I think part of this is cultural. Without wanting to perpetuate stereotypes, Jewish people (myself included) like value. If you took my grandmother to Charlie Trotter's, and she stared down at that vast white plate sprinkled with two or three mushrooms and a thin line of green sauce, her head would rotate 360 degrees and she'd have Charlie's head on a platter. It's a complete affront to our sensibilities.
This is why, I think, ethnic cooking is more robust. Flipping through my copy of Judith Nathan's "Jewish Cooking In America" you see recipes for 12, with lots of shmaltz (chicken fat), seasonings and flavors. Jewish people, like other minority groups, know what it's like to live without, so when they are able to live with the finer things they want value. I think there's merit to that.
Beyond that, though, I don't think a great meal requires an intellectual leap from tongue to brain. If it tastes good it tastes good: and there is value in even the smallest portion if its the best thing you have ever eaten.
And, just to clarify, I knew the meal would cost a lot of money. The shock was of the cinematic variety: imagine me at my table holding the check and then a flashback montage of all the food we ate and how small and unimpressive it all was and then cut back to me staring up at the camera as it pulls away, yelling "Nooooooo!" while dramatic music plays. FADE TO BLACK.
Adam, with all due respect, I think you ARE perpetuating stereotypes here. The biggest value-hound (uhhh......we called it a "cheapskate") I've ever known was my ex-boss, a good Irish Catholic boy, who was happy to splash out on booze but once ordered a single pizza for a staff of 15. And one of the happiest big spenders I know -- at least on food -- is my father, who's Jewish to the core.
I think what you're talking about are people whose childhoods -- or, at least, whose parents' childhoods -- were marked by deprivation. That's not at all an experience confined to Jewish culture. In many cases, that kind of experience produces adults who are, indeed, value mavens. But it can sometimes produce adults who resent depriving themselves of anything, and get great satisfaction out of dropping wads o'cash.
Judging by your age, your grandmother was probably a Depression kid, right? I suspect that has a lot more to do with her bargain-mindedness than her being Jewish does.