What's in a $1,000 omelet?

Some New York restaurants fall all over themselves to create menu items with 4-digit price tags. But can a fancy omelet (or sundae, or pizza) really be worth so much?

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By Rachel Lehmann-Haupt, MSN Money

For me, good food has never been about high price. The best meal I've had recently involved local heirloom tomatoes, baby artichokes, fresh garlic and basil -- all purchased at a Manhattan farmers market -- and Italian mozzarella cheese from Joe's Dairy in SoHo.

We grabbed a bottle of wine and headed home to make a simple pasta sauce with roasted artichokes, and a tomato-and-mozzarella salad. The entire meal for two cost less than $30, including the wine, and I can still taste the artichokes.

In the past few years, however, a number of Manhattan restaurateurs have had the opposite idea -- namely, that when it comes to food, the more exorbitant, the better.

Whether it's a cocktail served in a glass with a diamond, a $1,000 ice cream sundae delivered in a Baccarat crystal goblet or a $1,000 omelet, over-the-top items are turning ordinary menus into decadent dining experiences.

But when the economy is shaky and gas is nearly $4 a gallon, I question whether these items have staying power. What would make a person drop that kind of cash on breakfast?

Even the experts agree that these high-end eats are driven more by hype than by hunger. "These types of food (make up) a very narrow market," says Pam Danziger of Unity Marketing, a consumer-insight firm specializing in the luxury market. "They're mostly sold for the buzz so that a restaurant can claim they have the highest-priced item."

To taste for myself, I recently indulged in an entire day of luxury eating: breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus a late-afternoon snack. It began at Norma's restaurant at Le Parker Meridien hotel, a breakfast hot spot filled with tourists and power breakfasters doing business. None of the breakfast items is cheap. Most are in the $20-to-$30 range, and the menu includes such indulgent items as French toast with "orange-infused honey drizzle" and "wafflewiches" -- chocolate waffles with peanut butter and coffee-crunch filling.

But nothing stands out more than the Zillion Dollar Lobster Frittata, which has six eggs, the tail of a roasted Maine lobster, 10 ounces of Sevruga caviar . . . and a price tag of $1,000.

What's in a $1,000 omelet

"We don't exactly consider it extravagant. We consider it everyday fare," Steven Pipes, the general manager of Le Parker Meridien hotel, tells me as I dig in.

It's good. The lobster is fresh, and the caviar -- which comes from Caspian Sea sturgeon and retails for $80 to $170 an ounce, depending on the quality -- adds just the right amount of saltiness.

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Pipes explains that most people order it in a group to share, but everyday fare? I can't imagine the person who would spend $365,000 a year on breakfast -- even breakfast for four.

Some observers argue that buyers of $1,000 omelets aren't really focusing on the food itself. "People don't make these purchases for rational reasons," Danziger says. "It's about the splurge."

For lunch, I head over to DB Bistro Moderne, a modern French restaurant started by chef Daniel Boulud, to sample one of the highest-priced burgers in New York: the Original DB Burger. This 4-inch-high burger is made with fresh ground sirloin and is stuffed with short ribs braised with red wine and seared foie gras. The base price is $32, but during truffle season, the burger becomes the DB Royale, thanks to two layers of pricey black truffles; order a Double Royale for up to $150.

See the burger chef at work

Before I take my first bite, assistant chef Jim Leiken leads me into the kitchen to watch the preparation. He wraps the meat around a piece of the foie gras, sears it in a hot pan and then roasts it in the oven. "We do put a little bit of preserved truffle in with the short ribs all year," he says.

He places the burger on a brioche (made in-house and topped with melted Parmesan cheese and poppy seeds), then dresses the bun with Dijon mustard, freshly grated horseradish mixed with olive oil, a slice of fresh tomato, a slice of red onion and a smear of tomato compote made from oven-dried tomatoes.

A few minutes later, this creation is placed before me with a side of pom soufflé -- puffed potato slices that fall somewhere between french fries and potato chips. The burger is so big that I'm not sure I can wrap my mouth around it.

