The High-Low $20 Showdown

Photo: Hannah Whitaker

What the low-end chef made …

Harry Hawk of Harry’s at Water Taxi Beach
O this sun-blasted summer afternoon, the deserted Long Island City beach complex that’s home to Harry’s feels like the backyard of a fraternity house after a weekend-long binge. Flies buzz under the flapping orange dining tent; the bar smells of old beer. Harry is dressed in suspenders and chef’s clogs, and he presents the components of his seven-course bonanza all at once. The first thing we sample is a pile of grilled asparagus, which aren’t high-quality (the Greenmarket’s too expensive) and seem to have gone limp in the 100-degree heat. Ditto the grilled corn, which is flavored with enough cayenne to choke a horse. Harry’s buttermilk onion rings are excellent (they’re sweet, generously cut, and not too greasy), and I spend most of my time eating them, instead of the dry, fishy salmon burger, served on a piece of desiccated toast. The main course—chunks of salty-sweet, char-grilled lamb cured for several hours in brown sugar, salt, and cumin—is excellent, and worth the entire $20 price of admission. The strawberries with sour cream are unimpressive, and Harry’s biscuits would be okay provided I hadn’t pounded down all those onion rings. The second dessert course is a single Klondike bar whipped milkshake style and spiked with amber Dogfish Head ale. It tastes like a White Russian mixed with chocolate truffles. It’s a touch of cheap-eats genius, albeit one served in plastic Champagne flutes.

Verdict: One star for the lamb and another for the Klondike shake. No stars for the vegetable sides, the dry salmon burger, and the greasy venue.

(Pretty Good)
Total cost: $13.78

Photo: Hannah Whitaker

What the high-end chef made …

Chef Olivier Muller of DB Bistro Moderne
Waiting for my lunch, I sip iced tea, admiring the vintage wine bottles aligned on DB’s wall. Muller, dressed in a crisp, white, monogrammed uniform, brings the first course, a tarte flambée (“flammenkueche”) served on a butcher block and cut in neat squares. It’s a real restaurant-quality item (light crispy crust, smoky bacon, the slight creaminess of fromage blanc). It’s so good it makes you wonder why it’s so damned cheap. Answer: Tarte flambée is the pizza of the chef’s native Alsace; only in midtown Manhattan is this simple dish peddled as haute cuisine. The arugula salad is professionally made, too, and so is Muller’s Moroccan couscous, the contents of which (couscous, braised lamb, a roast chicken leg from Fairway, and a single store-bought D’Artagnan merguez sausage) come together nicely in a gently simmered stew tasting of harissa and mint. Would a DB diner complain if he were served this dish? Nope. How much would DB charge for it? According to Muller, $30 or $35, which makes us pity the poor saps who pay full freight. But then this is a full-fledged haute cuisine machine. While Harry throws his ingredients onto the grill, hours of labor have gone into these dishes. The rhubarb in the rhubarb tart has been boiled down and left to intensify overnight, and sits in a sweet, hand-rolled crust capped with warm, freshly made meringue. Is it good? Yes, it is. Is it really cheap eats? In the cost of ingredients only.

Verdict: One star for the tarte flambée, one star for the lamb couscous, and one star for the rhubarb tart. It might be cheap, but it doesn’t taste that way.

(Pretty Damn Good)
Total cost: $17.74

See the Recipes
Salmon Burger on Bruschetta
Schnäck-Style Onion Rings
Brooklyn Biscuits
Mexican Street Corn
Semi-Cured Lamb Chops
Strawberries With Sour Cream
Klondike Beer Shake

See the Recipes
Alsatian “Flammenküche”
Lamb Couscous
Rhubarb Tart

The High-Low $20 Showdown