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Puttin' on the rich
A tour de fork of the most expensive everyday dishes in central Arkansas.
It’s no great secret that the price ceiling on food goes way up there. Fine steak is rarefied air and likely always going to be a high dollar item. Fresh seafood must necessarily be flown in from a place with a sea, at some expense, to be served here in central Arkansas. In fact, it’s often more surprising when these types of things don’t result in a big check.
But what may surprise is that even the humdrum, rank and file foods of everyday life can cost a pretty penny when they’re done up all fancy like. Put a hot dog in a tuxedo, and it’s going to cost you. Not all burgers can be found on the dollar menu. When a kid dish grows up, it can acquire expensive tastes.
With that in mind, we set out to find some of the more eye-catching-but-run-of-the-mill menu items likely to set the buyer back more than just a few bills. They range from appetizers to desserts, with a cocktail thrown in for good measure. Whether the most expensive of their kind or just offered at a standout price, we set out to find out more about them — even if that meant forking over a handful of cash in the process.
MOST EXPENSIVE BURGER: All My Loving Burger $23
Sushi Cafe, 5823 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock
I am a firm believer in the fact that there are burgers in the world for which a double digit price tag is fully justified. But when that first digit is anything other than a one, well, it better be something as transcendental as The Beatles. And despite its name, the All My Loving burger at Sushi Cafe — one of a handful of double-digit burgers offered but the only one here that demands Andrew Jackson attend the party — just isn’t. Sure, the beef is super prime. Served up on ciabatta just short of medium, it melts in your mouth, dissipating into char-grilled bliss. But the promised mushrooms and onions didn’t come when I asked for other veg to be held. Maybe that’s nitpicky, but for the price I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect perfection. At least it’s a full meal, enough to feed two, with a whole pound of beef served up via two patties. And I think therein lies the answer. You want to know what a $23 hamburger tastes like? Two $12 hamburgers, that’s what. (sw)
MOST EXPENSIVE HOT DOG: The ONEdog $1501
Hot Dog Mike, location variable
Even the seller of this lavishly expensive street food says the price — enough to make it not just the most expensive hot dog in the state or the country but the whole world — is more than should be laid down for a dog. But creator “Hot Dog” Mike Juiliano didn’t set the price. Nor does he make money when one is sold.
The dog is actually named for The One, Inc., a local nonprofit providing homeless outreach. Whenever a dog is sold, Juiliano makes a donation in the amount of the sale price. This arrangement, rather than a direct donation to charity, was necessary to make the crown of World’s Most Expensive Hot Dog count.
And that title is what Juiliano was after when he posed the question of what a top dollar dog should cost to his army of online fans and followers. The vendor admits to being shocked when a bidding war broke out and settled at $1,500. It was only then that Juiliano, already well respected for his inspired and creative dogs, set about putting this one together. The end result: a quarter-pound dog on a specially ordered potato bun topped with a lobster tail and saffron aioli. Oh, and gold flakes, because the world’s most expensive anything has to have some bling.
The dog, introduced in May, isn’t a walk-up, everyday offering on the cart, but Juiliano said he can accommodate an order with at least a day’s notice. (sw)
MOST EXPENSIVE MAC AND CHEESE: Lobster Mac and Cheese $15
So Restaurant-Bar, 3610 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock
As a word, “so” almost necessitates having something to modify. So good. So expensive. So what. In the case of the Hillcrest eatery and its slate of upscale offerings, the fairest follow-up is usually “so worthwhile.” And that holds true for the lobster mac and cheese. Snicker if you will at the thought that an item more frequently associated with the kids menu could merit two hours work on minimum wage, but this is a version that grew up and studied economics and found a cushy job in investment banking or something. Seriously, it’s a creamy, cheesy mix of tender bowtie pasta with savory garlic (just enough) and ample amounts of precious lobster mixed throughout. It’s all topped with more gooey cheese and baked. Of course, to add to the sticker shock, it’s not even an entree. The dish is listed only as a side item on the regular dinner menu (though I didn’t have any issue asking for it at lunch). Still, the portion is nothing to be discounted, so to speak, and will likely fill most appetites. It certainly sent me off full and happy, albeit a touch lighter in the wallet. (sw)
MOST EXPENSIVE DESSERT: Chocolate fondue $16
RJ Tao, 5501 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock
Is it worth $16? It really could be worth $16 if the dipping sides — graham crackers and whatever that cylindrical cookie thing is supposed to be — weren’t so affected by the day’s humidity. Of course, the Rice Krispies Treats were nom, but we just paid $16 for this and you slap the easiest to make/cheapest dessert on earth alongside it? Where’s the mango? The kiwi? The papaya? The pineapple? Yes, your strawberries are prime, but that’s really the only fruit you give us? On the upside, the chocolate tastes ritz. If Midas had a chocolate hand that turned everything he touched to sweet cocoa madness, this would shoot out of his fingertips. It’s so thick and rich, like cake batter. Tell mom we want to lick the spoons. If we took it home and put it in the oven, it would surely turn into bourgeois brownies. (sb)