"Some people attack it with a knife and fork, and some people just pick it up with both hands and go for it," Leiken says. "It does get a little messy, but that's part of the fun. I think you should attack it from the side."

I try to take a delicate bite, but it's pretty much impossible as the juice runs down my chin and arm. The rich combination of meats and foie gras tastes like summer's first grilled burger, with a rich pâté chaser. It's intense, though I wouldn't recommend ordering this on a first date or on a serious business lunch. Instead, grab one with your favorite colleague when you're celebrating a win.

By 4 p.m., ready for a late-afternoon snack, I head to Serendipity to sample its $1,000 ice cream sundae. "You're seeing the most exotic and expensive ingredients in the world," says the restaurant's marketing director, Joseph Calderone, who lays them out on the table in front of me to construct the sundae

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in a Baccarat crystal goblet.

Making a $1,000 sundae

"This is the same goblet that is used in the Vatican, but instead of drinking wine, we're having ice cream," he says.

Calderone lines the goblet with thin leaves of 24-karat gold and places two scoops of Tahitian vanilla ice cream on top. He then cuts open two vanilla beans from Madagascar, scoops out the creamy centers, mixes them into the ice cream and pours on a melted syrup of rare Amadei chocolate: "There are only 400 kilos of these cocoa beans made a year on a tiny island on a small farm," he says.

The topping includes about $100 worth of chocolate, including chocolate-covered almonds and a chocolate truffle. There are also candied fruits from luxury Paris sweet shop Fauchon and a small sampling of the world's only salt-free dessert caviar, infused with passion fruit and cognac. The pièce de résistance: an edible gold-covered sugar orchid made by cake master Ron Ben-Israel exclusively for the sundae.

My host hands me a 14-karat-gold spoon, and just before I take my first bite, he sprinkles the top with gold dust. "Eat the sundae carefully," he says. "It needs to be deconstructed as carefully as it's been constructed."

By now everyone in the restaurant has set down knife and fork to watch the spectacle. I bite into the gold flower and feel like I'm in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. My next bite includes a taste of cold, creamy ice cream, a crunchy almond and a chewy slice of candied mango, all covered with the warm, rich melted chocolate.

Calderone tells me he has seen nervous men order it to hide engagement rings among the fruits slices. Recently a generous father bought one for his daughter as a gift for her graduation from law school. And it's not all transitory pleasure: You do get to take home the goblet.

At this point, my sense of splurge is close to tapped out. I could go home and spend a year in a food coma. But I have one more tasting left: the $1,000 pizza at Nino's Bellissima Pizza. I'm intrigued by the concept, as I always thought the real luxury of good pizza was in getting a good meal fast and cheap.

Photo: Nino Selimaj and his $1,000 pizza

"It's not for everyone," says Nino Selimaj, the restaurant's owner. "This is serious pizza."

I stand in front of a blazing brick oven while one of the restaurant's chefs rolls out pizza dough made with imported Italian flour. It's thinner than regular

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American flour, he explains, "so you get a crispier crust."

Once again, a salty tang attends the high price: In addition to a thin layer of crème fraîche and thinly sliced pieces of lobster, the pizza is topped with dollops of caviar in multiple colors: green wasabi, pink salmon roe and black Petrossian caviar -- 8 ounces in total.

The pizza takes about 25 minutes to make, and Nino says the caviar alone costs him about $750. But that still boils down to $250 for the flour, lobster and labor -- quite a stretch in the land of $2 slices. The crust is thin and crispy, but the overload of caviar and the crème fraîche make it way too rich for me to take more than one bite, particularly after a long day of eating.

"In the beginning, we were selling a lot," Selimaj says. "But now, with the economy (struggling), it doesn't help."

Mind you, it's not the shaky economy but the pleasure principle that has put me off. The Serendipity sundae was indeed a moment of pure fantasy that I will never forget. But for me, a simple, well-made meal at home is worth much more.

Produced by Anh Ly

Published Oct. 3, 2008