I was permitted to pen this column on one condition: “Just don’t write about dumplings,” my editor told me. “Surely you know lots of dining deals not found in Chinatown.”
Yes, I admitted, even I deviate from my steady diet of pot stickers and indulge in finer dining. But my cheapskate streak keeps me far from Masa and Per Se; I’d spontaneously explode if I spent more on a meal than a round-trip ticket to Beijing.
Still, one need not hock vital organs to afford a majestic meal. Affordably dining at NYC’s culinary champs merely requires searching for menu loopholes. Take Del Posto (85 10th Ave. betw. 15th &16th Sts., 212-497-8090). Mario Batali’s Meatpacking District outpost is a temple of opulence, with pastas as supple as sun-softened Twizzlers and fresh-baked breads served with luscious lardo—pig fat, in layman’s terms. Since Del Posto caters to expense-account businessmen, it’s easy to blow $150 in a blink. But plant your patootie in the enoteca bar area, and you’ll feast on five courses of house-cured meats, steaming nudi and chocolate indulgences for $45.
Très exorbitant? Try L’Ecole (462 Broadway at Grand St., 212-219-3300), the French Culinary Institute’s house restaurant. Sure, students cook meals, but exterminate any worry, as dinner’s far safer than a barber college snip-snip. L’Ecole’s high-ceilinged SoHo space offers dual deals: At lunch, a three-course meal is’s just $26.50 (including wild-mushroom tarts and seared scallops with lemon confit), while a five-course dinner, from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., buys $39.95 of goodness, ranging from olive-oil-poached barramundi to seafood ravioli to warm chocolate cake swimming in espresso sauce.
The prix fixe pleasure also extends to the ambitious, insanely lauded Dovetail (103 W. 77th St. at Columbus Ave., 212-362-3800). At the Upper West Side anomaly, chef John Fraser lets low-rollers sup like kings every Sunday night. A three-course prix fixe ($38) offers killer tidbits such as house-made parpadelle with poached hen egg and wild-mushroom Rragu, fried-crisp lamb’s tongue and sea scallops with blood orange and hollandaise. That’s serious exotic yum.
Double yum applies at gastronomic wonderland Jean-Georges (1 Central Park West at 60th St., 212-299-3900), where a two-course lunch runs just $28. In this romantic room patrolled by crisp servers, you’ll go gaga for foie gras brulée, urchin roe paired with zippy jalapeño and pan-roasted sweetbreads with grilled pear: four-star dishes at one-star prices.
At Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House (1221 Sixth Ave. at 49th St., 212-575-5129), four-star meats are sold at Queens-diner prices. While moneymen make million-dollar deals over bottles of pricy Bordeaux, rest your poor rump at the stone-topped bar, ask for the leather-bound bar menu and order the $9.95 steak tips sliced from filet mignon. They’re soft enough that teeth are superfluous. Beg the bartender, and he might provide bread to clean pricy juices off your plate.
Lunchtime hits keep coming at Gramercy’s Pamplona (37 E. 28th St. betw. Park & Madison Aves., 212-213-2328). Chef Alex Ureña concocts Spanish heart-stoppers like a beef, suckling pig and chorizo burger, but his takeout lunch specials elevate deli food to luxe, yet affordable heights: Fancy- pants mesclun salads studded with tuna, piquillo peppers, manchego cheese and chickpeas ($4.95) and a crisp baguette crammed with grilled chicken, avocado and aioli is ($5.95). That kicks Cosi’s butt.
You need not be a titan of industry to partake in the titanic lunch special at French bistro Montparnasse (230 E. 51st St. betw. Second & Third Aves., 212-758-6633). Relax at the curvaceous bar, then beg for the business lunch: A $20 bill transforms into a three-course prix fixe including indulgences such as duck terrine, steak frites, parmesan-infused vegetable risotto and crème brulée crispy enough to crack with a spoon.
If you prefer your lunchtime French cuisine upscale and rarefied, look toward Le Cirque (151 E. 58th St. betw. Third & Lexington Aves., 212-644-0202). The vaunted institution keeps costs reasonable with a three-course, $39 lunch. Le Cirque still offers taste- bud titillations like a sea bass with fennel marmalade and vodka-tomato beurre monté, chicken fricassee with hedgehog mushroomss, wine-braised short ribs and a mini Napoleon aside strawberry sorbet.
The low-cost journey rolls on at Café Boulud (20 E. 76th St. betw. 5th & Madison Aves., 212-772-2600), chef Daniel Boulud’s sophisticated survey of French classics, global grub, vegetarian goodies and seasonal eats. Tuesday through Saturday, sample a two- ($32) or three-course set lunch ($40) that could feature delicacies ranging from sunchoke soup with black trumpet mushrooms to artichoke risotto to sashimi with butternut-squash purée.
Across the East River, Peter Luger (178 Broadway at Driggs Ave., 718-387-7400) has been derided for resting on its laurels. Despite the slams, the surly meat -merchants still broil a two-handed, half-pound burger at lunch ($8.95). Be bold and add a side of thick-cut bacon ($2.95) that could double as a meal.
That porcine pleasure’s unavailable at Lucali (575 Henry St. betw. First Pl. & Carroll St., Brooklyn, 718-858-4086), though you can add pepperoni, sausage or anchovies to the thin-crust, cracker-crisp pies baked at this no-frills pizza shop: The only options are 18-inch pizzas ($18) or ricotta-stuffed calzones longer than your forearm ($10). The pizzas are a mega-value when you consider Lucali’s BYOB policy.
The booze ain’t bring-yer-own at Prospect Heights’ Lilliputian Garden Café (620 Vanderbilt Ave. at Prospect Pl., Brooklyn, 718-857-8863), but this classy long-timer has a swell wallet-saving bargain. Tuesday through Thursday, sate yourself on a three-course prix fixe ($32), featuring nouveau-American edibles such as a smoked -salmon croque monsieur and short ribs with green-peppercorn jus.
“Just three courses,” you scoff. “I need five.” Fine. Visit Park Slope’s sleek Melt (440 Bergen St. betw. Flatbush & Fifth Ave., Brooklyn, 718-230-5925) for the five-course “Taste Life Tuesdays” ($25). Options rotate weekly, but Melt’s small-plates treats include goat-cheese salad, lobster ravioli, beef carpaccio and the scandalous-sounding she-crab soup—made tastier with a $20 wine pairing. It’s dinner and drunkenness—with money remaining for dollar dumplings, too.