By Albert Samaha
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According to UNICEF calculations, $1,000 is enough to feed 200 starving children a month. It's also just enough to stave off the hunger pangs of any lone New Yorker with more money than sense . . . at least until lunchtime. $1,000 is the price of the deluxe breakfast option, a caviar-laced frittata, at Norma's, one of the luxury hotel Le Parker Meridien's restaurants. Essentially, it's a glorified omelet, made from six eggs, cream, and lobster, with an extravagant 10 ounces of sevruga caviar dolloped on top. And its dozen or so cholesterol-saturated bites cost considerably more than the average New Yorker's weekly salary.
In recent years, New York's high-end eateries have been competing to outdo each other with ever more astronomic gastronomy. Thomas Keller's celebrated new restaurant on Columbus Circle, Per Se, offers a $150 tasting menu, and Daniel Boulud charges $99 for the double-truffle version of his DB Burger. Then there's the king of the gourmet fleecing: At Alain Ducasse's infamous Essex House, a deluxe prix fixe meal costs $225. But that's a six-course mealit includes duck foie gras ravioli, Maine diver sea scallops, and roasted milk-fed veal. Even if you throw in several bottles of fine wine (the average bottle is $200), that still adds up to less per person than the price of Norma's decadent entréea peasant staple grotesquely bloated into a meal for kings.
It's standard marketing practice to lure customers into thinking they're getting a bargain by making an item $9.99 instead of $10. But Norma's frittata works through an inverse psychological ploy: The four-figure domain is crucial. Like diamonds, fur coats, champagne, you're paying for the price more than the thing itselfa public display of the fact that money's nothing to you. (Of course, the only people who can afford these forms of conspicuous consumption are those whose every waking minute is devoted to moneymaking it, monitoring their investments, moving it around to make more money out of it.) At Norma's, the element of ostentatious largesse is turned into a ritual: When someone orders the $1,000 omelet, says Steven Pipes, general manager of Le Parker Meridien, "we have a bell we ring and we make an announcement to the whole dining room. Some people clap."
What are they applauding exactly? The latest figures show that the gap between the extremely rich and the very poor is at its widest in decades. In New York City itself, property prices soar (the average price of an apartment in the last quarter of 2003 was more than $900,000up 11.7 percent from the year before), while almost a million New Yorkers subsist on food stamps. Despite these ever widening divisions, Bush pushed through his wealth-redistribution (from poor to rich) tax cuts. And popular culture has never been more devoted to have-nots ogling the lifestyles of the rich and tasteless. If you thought conspicuous consumption reached its peak in the Robin Leach era, just check out VH1's Fabulous Life of . . .and E! network's It's Good to Be. These TV series dissect in gory detail the gargantuan earnings and decadent spending habits of stars like Sharon Osbourne and Missy Elliotthundreds of thousands spent on private jets and sports cars. I now know that Jennifer Aniston can spend thousands of dollars in one evening at a nightclub, and that Missy Elliott fritters away her fortune on personalized clothes and sneakers that she'll wear only once. How long before rap stars start referencing breakfast at Norma's alongside platinum jewelry, 24-inch rims, Burberry's, and brandy?
In the rap world, complaining about this sort of excess makes you a player hateryou're just jealous, it's implied. The same is true in mainstream culture: Anyone mounting a critique of ostentatious consumption from the standpoint of social justice or even simple good taste is deemed a spoilsport. Le Parker Meridien's Pipes claims that no one has expressed indignation at the price yet. "Why would anyone be upset?" he says. "We're not forcing anybody to order it, we're not wasting any food. . . . Are people upset with Petrossian for selling great caviar in kilo containers?" Norma's was already well-known for its deluxe versions of the standard $8 breakfast/brunch dishes you can find all across the city; it considers itself a "five-star diner." Says Pipes, "We take all the regular breakfast dishes and we Norma-cize them. That means we've taken something mundane and made it fun." At $28, the foie gras brioche French toast was previously the most expensive item on the menu. Pipes says the brainstorm for the frivolous frittata came about while Norma's chef was working on a more simple lobster-and-caviar omelet. The caviar costs $65 an ounce. "So we said, 'Why don't we go all the way and supersize it?' You know, having fun with the fast-food genre. We did one version for $100 and the supersized one for $1,000 and wondered whether anyone would have the nerve to expense it on their expense account. And we had the first one todaytwo guys came in and ordered it."
Still, he tries to downplay the element of excess. "Ten ounces of caviar is a lot for one person," Pipes admits, "so I figure it's a terrific dish for three or four people to share." Which would put the damage at about $250 for a few bites. And that's just as well, since eggs notoriously cause a kind of constipation that the British quaintly call "egg bound." Add on tax and tip, and it's the most expensive crap you'll ever have difficulty taking.