Rich pickings

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 August, 2005, 12:00am

Inflation last week rose to an eight-year high, up from 2 per cent to 2.3 per cent (hardly Argentina in the 1970s, but unnerving nonetheless), all fuelled by rising prices. A few decades ago, pundits would spend weeks analysing the rise. Today, we know instantly that it is down to prices, especially oil, although the economists say this has been offset by less than generous UK summer sales of furniture. Phew! Not buying that Lund Ekon sofa from Ikea did help the economy ...

But the army of statisticians may have overlooked the single most inflationary factor, if not in UK life generally, then in London at least: restaurant prices - sky-high prices to be precise.

Not long ago, the GBP100 ($1,395) standard meal without wine was something you had to work at, a feat of luxury dining with starched white silk tablecloths, silver cutlery and glasses the size of vases. Such eating was only possible at the most exclusive venues, usually those catering for Arabs and the regulars featured in Hello! magazine. Now, a standard GBP100 meal is nothing to write home about, says Harden's, the high-dining bible.

Previously, the international rich who wanted to be fleeced, as only the international rich knew how (that is, unknowingly), trotted off to pricey Paris. But no longer: Now, leading the world in inventive and innovative cuisine, London's gourmet stock has risen even at the luxury end to rival that of the fussy French.

But, as if London's top tier wasn't already du jour enough for affluent young bankers and the like, last week Umu, a relatively new but ultra-fashionable Japanese restaurant in Mayfair, took the mantle of 'London's most expensive meal' from the Lecture Room at Sketch, where some starters cost GBP40.

'What? GBP324 a head for a meal?' screeched The Guardian, whose writers did not go the whole hog. The Daily Telegraph said the true cost was actually closer to GBP240 a head.

With restaurant prices rising at nearly 6 per cent a year on average, the Michelin-starred Umu has done more than those most to fuel the inflationary spiral. Well it would, given that even the cooking water is imported from Japan for its miso soup. (Highly authentic equals highly priced).

The courses include: four shrimps from Hokkaido (flown in, of course, and topped with sake jelly and beluga caviar); belly tuna topped with a quail's egg; traditional and modern sushi; and wagyu beef, coated with various sauces.

Sketch, Le Gavroche and Blakes (where a bowl of soup costs GBP20) all now sport standard menus that surpass GBP100 a head, says Harden's, even with the cheapest wine. It's enough to put you off your food.