"Never mind the wine list; could I please see the water list?" It sounds like a comedy skit, but the water menu is actually available at Ray's and Stark Bar in Los Angeles. The restaurant features a Mediterranean-inspired menu with a focus on farm-to-table fare — and a 46-page water menu. Presumably, you could ask for free tap water to drink at Ray's and Stark, but you would probably get the same reaction to that request as if you asked to have your filet mignon soaked with ketchup.
Martin Riese, the General Manager and Water Sommelier (really) of Ray's and Stark is the creator of the extensive water menu. Riese has had a lifelong fascination with the variable tastes of water, beginning with different springs that he encountered on family trips in his native Germany. Riese went on to establish a water menu at the First Floor restaurant in Berlin and write a book in 2008 entitled "The World of Water."
The Patina Restaurant Group, the owners of Ray's and Stark, recruited Riese to bring his water and restaurant expertise to the U.S. Riese sourced a range of waters that represented regional tastes throughout the world. The menu features waters from ten different countries from Fiji to Norway, including the well-known brands Evian, Perrier, S. Pellegrino, Saratoga, and Mountain Valley.
Waters that are more exotic include Berg from Canada, which is taken from icebergs that break off 15,000-year-old glaciers. According to the menu, the icebergs are "harvested and melted under strict purity guidelines," providing a water supply that is "virtually untouched by man." Even though Berg is the most expensive water on the menu at $20 for a 0.75-liter bottle, demand is so high that the water was out of stock as of June fifth. By the way, that price works out to more than $100 per gallon!
You could opt instead for the recent "World's Best Water" award winner. Beverly Hills 9OH2O is Riese's own mixture of Northern California spring waters with precise blending to produce a preferred mineral content. It is a relative bargain at $13 per liter bottle, but that still works out to more than $49 per gallon, more than 12 times the cost of gasoline.
All of the waters on the menu come with a description of the properties in two sliding scales: sweet versus salty and smooth versus complex. Other information includes the type (still or sparkling), the total dissolved solids (TDS), mineral contents of sodium, magnesium, and calcium within the TDS, the bottle size, and the price.
Are you unsure that you have a palate suitable for distinguishing fine bottled waters? Riese holds water-tasting classes at the Patina Restaurant in downtown L.A. where you can taste the effects of different mineral contents and TDS on the flavor of each bottled water. The classes cost $50 each and are perpetually sold out.
It may seem difficult to believe that Americans will pay these prices for water, that they could get for free, but Riese has tapped (get it?) into a market of people that believes the difference in the waters is worth the high price once the difference is pointed out to them.
Consider that in the 1970's, a visionary named Gary Dahl made several million dollars selling rocks as pets. It appears we have not changed much over the years; we can still be convinced to buy things we did not know that we needed.
Besides, who is to say that the water menu will not catch on? Business at Ray's and Stark has increased by 500% over the last two years. Bottled water sales in the U.S in 2014 totaled $18.8 billion, and by creating a high-end component of this market, Martin Riese may turn out to be a visionary trendsetter.