MOST EXPENSIVE SANDWICH: Seared Foie Gras $20
Hillcrest Artisan Meats, 2807 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock
When the foie gras is pulled out of the meat case, look away. It’s really not attractive. It has an air of wet cheese about it. But once it’s seared and plopped between slices of chewy baguette and surrounded by raspberry preserves, goat cheese, and arugula — you elitist! — you’ll think you died and went to Warren Buffett’s house. The sandwich has a velvety, melt-in-your-mouth effect. It seems wrong to compare it to something as proletarian as stuffed-crust pizza, but that was the first crazy thought that jumped into my uneducated mouth, I mean, mind. Maybe if it were made by the patron saint of pizza dough in paradise. Oh, I can say nothing bad about this sandwich, honestly, except that a poor duck had to be stuffed with grains and then meet his end for my lunch. But, in the end, the price seems justified. (mt)
MOST EXPENSIVE DELI MEAT: Iberico Lomo $89.99 per pound
Hillcrest Artisan Meats, 2807 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock
So, there’s swine living it up in Spain — mainly on the plains — roaming freely, munching on acorns and maybe some Parmesan cheese, never suspecting that their charmed existence will make them so incredibly delicious — and expensive. The acorns add “flavorful natural fats” to the meat, which is then cured and sliced very thinly. Though a pound of Iberico Lomo is $89, the meat is so light, it’s a bit like buying a pound of bread crumbs. Roughly 20 paper-thin slices of Lomo set us back less than $10. The taste was saltier than snack food, but not as creamy as expected. The meat was dry, like jerky, but delicate and oily like coconut flakes, and spiced sort of like Cajun turkey. I actually wrote in my notes, “This meat is from a different planet. Like stained-glass chips from Mars.” And really, what more can I say? (mt)
MOST EXPENSIVE SALAD: Lobster Salad $33
Brave New Restaurant, 2300 Cottondale Lane, Suite 105, Little Rock
The lobster salad at Brave New Restaurant is listed as a mixture of Canadian lobster tails, lump crabmeat and asparagus, all tossed in lemon tarragon mayonnaise and then drizzled in a Balsamic syrup. What the menu doesn’t foretell is the fruit and cheese medley, the heirloom tomatoes, the bed of fresh greens, and on top of it all, the display of artistry that this salad delivers. The soft chunks of lobster and crab melt in your mouth, and carry with them a background taste of that tarragon mayonnaise. The drizzle of sweet, tangy Balsamic syrup is a perfect complement for the canvas of shellfish. Grapes, strawberries and an array of fancy cheeses — Italian blue cheese, blueberry Stilton, Derby cheddar and Manchego, St. André — await you when you’ve had your fill of seafood and salad. The whole thing is just decadent. It’s no wonder the salad has developed what chef Peter Brave calls a “cult following.” As far as the price tag goes, it’s a hefty portion of lobster and crab, which would usually do the trick anyways, but it’s all that comes with this “salad” — can we really call it that? It’s definitely not a starter course — that makes it worth its high price. You can count me in on that cult following. (sm)
MOST EXPENSIVE COCKTAIL: The Godfather $15
RJ Tao, 5501 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock
The search for the most expensive cocktail was an exhausting one. I thought we’d find oodles of frou-frou, intricately intoxicating $18 martinis and the like, but it’s just not so in central Arkansas. Ciao Baci? All $9. The Capital Bar? Highest is $12. Mallard’s? At $13, we’re getting closer. So where do you go when you’re desperate for the most expensive anything in town? RJ Tao. The lava lamp-inspired bar here boasts The Godfather, a classic concoction of Macallan 12 Scotch, Disaronno Amaretto and club soda for $15. Now, I’m no expert on whiskey, and I’ll go ahead and admit that this is probably some of the nicest I’ve ever had, so I was partial from my first sip. And there was a hint of nuttiness from the Amaretto, which I liked. But the best part of this drink was how cool I felt drinking it. Thanks to the smoothness of the liquor, I was able to sit at the bar and sip on Scotch with a smile still on my face. I suppose that’s why you pay top dollar for a cocktail, so you can enjoy it without your face contorting at the sensation of alcohol searing down your throat. With this smooth, sexy drink in hand, surrounded by eerily glowing surfaces and decapitated Buddhas, I realize why I would pay $15 for this drink: It makes me feel like The Godfather. (sm)
MOST EXPENSIVE MISUNDERSTANDING: Sangria $15.50
The Draft, 2235 Dave Ward Drive, Conway
The number of cocktails listed at The Draft could staff a few football teams, and while on the hunt for the most expensive cocktail, the sangria caught our eye. We wondered, “What could make the sangria so expensive?” Was it ritzy wine? What rare fruits would we find floating inside? Our reporter went looking for answers only to meet with a harsh reality. She texted me, and included a visual aide, “Mystery solved. It’s a pitcher.”
From her photo, it wasn’t exactly a gallon, but it might as well have been. It all seemed so obvious, though the waitress never hinted that when my reporter ordered the sangria and her companion ordered his own beer. She must be used to those lush-y Conway natives. I slapped my hand to my forehead and thought, “I just sent an employee to drink a pitcher of sangria by herself. Where’s my ‘World’s Best Boss’ coffee mug?”
Next time, we’ll investigate via phone. Or I’ll send a party of employees. (mt)