At this point, I think we have to officially recognize that the white truffle season of '05 is drawing to a close. With only a couple more weeks left to get away with deeply inhaling from the plates of New York like Jack Colton, face to the bonfire, in the plane in Romancing the Stone, I figured I'd give an update.
What a season it was. Thanks to whatever the magical, meteorological events of the year were, we had a glut. There were more, bigger (which doesn't mean better) and, best of all, cheaper truffles than we have seen in a very long time. They showed up everywhere this year, and all around town restaurants were more than happy to offer you truffles on their dishes, for a supplement of course. I hope, like me, you said yes to every waiter who asked: how else are we going to encourage restaurants to buy the delicacies when they are cheap and keep ourselves deep in truffles for the years to come?
How could I not love truffles? I have been told that the reason sows are used to search out truffles is that the scent of a truffle is the pheromone, androstenone, which causes the pig to present herself to be mounted, thus alerting hunters to the fact that a truffle has been found. In fact, the pheromone that is in all those silly colognes that guarantee to put a woman in the mood is a copy of the active pheromone in truffles and pigs and some say male sweat.
So, truffles are the smell of pig sex. Pigs and sex: two of the greatest things in the world brought together in a magical tuber (not a fungus) that has eluded most of man's attempts to cultivate it.* What could make me happier? In fact, Wife claims a big deciding factor in my loving her is that I believe her breath smells like truffles, which it does.
I spent a lot of the white truffle season of '05 going restaurant to restaurant, eating all the truffles I could, and here is what I have learned:
Cru is hands down the most adept with truffles. Their truffle menu offers up to seven total dishes, all of which play to the truffles' strengths using heat, great olive oil, simple dairy, pork fat and/or some sweet flesh, to translate the wonderful aroma. You may order three, five, or seven, courses and a note is made that "other traditional truffle preparations are available upon request." I had the seven course version and was presented with an eighth course of white truffle ice-cream at the end that was amazing (after the three bites it took me to commit to the idea of sugar and earthy flavors commingling well).
Shea Gallante is deft in his handling of truffles, and marries this skill with the integrity of his vision for the truffle menu at Cru. There is a crudo, a sous vide, a homemade pasta, and a lobster dish, all adapted to truly put the truffles in the forefront. The menu from my night is attached. Shea, more then anyone, seemed to understand that, at ½ of last year's prices, he could go truffle crazy and offer a special showcase to his guests at a value.
Robert Bohr has a great by-the-glass wine list for pairing. All of the offerings have 3oz taste portions available and there are all sorts of wines that pair well with the earthiness of truffles. There are white Burgundies and dolcettos and vintage champagne and all sorts of other fun wines to play with.
Babbo has an eight-course truffle tasting menu that is actually four truffle courses, plus four desserts.
Hearth has the greatest truffle dish I'll never taste, but I am sure it would have been great. Just imagine those white truffles slivered onto Marco's already perfect Gnocchi. Talk about gilding the lily.
Gotham does Gotham. They seem the perfect time-warp to eighties decadence, right in the middle of '05. The truffles are served on a very thin-gauged taglietelli with a reduction of mushrooms and, what I assume to be, demi-glace, all expertly prepared and quite fun to eat, even if the one dish costs a little more than a quarter of the entire truffle menu at Cru.
Gramercy Tavern slices their truffles in the kitchen, thorough and wonderful, but lacking the charming theater of table service.
Otto, at a benefit to help Mario's TV brother Emeril raise money for Katrina victims, served white truffles on homemade fettuccini with a Parmigiano and cream sauce that was the perfect example of simplicity.
Employees Only Although I don't believe it is seasonally dependant, Employees Only keeps their Gibson onions in white truffle oil. Because this is advertised nowhere it led me to a very atypical 3rd and 4th drink, just so I could be confident enough in my supposition to ask the bartender. I was sure I was just imagining that my drink smelled of truffles, as were Wife and Bear, even though I made them smell it like a thousand times (more on drinks three and four.) This is a lovely touch, the way the aroma of truffles blends with the aromatics in gin is marvelous. Do stop at two though, I have found my friends and family get belligerent after I have had a third gin.
All in all, I would say no one did as much, for the diner, with the windfall of truffle abundance as Shea at Cru. Sadly, no one else seemed to greatly alter their menus or prices from last year. Most people kept with the status quo in prep and price, seeing the windfall as one of profit rather then an opportunity to create more truffle addicts, which seemed a little piggy considering the abundance and is probably why I kept going back to Cru, or cooking with truffles at home, rather than support an artificially inflated market.
I am sorry to say I have not made it to Daniel this year, but I hear their truffle dinner is top notch. I must also confess that I have no interest in letting Per Se mess up another of my meals, even though the guys at Babbo claim the restaurant as their only competition for best truffle dinner this year. I will keep looking and eating, but I feel safe calling it a clear victory for Cru as the truffle champions of this season.
*The French had some success germinating and growing seeds of trees known to already host truffles, but that took forever, and urban sprawl and World War II pretty much put an end to that anyway.