Over dinner with my wife [that's me – JR] at Zafferano in London's Belgravia I confessed that I would soon be seeing another woman. During a forthcoming trip to New York, I hastily continued, I would be taking out a mutual acquaintance to what I hoped would be an equally good Italian restaurant to conduct a minor restaurant experiment. Was it, I wanted to establish, more expensive to eat out in London or New York?
According to many the result would be a foregone conclusion in New York's favour with visitors to the US currently enjoying the consumer benefits of a weak dollar (or a strong pound) and American visitors to the UK in turn constantly complaining of how little their dollars currently buy.
But I have always believed that as far as restaurant prices are concerned these conclusions have not been arrived at on strictly comparable terms. There is no doubt that menu prices are generally lower in the US thanks to its much larger agricultural base but unlike the UK they do not include sales tax (17.5% in the UK). On top of that while the top restaurants in the UK do include service, many do not. But whatever they do charge, from 12.5 to 15%, tends to be less than the service charge expected in the US where the anticipated figure is arrived at by doubling and rounding off the New York sales tax (8.375%) which can mean up to an extra 20% on the bill.
I chose A Voce as Zafferano's New York counterpart, an Italian restaurant which has recently opened to great acclaim and about whose chef, Andrew Carmellini, I had heard nothing but high praise from the various New York restaurateurs and chefs I met during my stay. And while the restaurants may be of different ages (Zafferano opened in 1995) they share one other common factor, neither is owned by an indigenous restaurateur. Zafferano is part of the A-Z group masterminded by Italian Claudio Pulze while A Voce is part of London-based Marlon Abela's transatlantic restaurant group.
Each restaurant adopts a slightly different pricing policy but I tried to make the comparison as fair as possible. Zafferano operates a fixed price menu for either three or four courses (at £39.50 and £49.50 respectively) with some extra dishes which carry a further £10 supplement which we passed over while A Voce adopts an entirely à la carte menu. As well as Zafferano's more expensive dishes we also ignored A Voce's most expensive dish, an enormous rack of roast veal for two at $55 person (at £30.50 on its own, almost equal to Zafferano's three course menu)). Tables on either side of us ordered this, however, which led to the inevitable doggy bags. Our menu choices were to be as similar as possible: no pre-dinner drinks, three courses, a bottle of good Italian red wine, mineral water, no coffee and the normal service charge.
Perhaps surprisingly, the two final bills were not that far apart. The bill at Zafferano, which is so concise because of the fixed price policy that it appears on a tiny piece of paper, came to £157.20 including 13.5% service and £56 for a bottle of Montefalco Sagrantino 2001 Alta Zura which converts to US$282.96 (based on the then $1.80/£). At A Voce I searched unsuccessfully for the same wine, so we settled instead for a bottle of powerful Chianti Casterotto 2001 Giacomo Mori at $77. The bill came to $255, including a tip of twice the sales tax but only one dessert as my guest had by this stage of the meal found the experience so 'challenging', as she described it that, she declined. Had she done so, this would have added a further $12 to the bill which would have narrowed the financial difference even further. The result of this highly enjoyable but obviously entirely altruistic experience did seem to prove the original hypothesis, that while the menu prices of similar quality restaurants may appear lower in the US by the time the final bill arrives it is not that much cheaper than in the UK.
But what the two bills do not reveal is the much more marked discrepancy in the overall experience, even if simply on the basis of what we ate there was a lot to recommend both restaurants. The highlights of the meal at Zafferano were pappardelle with morels; a wonderfully fresh combination of beetroot and burrata, a very soft cheese delivered to the restaurant three times a week from Puglia in southern Italy; and three thick triangles of calves' liver whose richness was cleverly cut with a combination of pine nuts, diced Swiss chard and balsamic vinegar.
However, the highlight of all the dishes I tasted at both restaurants was unquestionably A Voce's pappardelle with lamb bolognese topped with ricotta cheese and mint where the combination of the meat, diced vegetables and the cheese created a particularly heady aroma. Our main courses, a braised lamb shank and a breast of duck with diced duck sausage and peas, were good and generous, as was a side order of mushrooms with an awful lot of garlic.
But where the meal at A Voce really came unstuck was with its desserts. While the dessert menu at Zafferano, like so many Italian restaurants outside Italy, is far more unnecessarily intricate than it needs be, at least its ice creams are first class, but even this is not the case at A Voce. My guest could not be persuaded to partake, even for what I tried to convince her were sound scientific reasons, from an unappetising dessert menu, while I found their roast pineapple with aniseed ice cream too sickly sweet to finish.
But the ultimate $20 differential in the two bills, an amount that could one day easily disappear with a not excessive change in the currency markets, was more than made up for by the far more professional service and comfortable ambience at Zafferano.
Here our table was ready for us at the time we had booked for while at A Voce we were kept waiting for 20 minutes during which time the receptionist assured us that several tables were in 'the paying process'. The service from a predominantly Italian staff at Zafferano was far more personal, attentive and informed and did not culminate, as it did at A Voce, in the bill being presented to us before we had asked for it.
But the biggest difference was the sheer comfort of eating at Zafferano which involves not insignificant running costs such as linen tablecloths, curtains and other soft furnishings vital to dampen the noise of a busy restaurant, all of which seem to have been overlooked at A Voce. The walls, tables, ceiling and the noisy bar directly opposite where we sat rebound the room's conversation at a volume that is then surpassed by the loud, thumping and quite unnecessary music.
As I left A Voce I realised that had I taken my wife there she would, for once, have had a perfectly legitimate excuse for not listening to anything I said.
Zafferano, 15 Lowndes Street, London SW1 020-7235 5800. Open all week.
A Voce, 41 Madison Avenue (entrance on 26th Street), 212-545 8555
Closed Sunday evening.