When in a culinary capital like NYC, I like to try as much best-in-the-country (or even world) food as possible but also spend as little as possible. One way to achieve this elusive goal is to take advantage of bar and "salon" menus in exclusive cuisine palaces geared toward very expensive tasting menus (before the economy tanked, these bargain grazing options were much rarer). Because while shelling out only a fraction of the cost, I get the full experience of having visited really sophisticated, truly state-of-the-culinary-arts restaurants with brilliant chefs and staffs. A huge perk of this strategy is that the restaurants grace me with most of the accouterments awarded full ticket patrons--i.e. for absolutely free, I get multiple, beautiful amuse bouche dishes, house bread service( usually involving several breads, butters & even dips), mignardises (basically free dessert) and even parting gifts (in some cases).

Chef Michael Psilakis is almost single-handedly revolutionizing Greek cuisine in America. Fed up with sloppy and cliche gyro joints, he's applying his considerable imagination to turn out dishes like this dinner I enjoyed at the bar at Anthos

Amuse Bouche w/ aromatic olives, sublime taramasalata, crispy arctic char & spicy keftedes

Stunningly sculptural Raw Arctic Char appetizer

Beautiful Monkfish wrapped in cured beef

Gratis dessert -- Cotton candy epiphanically tasting of tart Greek yogurt & fresh raspberries, pear jellies and little nutty powdered sugar cookies

Few true gourmands would argue with the assertion that Thomas Keller is the best chef in America. I've been fortunate enough to have eaten his spectacular food @ the French Laundry in Napa Valley (where I actually had a little chat with him in his spotless kitchen--and have the photo to prove it!). A couple of weeks ago, I dined in his NYC outpost. Though the wines were very expensive (a half bottle of Gigondas for $55 was a relative steal in there) I loved all of it--including the charming, unpretentious staff. With the Gigondas, my dining partner and I together spent about half of what one tasting dinner in there costs without wine. Dinner in the "Salon" of Per Se near Columbus Circle

Columbus Circle at night Entrance to Per Se (it's curiously in a "mall").

Amuse Bouche (a couple aren't pictured as taking photos on the sly without looking like a piker was tough in there)--Intense, silky chilled tomato soup

Amuse Bouche--Signature and much copied salmon sesame-seeded "cones" with creme fraiche

Bread service

Knockout Garden Basil "Agnolotti" with beyond delicate textures but explosive flavors

Steak of the gods--Snake River Farms' "Calotte de Boeuf Grillee"

Final Dinner, Scarpetta I wisely followed Frank Bruni's advice, so I'll let you read his description here. Dips for bread including the Platonic form of caponata

Chilled English Pea Soup w/ crab

Creamy Polenta with Mushrooms--I still dream about this one

The best plate of Spaghetti with Tomato & Basil in America. UNBELIEVABLE! Simplicity & perfection.

Heavenly Halibut

Bracingly good Black Cod

I love staying at super deluxe Thompson Hotels (where the amazingly accommodating staffs look like Euro models and the flatscreen TV, bathrobe and miraculous mattress-equipped rooms are almost as pretty)--especially when my timing is right and I get the room for less than 1/2 price.

My room in The Smyth Hotel

The chic, tiled entryway