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Upscale Restaurants Serve Frugality with Pinch of Luxury
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By Kelly Carter, Special for USA TODAY: Before the recession hit, truffle shavings, foie gras sliders and Waygu beef seemed as common as chicken breasts on many restaurant menus.

Chefs are still using these high-end ingredients, but many have modified their menus or opened lower-priced offshoots to woo people who are concerned about costs.

"At Del Posto, our fanciest restaurant, we have taken some of the luxury items off and dropped the fancy menu from $275 to $150," Mario Batali said at the annual Food & Wine Classic this summer in Aspen, Colo.

"There's less caviar, foie gras and truffles, but they're still there. They're just not on nine courses. They're on one course."

Marcus Samuelsson, chef/owner of Aquavit and Riingo in New York and C-House in Chicago, says that over the past two years, he has done "menu engineering" to offer more price diversity. Pork belly and ox tail dishes, for example, are more wallet-friendly than a ribeye.

"Our menus should be something for everyone," Samuelsson says. "You should be able to sit at the bar and eat a great meal for maybe 20 or 25 bucks, and then if you really want to celebrate, there should be something for you, too."

The recession seemed non-existent at The Bazaar by José Andrés, judging by the food served to well-heeled diners on a recent August evening. Small plates of caviar buns and cotton candy foie gras flew out of the kitchen at the bustling restaurant inside the luxurious SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills.

"I don't have a sense that I've been cutting more because of the economy," says chef Andrés, who also owns restaurants in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. "Over the past 15 or 20 years, I've been moving more slowly toward vegetables, but that doesn't necessarily mean (they) are any cheaper. "

Rather than eliminate high-priced fare, some chefs/owners are opening separate, lower-cost restaurants inside their high-end eateries. This year, chef/owner Tom Colicchio, the mastermind behind Craft restaurants across the country, opened Damon: Frugal Friday with Craft executive chef Damon Wise, serving nothing over $10. The event started as a once-a-week affair in Craft New York's adjacent private dining room but has since grown to six times a week.

Colicchio also started Halfsteak in Craftsteak New York's bar area, where menu prices are kept under $15.

"We were never a big proponent of luxurious ingredients," says Colicchio, whose sides of asparagus at Craft New York sell for $11. "We do use some white truffles when they're in season and occasionally have some caviar and foie gras, but other than that, we use basic ingredients. We just make sure we buy the best. ... We feel we shouldn't cut back on that."

Ming Tsai, chef/owner of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass., was ahead of the game. In May 2008, he doubled his space with the addition of a 50-seat bar/lounge area featuring an Asian street-food menu with a price point of about $25 a person, as opposed to Blue Ginger's $55 to $60.

"I've still got foie gras and caviar and truffles when they're in season (at Blue Ginger)," Tsai says, "because at the end of the day, people need two hours of relaxation and not to think about their problems."

What's not selling, Tsai says, are bottles of Cristal rosé, Grand Dame Champagne and $600 bottles of (Penfolds) Grange Shiraz. "People are not buying the big wines because they don't want to be seen with that bottle on their table," he says. "It's tacky and gauche now."

And Batali is one chef who believes that attitude may remain. "The period between 1989 and 2005 will be looked back upon as kind of like Roman excess," he says. "Everybody went crazy. I don't think it will happen like that again, which is good."

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