The $175 burger: Conspicuous consumption or edible art?

What was the most extravagant, self-indulgent culinary culture in history? Was it the Victorian British, with their heavy puddings, Beef Wellington, and cream-laden sauces? Perhaps France's haute cuisine deserves the distinction, with its reliance on butters, creams, and hours of cookery. Or maybe we could go back to the ancient Romans, who put such an emphasis on the use of expensive spices that the mark of a great chef was that his food tasted nothing like its constituent ingredients.

Regardless of who gets your vote for most outrageously decadent cuisine, there is little doubt that the United States at the dawn of the 21st century is doing its best to stay in the running. A while back, I wrote a post about how New York chefs were heavily lacing their dishes with truffles in order to create ridiculously luxe comfort foods. I mentioned the $85 mac and cheese, the $55 baked potato, and the $1000 bagel, all examples of outrageous waste and insane over-consumption.

I thought that my post had more or less closed the door on the topic. Admittedly, I failed to mention such ridiculous extravagances as the new Johnny Walker King George V (a blended scotch that costs $600 a bottle), Norma's "Zillion Dollar Frittada" (a $1,000 concoction of eggs, lobster, and caviar) and the $1,000 "Luxury Pizza" at Nino's Bellisima (topped with creme fraiche, chives, salmon roe, wasabi, lobster, and four different kinds of caviar). Still, I thought that I'd given the world of over-the-top cuisine its due. Of course, as soon as you decide that things have gotten as ridiculous as they can get, someone has to go one step further...

The lowly burger, long a mainstay of the middle and lower classes, has become the latest battleground in the war over which restaurant can be the most insanely profligate. The first entrant was Daniel Boulud's "DB Burger," a concoction comprised of "an exterior of ground sirloin with a filling of boned short ribs braised in red wine, foie gras, black truffle, and a mirepoix of root vegetables. The homemade bun is topped with toasted Parmesan and layered with fresh horseradish mayonnaise, tomato confit, fresh tomato, and frisee lettuce."

While I am inclined to suggest that "DB" stands for "douchebag," I will resist as, to be honest, this sounds like an intriguing culinary invention and I want to give Boulud some serious credit for playing around with a classic. Besides, at $32, this seems like an affordable extravagance.

On the other hand, Boulud's "Royale" strikes me as an attempt to jump the shark, culinarily speaking. Boulud has started with his DB Burger, then added ten grams of truffles, driving the overall cost up to $75. If you are in a particularly self-indulgent mood (or just have more money than you know what to do with), you can add another ten grams for a further $75, yielding a $150 burger with a whopping twenty grams of truffles. Pommes frites (french fries) or pommes souffles (mashed potatoes) come free on the side.

For all my caveats, I have to give Boulud credit for his creative take on a classic. I can't really say the same for the Wall Street Burger Shoppe's Richard Nouveau. Named for Pocket Change's self-impressed mascot, the Richard Nouveau begins with ten ounces of Kobe beef, to which is added Gruyere cheese, 25 grams of black truffles, a thick slice of foie gras, and a sprinkling of gold flakes. All of this is served on a homemade brioche bun with "golden truffle" mayo, which contains even more gold flakes and black truffles.

Although Heather Tierney, the co-owner of Burger Shoppe, calls this a "work of art," I'd have to call into question the bona fides of any artist who mass-produces his art, much less one who works in the lesser-known medium of goose liver and ground animal flesh. While I'm sure that the $175 burger is truly something to behold, I have to doubt that it's really all that good. Besides, even after ponying up the dough for this extravagance, you still have to shell out $5 for a side of fries. Now that's just plain cheap!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer,
blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He's wondering if Boulud offers a Royale with cheese.
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