The first decision I confront as I’m presented with a $100 grilled cheese sandwich—made with 40-year-aged Wisconsin white cheddar, black truffles, edible 24-karat gold flakes, and other extravagant ingredients that even Lady Gaga might consider over the top—is how to attack it. With fork and knife, to ensure that the proper amount of Hudson Valley foie gras and thinly sliced Ibérico ham is included in each bite? Or simply with my hands, running the risk that the golden yellow yolk of the sunny-side-up duck egg might run down my chin?
Such dilemmas are more common than you might think. Obscenely expensive riffs on low-end eats are trendy now, especially in showoffy restaurants in New York City and Las Vegas (go figure). There, burgers, hot dogs, and pizzas topped with truffles, foie gras, lobster, or caviar—and often served with top-shelf booze—can set you back three, sometimes four, Benjamins.
Consider the 777 Burger, served at the Burger Brasserie in the Paris Las Vegas hotel and casino. It’s comprised of Kobe beef layered with, among other things, foie gras and lobster and presented with a bottle of Dom Pérignon (price: $777). That’s $4,223 less than the FleurBurger 5000, a wagyu beef patty topped with foie gras and truffles and paired with a bottle of 1996 Chateau Petrus at Fleur, in the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Even Philly does a high-end riff on its signature cheese steak: The steak house Barclay Prime offers a $100 version made with Kobe beef, Taleggio cheese, and poached lobster.
Where are the Chicago equivalents? My editor sent me out to find them. (I know: Life is not fair.) Surely, I thought, in a town that prizes its cheap eats (see this month’s cover story here), expensive cheap eats wouldn’t be hard to track down.
I was wrong. After weeks of perusing menus and interrogating staffers at the usual fancy-pants suspects, I found nary a gold-plated haute dog or three-figure burger. About the best I could come up with was that outrageous grilled cheese at Deca, the restaurant in the luxurious lobby of the Ritz-Carlton. And the $26 aged wagyu beef burger at the Bad Apple in North Center—pricey, sure, but not “Holy $#&!” expensive. (I did locate one insane dessert: the Langham Chicago hotel’s gimmicky, gold-dusted and cognac-infused $1,000 sundae, which comes with a bottle of 2003 Dom Pérignon and in a Wedgwood crystal bowl you can keep.)
This dearth is surprising, because Chicagoans have no problem eating their money. Just a few years back, the banking website Bundle analyzed check totals at the country’s fine-dining establishments and found that Chicago was home to five of the 10 most expensive restaurants in America: Alinea, Tru, Charlie Trotter’s (now closed), Les Nomades, and Everest. The city is also synonymous with high-low culinary risks, from Graham Elliot’s Pop Rocks–encrusted foie gras lollipops to doughnut soup from molecular gastronomist Homaro Cantu at Moto.
In Chicago, however, restaurants have steered clear of the luxury street-food battle. This magazine’s dining editor, Penny Pollack, has a theory about why: In this town, steak is king. Chicagoans simply won’t pay more for a measly hot dog or burger—even one smothered in beluga caviar—than for a fine aged rib eye. “We’re impressed by steaks,” she says. “I think our Midwest sensibility just won’t allow a gold-plated hamburger to catch on.”
Bruce Kraig, a professor emeritus at Roosevelt University and the author of the forthcoming The Encyclopedia of Chicago Food, agrees. Chicagoans, he says, like their fine dining fine and their cheap eats cheap. Even well-to-do foodies are perfectly content with a hot dog from Portillo’s or a beef from Al’s. Why mess with perfection? It all comes down to substance over style. “Maybe it’s representative of the food culture of Chicago,” he suggests. “We’re so used to these street foods being cheap, it’s hard for us to serve a really expensive version.”
But the grilled cheese at Deca may be the exception: a luxury item that even Chicagoans can get behind. When this elaborate sandwich, dubbed the “Zillion Dollar Grilled Cheese,” debuted in April to coincide with National Grilled Cheese Month, Deca sold about one a day. But after word spread online and in the media, people continued to ask for it. Executive sous chef Jon Hudak will gladly make one by request—all he asks is three days’ notice to procure the necessary fineries.
One sunny afternoon in September at the Ritz-Carlton, Hudak proudly walks me through his inspirations for his grilled cheese. He holds up a wooden box containing the 100-year-old balsamic vinegar that dresses the heirloom tomatoes. He shaves truffles over my plate and offers me another glass of Champagne.
I slice the sandwich in two and take my first bite. It’s rich, for sure, but the layers of flavor complement each other. The fattiness of the foie gras plays nicely with the nuttiness of the Ibérico ham, which is cut by the sweetness of the vinegar and the tomatoes. Arugula provides crunch. And then, finally, at the bottom, is the melty cheese. Oh, did I mention the side dish? A pound and a half of fresh lobster meat atop creamy mac and cheese. A glass of Champagne is included, too.
Opulent? Most definitely. But compare the meal to another $100 delicacy: Sausages soaked in hundred-year-old Louis XIII Cognac, served at DougieDog in Vancouver. Considering the high-priced ingredients and the complimentary Champagne at the Ritz, the $100 grilled cheese is actually kind of a good deal. And that is very Chicago.