, you don’t pay for the setting – in this case down a hallway in the basement of an office building. Of course, the Kobe beef they serve is impeccable produce, arguably the best there is: since 1967 they’ve raised their own herd of full-blood Tajima cattle. With produce like that, somehow the ¥40,000 (US$359) price tag doesn’t seem quite so scandalous.
Then there’s dining out in the Lion City, somewhere that can give your bank manager serious cause for concern, especially if you’re a wine drinker. Zen is a recently opened spot from star Swedish chef Bjorn Frantzén; the restaurant’s website simply states: “Our fixed menu is S$450++ [US$331++] per guest excluding your choice of beverages.” With service charge, that’s north of US$380 per person for dinner – before you’ve even looked at the wine list.
While that’s in the same ballpark as his eponymous Stockholm restaurant, in Sweden it has been open since 2010 and holds three Michelin stars. That’s a big difference. Frantzén recently told Channel News Asia: “People have to come in and experience it to really understand what we’ve put together for them. It’s expensive, but it is worth the money.”
Arguably, why the hell not pay that for your dinner? Some people would happily drop that sort of coin on a seat at the opera or tennis at Wimbledon. Then again, you get the distinct impression that many prices for fine dining in Asia are completely out of whack when compared to the rest of the world. And that can’t help but leave a slightly bitter taste in the mouth.
Chris Dwyer is a Hong Kong-based freelance food and travel writer.