The city’s legions of big-spending gourmands may be in a momentary funk, but restaurant prices have been slowly sinking for months, and there are still plenty of venues in this food-mad town where you don’t have to spend like a king to dine like one. The jewel-box dining room at Jean Georges was jammed with the usual assortment of ogling tourists and business sharpies when I treated myself, the other afternoon, to an elaborate $28 lunch featuring soy-glazed short ribs stacked with sticks of green apple, and an appropriately chaste dessert of chocolate petits fours arranged on a simple silver tray. When my big-shot wino friends don’t feel like springing for thousand-dollar Burgundies at the usual posh oenophile hangouts like Veritas and Cru, they sneak over to Jody Williams’s snug new “gastroteca,” Gottino, on Greenwich Avenue, where you can nurse relatively cheap glasses of Barbaresco while nibbling on the chef’s selection of reasonably priced, constantly evolving Slow Food–style specialties like baked apples stuffed with cotechino, and platters of artichoke tossed with Pecorino and mint.
If you don’t feel like shelling out a day’s worth of wages for Thomas Keller’s superb tasting menu at Per Se, then join the rest of the working stiffs at the great chef’s elegant soup kitchen, Bouchon Bakery, where a mere $12.75 buys the finest grilled-cheese sandwich in town, made with fat triangles of pain au lait and melted Gruyère and Fontina cheese, along with a cup of nourishing, lightly creamy tomato soup. Sixty-eight bucks is a fair price to pay for the elaborate five-course pasta tasting menu at Marco Canora’s accomplished midtown restaurant, Insieme, but for roughly $50 less you can enjoy a similarly diverse meal at the chef’s closet-size East Village wine bar, Terroir. If you get there during the five o’clock happy hour, you get a free glass of respectable Spanish sherry, which you can supplement, for six or seven bucks more, with wedges of the excellent house crostini topped with chicken liver, or a chiffon-like spread of whipped lardo, followed by a helping or two of the house-made lamb sausage rolled in bread crumbs and packets of frizzled sage.
The cheap-eats deal of the century on the Upper West Side is the $16.95 three-course dinner at Michael Psilakis and Donatella Arpaia’s expanded new-Mediterranean-comfort- food destination, Kefi, on Columbus Avenue, and if you’re a starving fat cat down on his luck, you’ll find solace at the casual wine lounge at the latest iteration of Le Cirque, where $21 purchases a platoon of uncommonly delicious gourmet mini-burgers with ornamental toppings of sautéed mushrooms and Comté cheese. The best bargain by far in the sprawling Danny Meyer empire is the $14 soup-and-sandwich deal at Gramercy Tavern, anchored, on the afternoon I dropped in, with a giant open-faced sandwich comprising ribbons of maple-smoked ham, melted Manchego, and two perfectly cooked eggs. For a truly grandiose and economical feed, however, I like to line up at eleven in the morning with the rest of the pork hounds at Porchetta. The noted Tuscan expert Sara Jenkins sprinkles giant wheels of crackly pork with rosemary, fennel, pollen, and sage, and serves it in generous helpings for $14 a platter, with a mess of sautéed greens. If that doesn’t satisfy your cravings for pig, plunk down an additional $9 for one of the ethereal, pork-stuffed sandwiches, and I guarantee you won’t have to eat anything for the rest of the week.